January 15, 2019
“I can imagine a world without baseball, but can’t imagine wanting to live in one.”
The late great sportswriter Leonard Koppett expressed that spot-on feeling in 2002 a year before he died. (Quoted by his son David in the posthumous edition of “Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball," p478.)
In less than a month the greatest words in the English language will ring true again: “The pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training.” Yet I must admit as an Orioles fan I am not too excited. It’s unlikely that a team that lost 115 games in 2018 and has no recognizable strength at any position will improve significantly.
Yes, there is new management that is drenched in the analytic “advanced metric” side of the game. And I have never dismissed out of hand new information about our wonderfully confounding and complicated yet sweet and simple game of baseball.
But I also adamantly believe that you must never lose sight of character issues and aspects of the game that cannot be quantified. So I'll wait and see what happens with the new breed of "decision science" brainiacs led by new gm Mike Elias, a former Yale pitcher, and his right-hand man Sig Megdal (pronounced May-dell), a former NASA specialist who worked on, among other things, models to enhance astronaut sleeping habits.
As I write in mid-January, there are still no new teams for the marquee free agents in this year’s class, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, both only 26. Many in the establishment sports media are wailing about the broken free agency system.
In fact, I think the issue rests more in a player agent rivalry as much as in a broken system. Dan Lozano represents Machado, the same agent that conned Angels owner Arte Moreno into a 10-year deal with now-fading Albert Pujols.
Harper, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated 10 years ago as a 16-year-old and his ego has soared since, is in the stable of Scott Boras. Boras' professed hero is Marvin Miller, the Players Association leader who was always confident some owner would break down and give what the player(s) wanted.
In 2019, however, it is light years from the heyday of Miller and his unheralded chief counsel Dick Moss who shepherded players through legal thickets to free agency.
Players now are far richer and perhaps sated, and managements are getting smarter.
After seeing Machado and Harper play for six years with their former teams (the Orioles and Dodgers for Manny, the Nationals for Bryce), it is clear that while both are great numbers producers, they are not the kind of leaders that make everyone on the team better.
If owners and managements are getting more careful about committing multi-million dollars in long term contracts, I am not complaining. As always, though, it is hard to side with the fat cat owners against players whose skills are extremely perishable.
So with well over a hundred serviceable veterans still unsigned, I hope it isn’t like last year when the Players Association had to hastily put together a spring training base in Florida for those still without contracts.
Turning to another big off-field subject, the Hall of Fame will announce next week the results of the regular voting for the Cooperstown class of 2019. Mariano Rivera will be virtually a unanimous choice.
Three other candidates have strong cases. Former stellar Oriole and Yankee RHP Mike Mussina compiled a 270-153 record with a 3.68 ERA. His walk-strikeout ratio was a superb mere 785 BBs and 2813 K's. His WHIP (combining walks and hits per inning) was an outstanding 1.192.
Even better stats were accumulated by the late outstanding RHP Roy Halladay who lost his life in his private plane accident in 2017. With the Blue Jays and Phillies, Halladay went 203-105, 3.38 ERA, WHIP 1.178, and an impressive BB/K ratio of 592/2117.
The case for the outstanding Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez is also strong but perhaps not as strong because his injuries confined him to a DH role for most of his career. He hit .312 for a career, very impressive in the age of multiple relievers. Slugging average of .309 with 2247 hits, 309 HRs and 2161. Also over his career he drew more walks 1283 than strikeouts 1202.
His stats to me are more favorable than Harold Baines were and Baines was elected
to the shrine last month in a vote by a special Veterans Committee. The former White Sox-Ranger-Oriole hit .289, slugged .465 with 384 HRs and 1628 in a 20-year career, much of it like Edgar M. limited to the DH role because of injury. He also had a negative BB/SO ratio of 1062/1441.
When eligible in the regular vote of the writers, Baines didn't receive even ten per cent of any vote. With his former White Sox manager Tony LaRussa on the veterans committee, it is hard not to see favoritism in his selection. (Longtime closer Lee Smith was also voted in last month, a less controversial choice but not one that I would have chosen.)
Baines' election brought back memories of decades ago when the affable genuine Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch openly and successfully lobbied for several of his former Giant and Cardinal teammates to get selected to Cooperstown.
A Hall of Fame should be for the truly great not the merely good or very good. But since selections almost always are turned into a popularity contest, there is not much that I can do about that.
Before I close, I am distressed to report that my alma mater college basketball teams, Columbia and Wisconsin, have hit hard times. The Badgers looked very good in the pre-Big Ten season, but they have lost their winning touch in league play.
Likely All-American fifth-year senior Ethan Happ can only do so much, especially since he has great trouble at the foul line and never shoots outside the paint.
Columbia lost its best player, gifted if erratic point guard Mike Smith, to a season-ending injury. Unlike the resurgent football team under coach Al Bagnoli that produced a winning season despite multiple injuries, basketball has not yet learned how to win.
Yet the cage season is not even half-over so I try to believe in change for the better, and, of course, I always root, root, root for my team.
That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
December 21, 2018
I had never been to Las Vegas until I journeyed to baseball’s winter meetings earlier this December. I am not eager to go back but at least I can say that I walked some of The Strip - which I’d call Coney Island on steroids. I saw facsimiles of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building as well as a huge modern office building now called the Waldorf-Astoria.
As for the baseball meetings themselves, there were none of the major trades and free agent signings that used to be regular events at these gatherings. Historically, the focus of these meetings used to be on the minor leagues - the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, to be exact.
Hardly any press coverage was given minor league events but I've always been attracted to grass roots baseball. The most rewarding event for me occurred on the final night of the meetings.
It was The Scout of the Year presentations that honored four very worthy scouts who had paid their dues over the decades.
The Colorado Rockies’ Danny Montgomery, East Coast winner;
The Red Sox’s Brad Sloan, Midwest winner;
The Yankees’ Damon Oppenheimer, West Coast winner;
The Phillies’ Sal Agostinelli, International Scout winner.
Danny Montgomery has scouted in various capacities for the Colorado Rockies since 1992. He was instrumental in signing future major league outfielders Dexter Fowler and current Rockies stalwart Charlie Blackmon.
Montgomery has also been active in keeping alive the memory of legendary AfAm scout and coach Buck O’Neil. He is Vice-President of the Professional Baseball Scouts and Coaches Association, a group affiliated with Resilience Partners NFP in Chicago.
Montgomery is an inspiring speaker. Among his nuggets were: "It doesn't cost anything to be personable and to listen to people." Drawing perhaps on Dr. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, he noted that he has found out that "the ones who truly want to change the world and those who cannot wait to get into it."
Brad Sloan finally won a World Series winner’s ring this season while scouting for the 2018 Red Sox (he had been with the 1998 San Diego Padres swept by the Yankees). I’ve always loved his simple explanation of a scout’s job - to bring “good players and good people” into the game.
Damon Oppenheimer also has a Padres connection, starting out as a 16-year-old peanut vendor at Jack Murphy Stadium (a park incidentally named for the sportswriter and brother of Mets’ legendary broadcaster Bob Murphy). Proudly watching the ceremony was Damon’s mother Priscilla, who served many years as director of the Padres’ minor league operations department.
Yankee gm Brian Cashman introduced Oppenheimer, lauding the scout's work since he joined the franchise in 2003. Cashman also gave homage to prior Yankee talent hunters and developers Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean (who went on to great success as San Francisco gm). He said they never got the credit they deserved for building the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s/early 2000s.
(Oppenheimer will also be one of the honorees on Saturday January 12 at Dennis Gilbert’s Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation “In The Spirit of the Game” dinner in Beverly Hills.)
Last but not least among the winners on Wed. Dec. 12 was irrepressible Bronx-born Sal Agostinelli. Originally signed by the Cardinals by former 1950s catcher-turned-scout Tim Thompson in a late 20s round of the draft, Sal was traded to Philadelphia in a minor league deal and has worked for the Phillies ever since.
Sal’s acceptance speech combined great mirth and genuine emotion. Away from his family more than half the year scouting, Sal quipped that after he was home for a while, his family asked, “When are you leaving?” He also made reference to a batting academy he runs with the slogan, “Even you can hit .222.”
Turning serious, Agostinelli gave heartfelt thanks to the Latin American community for making him feel so welcome. He expressed scouting’s collegial spirit at its best when he said, “There’s enough to go around - if I can’t get a player I hope you do.”
He added that it was “so rewarding to see Carlos Ruiz catch the last pitch” of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory over the Tampa Rays (on a strikeout from Brad Lidge). Agostinelli had signed Ruiz out of Davi, Panama for $8000.
The Scout of the Year organization is a longtime labor of love of Roberta Mazur. Born outside Pittsburgh, Roberta was an avid Pirates fan in the Roberto Clemente years. She continued her love for baseball when she went to work as secretary for California Angels executive Larry Himes. In the early 1990s she moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and worked for the Expos and has remained there since the Expos' 2004 demise.
She was on the ground floor of the Scout of the Year organization when it was founded in 1984 by scouting legends Hugh Alexander, Tony Pacheco, and Jim Russo. Kudos to Roberta Mazur for keeping this tradition alive for 35 years. Here’s to many many more.
ANOTHER LAS VEGAS HIGHLIGHT
I was fortunate earlier in the winter meetings to sit in on sessions sponsored by the on-line scouting school run by Sports Management World Wide. Rick White, successor to the late Joe Klein as president of the independent Atlantic League, spelled out in great detail the kind of 24/7 life an aspiring baseball executive can look forward to.
He gave some fascinating advice to job-seekers. Groundskeepers, scouts, and concession employees are the least consulted people at the ballparks. Contact them and pick their minds, he advised, and build your networks immediately and efficiently.
My adventures last week ended at the annual dinner benefit for Joe Maddon’s hometown Hazelton Integration Project (HIP). Joe Namath flew in for the occasion from Florida. Though he didn’t stay too long, he signed autographs and mingled with some of the attendees.
In an interview with the local Standard-Speaker newspaper, Namath expressed his love of baseball. He paid tribute to the late Tim Thompson, another Pennsylvania native and his roommate at the University of Alabama. Thompson pitched for the Crimson Tide and in the minor leagues before a career in coaching and scouting. (Namath’s Tim Thompson was no relation to the scout of the same name that inked Sal Agostinelli.)
On the Saturday after the benefit dinner, I was able to see HIP in operation at the abandoned Catholic school that has been turned into a vibrant community center.
It was State Police Day and the officers came in with pizzas to share with the largely Dominican community.
In the six years since HIP’s center opened, it has done remarkable work providing language classes, arts and music education as well as many athletic activities. HIP recently won a Renewal award from the Atlantic Monthly magazine, beating out many larger cities in a national competition.
Kudos to Joe Maddon, his first cousin Elaine Maddon Curry and longtime friends John Stahura and Bob Curry and HIP athletic director Daniel Jorge for the outstanding work they are doing. For more information check out hazeltonintegrationproject.com
One last item to mention in my rewarding last weeks of 2018. On a Sunday in late November I took part in a New York Sports Tour. It is a new project that takes participants on a luxury van tour past sports landmarks in midtown Manhattan.
I was able to tell stories of my life as a midtown Manhattanite born a block from Carnegie Hall and barely a half mile from Madison Square Garden and St. Nicholas Arena. The group also watched videotaped tales of sports in the city narrated by tennis great/commentator Mary Carrillo and baseball scorer Jordan Sprechman.
The adventure ended with a scrumptious meal at Keen’s Steak House, established in 1885 and still standing on W 36th Street just east of 6th Avenue. Not coincidentally, Keen’s is located two blocks north of the McAlpin Hotel where Jackie Robinson lived during the first months of his historic rookie of the year 1947 season.
For more information, check out newyorksports.tours
That’s all for 2018. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Back to you early in 2019. In the meantime always remember:
Take it easy but take it!
December 3, 2018
I love the refreshing piney smell of Christmas trees that are now piling up on the sidewalks of Broadway in my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood. For a few moments, it makes me love the changing of seasons and forget that spring training is still several weeks away.
An even better antidote for the No-Baseball Blues is to attend a gathering of players, coaches, scouts, and fans as I did last week. For the first time I attended the Annual Raymond E. Church Service to Youth Baseball Awards Dinner at Russo’s On The Bay restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens not far from JFK Airport.
The function was sponsored by the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Association (GNYSAA). My appetite for this event was whetted when I learned that the GNYSAA grew out of the New York Journal American/Hearst newspapers high school all-star game that was an annual event in NYC from 1946 through 1965.
88 future major leaguers played in a game that was held most of the time at the Polo Grounds. Among the future MLB stars that played in this game were Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Bill Skowron, and Joe Torre. Kuenn played in it during its first years from 1946-1950 when it was billed as a New York versus The World competition. (Thanks to fellow SABR member Alan Cohen for this info.)
More storied names from the past were brought up by Frank Del George, one of the evening’s coaching excellence award winners. A product of the Brooklyn housing projects, Del George is currently head coach of St. Francis Prep and once was a star shortstop for St. Francis College of Brooklyn.
Del George remembered warmly that he had played for Frank Tepedino Sr. - father of future Yankee outfielder-first baseman Frank Tepedino - for the American Legion Cummings Brothers team. His double play partner? Future Yankee second baseman and Met manager Willie Randolph.
Guest speaker Nelson Figueroa, former Mets pitcher and current Mets cable TV commentator, also spoke very movingly about his roots of his career. He pointed out in the audience Anthony Iapoce, newly appointed Cubs batting coach, and noted that he and Iapoce had played for a USA Baseball 12-and-under team in Japan 32 years ago.
Nelson was under five feet and less than 100 pounds. But he made the team, one of 16 chosen out of 600 competing. He paid tribute to his Abraham Lincoln HS coach Joe Malone who believed in him despite his small stature. He thanked Malone for having him throw only fastballs and change-ups at that tender age.
Figueroa also saluted the longtime Youth Service coach Mel Zitter, mentor of Manny Ramirez and Shawon Dunston among others. Before “tough love” was a cliche, Zitter epitomized the no-nonsense coach who drove his charges very hard in early a.m. practices. He also made sure, Figueroa noted, that the Parade Grounds field was properly maintained so no one got hurt.
Zitter was in the audience, having made the long drive from his home in North Carolina to show his devotion to NYC grass roots baseball. Figueroa thanked Zitter for taking him to a youth tournament in Waltham, Mass where he made contacts with Brandeis University coaches.
He listed himself as 6 3 and over 150 pounds. but he was barely 6 feet and much lighter. Figueroa quipped that people often asked, “Where’s the rest of you?” Yet he went on to an outstanding college career, capped in 2015 by his election to the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame, a honor worthy of the school’s only major leaguer.
An elegiac moment near the end of the evening was provided by Brother Robert Kent who was honored for his 50 years of service at St. Francis Prep as baseball coach, athletic director, and history teacher. Bemoaning that on the site where Ebbets Field once stood there is now a sign, “No Ball Playing Allowed,” he urged that we work towards a time when “more Willies, Mickeys, and Dukes” are developed in our area.
Next up on the NYC baseball banquet circuit is the grand-daddy of them all, the 54th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s at Great Neck on Northern Boulevard.
It will be held Friday January 25 starting at 630p. No tickets will be sold at the door but information can be obtained by contacting longtime Chicago Cubs scout Billy Blitzer at BBSCOUT1@aol.com
I’m off to baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas from Dec. 9-13. I will be back here with tales from those days of wheeling and dealing. Am not exactly thrilled that Jeff McNeil, the surprise of late last season for the Mets, will now be reduced to utility status with the acquisition of aging Robinson Cano from Seattle.
Another new acquisition 24-year-old Edwin Diaz, who led all of baseball with 57 saves, should help. But one never knows what happens to players in a new environment, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like New York. (See under Gray, Sonny.)
It will really be hand-wringing time if the Mets trade Noah Syndergaard. Woe to any baseball organization that feels because the MLB TV network will be providing 24/7 coverage of the meetings you must do "something." But good advice is always not to get too distraught about things that haven’t happened yet and that we have no control over.
So the best advice always remains: Take it easy but take it!
"I Love Baseball and I Love Baseball Players": Highlights of the Mid-Atlantic Baseball Scouts Association Dinner
November 20, 2018
The Saturday before Thanksgiving posed a dilemma for yours truly. It was the last game of the season for my Columbia football Lions, a home tussle with state rival the Cornell Big Red.
A win would mean a 6-4 overall record and a second straight winning season under coach Al Bagnoli in his fourth year at the helm. Already Columbia had earned a record number of 13 wins over two seasons, a testimony to good coaching, good recruiting, and good playing.
However, as I get deeply into working on my next book that will be about baseball scouts, a celebration of baseball’s unrecognized talent hunters trumped alma mater football. So I journeyed on Amtrak to Dempsey’s restaurant in Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the 28th annual banquet of the Middle Atlantic (Major League Baseball) Scouts Association (MASA).
The train was thankfully only a little late and I got to the ballpark in plenty of time for cocktail hour. It’s eerie to walk into a shuttered and empty stadium (no cracks please about how similarly it looked during the Orioles’ 115-loss 2018 season - there is a new management team in place and soon a new field manager and more on that before end of the year).
On this Saturday night Nov. 17, it was wonderful to see the restaurant come alive with the arrival of the scouting community and friends and families. Many generations of scouts were represented and I felt immediately the sense of camaraderie.
Scouts may work for many different organizations but for the most part scouts are collegial not just competitive. There were also many college and high school coaches in attendance, adding to the spirit of cooperation.
Steve Fleming of the Rockies, originally signed as a player by Murray Cook of the Pirates, and Billy Swoope of the Cubs were the 126th and 127th scouts to be inducted into MASA’s Hall of Fame - their names next season will be added to the plaque at Camden Yards.
Mike Siani, a left-handed outfielder from Philadelphia’s Penn Charter H.S., was given the Amateur Player of the Year award. He was a fourth round choice of the Reds in 2018 and will be moving up the team’s minor league ladder.
(MASA's amateur award is named for Nick Adenhart, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher who was killed in an automobile accident shortly after his MLB debut.)
Tim Adkins, now with the Cubs, delivered the line of the night when he accepted the Crosschecker of the Year award. “I love baseball and I love players,” said the bow-tied scout from West Virginia. Adkins was hailed for his role in signing for Chicago four picks from the Mid-Atlantic area in this past season’s draft.
There are still many cold and barren weeks ahead before the trucks start loading the equipment for the trip to blessed spring training. But nights like this one make me realize again what the continuity of baseball past, present and future is all about.
And before I forget, Columbia did beat Cornell in that game I couldn’t attend. Dramatically too with a 87-yard-kickoff return by first-year wide receiver Michael Roussos. And my graduate alma mater Wisconsin finally showed some winning form with their own come-from-behind triple-overtime victory at Purdue.
That’s all for now. Hope Thanksgiving starts a rewarding season for one and all.
And always remember: Take it easy but take it.
November 11, 2018
It is not easy these months without daily baseball games. The silly season of free agent and trade rumors don’t do it for me (though I put in my two cents at the end of this blog.) Though I admire most of the other major sports, they don’t generally command my visceral attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that Columbia football enters its last game of the season against Cornell at home this coming Saturday Nov 17 with at least a .500 record clinched. The Lions have already set a school record for most wins in a two-year
period - their current 5-4 added to last year’s 8-2 log and 2nd place Ivy League finish.
In the fourth season under former outstanding Penn coach Al Bagnoli, my Lions in 2018 have been battered by multiple injuries to key players on both sides of the ball. But they have persisted, to use a word in vogue by liberal women politicians who I generally support.
Coming-from-behind-ability is the key to any winning team. Columbia showed it on the road against tail-end Brown in Providence this past Saturday. Down early 14-0 on two long plays, it looked to the weak in heart like a repeat of the previous Saturday’s blowout loss at Harvard.
But Columbia came alive in the second half and won going away 42-20. Senior Kyle Castner, a former top HS quarterback in Indianapolis, ran for three touchdowns out of the “wildcat” formation and passed for two more. I’m always glad when a player ends his college career on a high point.
Fortunes for my graduate alma mater the University of Wisconsin Badgers have not been as kind. Except for one game-opening drive sparked by sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor’s 71-yard TD run, the Badgers were no match on Saturday in University Park against the Penn State Nittany Lions. The 22-10 loss was not as close as the score indicated.
The only blessing in disguise perhaps for me personally is that Wisconsin might be closer to a date in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Thursday Dec 27 at 515p.
Sure hope they salvage some pride with a win at Purdue next week and at home against Minnesota after Thanksgiving.
The concussion issues of starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook from West Chester, Penna. and the evident inexperience of his backup, redshirt freshman Jack Coan from Sayville, Long Island, means the Badgers will have to dig deep to end the season on a positive note.
I never bought into the ballyhoo that they were headed for the playoffs. Too much inexperience on defense and the departure of wide receiver Quintez Cephus on rape charges doomed them early.
I sure hope Badger basketball can recover some of its own lost glamor in the upcoming season. Their first Big Ten game is early this year against Iowa on Nov. 30.
On the local major league baseball front, the Yankees recently re-upped for one more year two of their aging core players and clubhouse leaders, left fielder Brett Gardner, 35, and erstwhile staff ace C. C. Sabathia, 38.
The Yankees still need more starting pitching. They are rumored to be targeting southpaw Patrick Corbin, who had a fine year with Arizona Diamondbacks and reportedly wants to play in New York.
For his sake and that of the Yankees, I hope his temperament is more suited to the demands of Gotham’s fandom than Sonny Gray showed during his season and a half in the Big Apple. It is likely that Gray will be traded to a team in a less pressurized city.
As for the Mets, it remains to be seen what the surprise hiring of former agent Brodie Van Wagenen as their new general manager will be mean for the hopes of the Flushing Faithful. Never in baseball has an agent risen to a top chair on management’s side.
Van Wagenen has given up his role as agent representing such key Met pitchers as Jacob DeGrom, who should but not necessarily win the Cy Young award, and Noah Syndergaard. He also represented oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes and Tim Tebow, the great college football quarterback, pro QB washout, and aspiring Mets minor league outfielder.
I don’t know any scout who thinks Tebow has a real chance to become a major leaguer. Yes, he is a very hard worker and big box office draw for his All-American boy image, enhanced even more because he reportedly was almost aborted as a fetus.
But I sure hope for the sake of the Mets and their fans that Brodie has more up his sleeve and in his evaluating brain than suggesting Tebow could play in Queens later in 2018.
Well, we’ll know more soon. The winter meetings are in Las Vegas from Dec. 9 to 13 - I'm going for the first time in over a quarter-century and will have impressions to share in a later blog.
Also about where the top free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will wind up here are my thoughts.
Machado’s intermittent hustle was on display throughout the post-season. He remains a major talent who will get paid a lot. I just hope the contract isn’t for more than five years. I know he’s only 26 and loves to play the game but never forget the old adage: “It’s never easy getting up early in the morning when you are wearing silk pajamas.”
Possible destinations? Phillies with a lot of cash to spend? But they also have demanding blue collar fans without the large Hispanic population Machado supposedly craves.
The Yankees? Possibly with Didi Gregorius not due back from Tommy John surgery into late in 2019. The Angels if Manny is willing to play third base alongside the brilliant shortstop Andrelton Simmons?
His home town of Miami and its baseball-loving Hispanic population might be in his heart of hearts. But I don’t think the Bruce Sherman-Derek Jeter ownership have deep enough pockets and enough of a contending team.
As for Bryce Harper, he supposedly turned down a 10-year $300 million offer to stay with the Washington Nationals. Even as an outfielder with a great arm I don’t believe Harper is a better buy than Machado. He’s too surly and media-hungry for my taste. Despite his baggae, Harper will command a lot of dough.
Possible destinations? St. Louis needs a lefty bat to join Matt Carpenter who is too streaky for my taste. But maybe St. Louis not a big enough market for the media-lusting Harper who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16! Phillies and Yankees again?
OK I’ve said my piece on the subject of mega-money and mega-years. I wish the media wouldn’t rub dollars and money in my face the all the time. Turning off the tube, clicking exit on the computer, and throwing out the newspaper can be a liberating feeling. Which I am doing right now.
Still, always remember: Take it easy but take it!
November 4, 2018
"You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops." So wrote the late Bart Giamatti, baseball commissioner and onetime Yale professor and university president, in his classic essay "The Green Fields of the Mind."
How consoling are these words as Daylight Savings Time has ended for most of the country and we are faced with increased darkness until the arrival of the winter solstice around December 21. I watch my share of basketball and football and hockey on TV but it is no substitute for the drama and excitement of baseball.
Of course, we have our baseball memories, near and far, to sustain us. There is no doubt that the Boston Red Sox are worthy World Series winners. They showed it was no fluke that they won the AL East with a team-record 108 victories.
They eliminated the Yankees and defending champion Astros to win the American League pennant, losing only one game in each series. They won a generally well-played often gripping World Series in five games over the Dodgers, a bridesmaid for the second year in a row.
Perhaps the mettle of this year's Bosox squad was best exemplified by its reaction to its only World Series loss, a record-breaking 18-inning seven-hour-plus 3-2 defeat on Max Muncy's home run off Nathan Eovaldi.
Immediately thereafter brilliant rookie manager Alex Cora called a rare team meeting in the clubhouse to congratulate the team's effort. The team applauded Eovaldi's great six-inning effort out of the bullpen when he was listed as the Game 4 starter.
Big run producer J.D. Martinez said it might have been a loss but it was a great experience to compete in such a historic game.
Journeyman outfielder/first baseman Steve Pearce was voted the Series MVP for his batting heroics in the last two games. His solo homer tied Game 4 in 8th inning and his bases-clearing double provided the insurance runs in the 9th.
Pearce's two-run blast in the first inning the next night set the tone for the clincher.
It was a huge blow off losing pitcher Clayton Kershaw because it is hard to overestimate what scoring first means in any game, especially after the Dodgers had lost a four-run late lead in the prior game.
David Price won the final game with seven solid innings. A case could be made for Price to have won a co-MVP award although there were only five voters to assure that there was only one winner.
It was nice to see Price get the post-season monkey off his back because he had failed repeatedly in recent years to come up big in the playoffs. But this year he also won Game 2 with six solid innings and relieved effectively in the extra-inning classic third game.
Vanderbilt University baseball coach Tim Corbin has to be especially proud of his progeny because in addition to developing Price in college, another Commodore rookie Walker Buehler also pitched outstanding ball for the Dodgers.
Before I close, I want to remember Willie McCovey who passed away late last month from multiple ailments at the age of 80. He was one of many players who came up too late to help my first team the New York Giants who left New York for San Francisco after the 1957 season.
Imagine how McCovey and his teammates Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda would have fared with the short left and right field fences at the Polo Grounds. Certainly Willie Mays would have broken Babe Ruth's 714 home run record if he hadn't been consigned to the winds of Candlestick Park. At least he experienced five seasons in New York.
McCovey's debut in San Francisco was memorable. I happened to be listening to Les Keiter's recreating of Giant games on WINS radio on July 30, 1959. All Willie did was belt two triples and two singles off another future Hall of Famer Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts.
McCovey may be most remembered for a ball that became an out, the scalding line drive off Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry at Bobby Richardson that ended the seventh game of the 1962 World Series with the tying and winning runs in scoring position.
I prefer he be remembered for the body of his work on his field, including 521 career home runs, tying him with Ted Williams. He was a class guy on and off the field. He was always was accessible to fans and became a revered ambassador for the Giants who wisely named the water area beyond the right field fence at San Francisco's ATT Park "McCovey Cove."
There is a famous 100-year-old deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called "Barney Greengrass The Sturgeon King." Though McCovey never ate there, he heard about the sturgeon and had it mail ordered to the West Coast.
There is a picture of Willie in Barney Greengrass's window. I think of Willie "Stretch" McCovey when I stop in at Barney's and always will.
That's all for now. Again remember to express your vote on November 6th if we want our democracy to recover its balance. And never forget: Take it easy but take it!
October 21, 2018
One of the great things about baseball is more than any sport there is a living vibrant link to the past. Checking my old reliable Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, I see that in early October 1916 the Red Sox beat the Dodgers in five games.
Babe Ruth was hitless in five at-bats but won game two, 2-1. He allowed only six hits, walked three and struck out four in a 14-inning complete game masterpiece. Ernie Shore won the first and last games and baseball's first Dutch Leonard won the fourth one.
Outfielders Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis showed why they were a formidable regular season duo each hitting over .300 in the Series and future Hall of Famer Hooper led both teams with 6 runs scored.
Third baseman Larry Gardner only had 3 hits in the Series but two of them were homers, one of them a three-run job that won Game 4. Shortstop Everett Scott, another Bosox player who wound up with the Yankees in owner's Harry Frazee's fire seal deals, saved the first game win with a late game dramatic defensive robbery.
And let's not forget first baseman Dick Hoblitzell who did not contribute much offensively but has one of the great forgotten names in baseball history. The three games in Boston were played in Braves Field that had a larger capacity than Fenway Park. (A Boston-Milwaukee series would have delighted local historians because of the Hub town connection of each team but it was not to be.)
On the Brooklyn side, outfielder Casey Stengel tied for the team lead with 4 hits but produced only 2 runs. Jack Coombs won the only game for Brooklyn and would retire undefeated in Series action with a 5-0 record, the other four coming with Connie Mack's first Philadelphia A's dynasty.
The home run dominates the game in the 21st century and yet I firmly believe that pitching and defense still wins championship. Just look at LA Dodgers Game 7 win over the Brewers last night (Oct. 20).
Chris Taylor's sensational catch on Christian Yelich's two-strike screaming liner into the left center field alley preserved LA's precarious 2-1 lead. And let's not forget Manny Machado's remarkable 3-2 bunt that immediately preceded Cody Bellinger's game-changing two-run homer.
Little things still win baseball games. Appreciation of these nuances for me makes baseball the great game it is. I hope to live to see the day when the cutting comment, "Baseball is what this country used to be, football is what it has become," no longer is accurate.
As for the coming World Series, I like the Dodgers in six or seven. I think their starting pitching looks a little sharper than Boston's. Their bullpen too looks in better shape than Boston's, especially if closer Craig Kimbrel keeps near-imploding.
Winning the final game against Milwaukee on the road indoors has to also provide LA an amazing psychological boost.
The Dodgers accomplished what neither the Cardinals in 1987 or the Braves in 1991 could do in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Silence screaming fans in a very hostile foreign environment. Whatever happens, let's hope they are good crisp games.
For five innings last night the drama of a game seven was priceless. Every pitch, every breath mattered. But when Yasiel Puig homered in the top of sixth off Jeremy Jeffress it was all over except for the countdown.
That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it. And also remember to vote on November 6!
October 4, 2018
The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.
The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.
The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.
In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.
Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.
A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.
When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.
The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.
Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.
I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.
I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.
I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.
Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.
Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.
The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.
It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.
Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.
Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.
After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)
Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.
But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”
Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.
From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.
It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.
Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.
It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.
Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?
So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.
That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
September 25, 2018
As I have said many times, all any baseball fan should ever ask for is to play meaningful games in September. That hope was long dashed this season (and probably for many future seasons) in Oriole land and for too many other teams this year. (Sure hope we are not seeing the rise of a permanent baseball underclass.)
For those teams still in the hunt, there is nothing like the agony and ecstasy of baseball in late September. When the number of games is reduced to just a handful, the pressure and tension can be excruciating. In a rare unqualified statement about baseball, it says here that the teams that win have the players who can stay intense without being tense.
The five teams in the American League playoffs are already set. The Red Sox and Indians have clinched their divisions, the defending World Series champion Astros will likely clinch the AL West this week (if not at lowly Toronto, then definitely at very lowly Baltimore).
The only dramatic question in the AL is whether the Oakland A’s or the Yankees will host the wild card game on Wednesday October 3. Most likely it will be the Yanks because they have to lose three games out of their last six and the A’s must win all of their remaining five for the wild card game to be played in Oakland.
The National League is far more intriguing. Only the Atlanta Braves have clinched a division title so have no worries about an elimination game. The Cubs are stumbling a bit but still lead the Brewers by two games in lost column. The soaring Dodgers only lead the Rockies by one lost game.
The Cardinals, under once-interim now-permanent manager Mike Shildt, are the most threatened with the most difficult schedule. Last night (M Sep 24) they threw away a key rain-interrupted game to the Brewers. They lost 6-4 with the eventual winning run scoring on an ill-advised errant throw to first base by pitcher Bud Norris that allowed the tie-breaking run to score from third.
Kinda ironic that erratic former Oriole Norris is subject of St Louis boo-birds because supposedly he was nicknamed Bud as a three-year-old because he liked to sip Budweiser!
I love the story of Shildt, a baseball lifer from Charlotte, North Carolina who grew up in the 1970s when the Orioles had their Double-A team in Charlotte. He was a jack-of-all-trades - ballboy, gofer, clubhouse attendant, you name it.
He is the rare MLB manager that never played pro ball. But he has imbibed the Cardinal Way that started with Branch Rickey and continued by George Kissell, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and so many more.
The Redbirds will have to play better defense if they want to make the playoffs. And gulp! after two more with the Brewers at home, they end the season with three at Wrigley Field. Though not yet a lock, it seems the Cardinals and Rockies will fight for the second wild card with Colorado hosting the Phillies and Nationals at home.
I want to conclude this post with a fond remembrance of the late Don Welke. One of the great scouts of our era, Welke died in San Diego on Wed Sep 19 just a few days shy of his 76th birthday. He was still scouting for the Padres at the time of his death.
Starting out as an associate scout with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s (as the future Big Red Machine was being formulated), Welke enjoyed a career that spanned major contributions with the expansion Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays and later the Orioles, Texas Rangers, and lastly the Padres.
During Pat Gillick’s induction speech at the Hall of Fame earlier this decade, he singled out Welke (and Bob Engle) for special commendation. It was Welke’s scouting that brought first baseman John Olerud and pitcher Pat Hentgen to Toronto. He also tried valiantly to sign Jim Abbott but the remarkable one-armed pitcher opted for the U of Michigan instead.
Welke became a world traveler in his later years and did a lot of international scouting. He was part of the staff for the gold medal-winning American baseball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Welke’s roots were in the Midwest. His early career almost reads like a traveler’s guide to that region. He liked to call himself a Harvard man, that is, a graduate of Harvard HS in Illinois.
He attended and graduated from Carthage College in Wisconsin but never played pro baseball. Instead he started a career in coaching and education as a graduate assistant at Eastern Michigan U in Ypsilanti. From 1970-75 he was the coach at Concordia College in Ann Arbor.
I had the good fortune to meet Don on a few occasions. I have an especially warm memory of his appearance on a panel that I moderated on scouting for the annual NINE Baseball Magazine conference in Phoenix.
He wasn't an advocate of analytics and its new terminology - low-key wit and pithy perception were his trademarks. “I always look for the player who makes the game look easy,” he once said, knowing of course that the game is never easy.
In a 2015 interview for Fox TV Sports that I accessed this morning via Google, Welke compared scouting to playing in one key way: you have to possess “the ability to be better than the next guy . . . and . . . have the courage to be risky some times.”
Welke is survived by three sons. He will be sorely missed. At least in the age of the internet we have everlasting access to his wit and wisdom.
That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.
September 15, 2018
This is an amazing time of year for the sports nut and couch potatoes. Baseball pennant and wild card races are heading towards climaxes and college football has begun with a fury.
I was worried that my graduate alma mater Wisconsin was overrated as a possible college playoff team and Brigham Young proved my fears warranted Saturday afternoon in Madison. On the second hottest day in Camp Randall Stadium history - field temperatures rose to 120 at one point - the Utah eleven avenged last year's rout by the Badgers in Provo with a hard-fought 24-21 victory.
The Badgers had a chance to force overtime but after two timeouts to ice him, the usually reliable kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 42-yard field goal. Wisconsin never got into a rhythm all day. Star running back Jonathan Taylor did not fumble but didn't break any big runs.
Badgers southpaw quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a key interception early in the second half that set up a Cougar TD and gave them control of the game even though Wisconsin did briefly tie. Brigham Young's 25-year-old senior quarterback Reese Mangum played virtually flawlessly.
It was sweet revenge for a team that was embarrassed 40-6 last year. There is nothing like getting even in sports - and maybe in life too - as a motivation.
The LA Dodgers are proving that in St Louis, battering the Cardinals' young pitching staff in the first three games of their pivotal series for wild card position. Just a few weeks ago, the Cardinals roared into LA and swept four from the defending NL champions.
Though by inclination I root against the rich goliath Dodgers and Yankees, I knew that the Dodgers were not to be counted out. They are an explosive team and no one can be more explosive than Cuban defector right fielder Yasiel Puig who had four homers in the Fri and Sat games in St. Louis, with 3 HRs and 7 RBI in Sat's 17-4 romp.
The only runs for St Louis in this game was a grand slam HR by rookie Patrick Wisdom. It would be their only runs this day. Of course, no one can turn down a grand slammer but I think Patrick would agree that baseball wisdom decrees that a grand slam home run often kills a rally.
Same thing happened to the Yankees on Saturday. Miguel Andujar's grand slammer brought the Yankees to 8-7 in chase of Toronto. But they never really threatened again. The grand slammer killed the rally.
Why? Because the bases are then empty so the pitcher no longer worries about base runners and can use his normal full pitching motion. Just another of baseball's wonderful anomalies and contradictions.
That's all for now but there will be more highlights ahead to discuss as wild card positioning in both leagues is still wide open. Stay tune.
And always remember: Take it easy but take it!