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End-of-April Thoughts on AL East + Noteworthy Events in Early May

April 29, 2013

Tags: Struggling Toronto, Melky Cabrera, Gary Matthews Jr., Soaring Red Sox and Yankees, Mike Napoli, Hanging-On Orioles and Rays, Manny Machado, Nate McLouth, Joe Maddon, Cooperstown Scouts exhibit, Ivy League preview

Thoughts on Baseball’s Adventurous AL East April + Notes on Noteworthy May Events

April proved a deliciously unpredictable month for Major League Baseball. The old saying remains very valid: “You cannot win a pennant in April but you sure can lose one.” Branch Rickey used to say that a win in April means two less you have to win in August and September.

The trendy AL East pick Toronto Blue Jays have already dug themselves a big hole. After being swept in four straight at Yankee Stadium to close out April, they languish eight games under .500. They have a lot of work to do to catch up with the high-flying Boston Red Sox and the surprisingly strong Yankees who swept the Jays though wracked by injuries. Good pitching and new life for veterans TRAVIS HAFNER, LYLE OVERBAY and VERNON WELLS will do that. Not to mention the return of MARIANO RIVERA.

Those expensive Toronto acquisitions from the downsizing Miami Marlins don’t look so good now. An awkward slide into second base by shortstop JOSE REYES led to a severely sprained ankle that will sideline him until July. Southpaw MARK BUEHRLE is showing his age and oft-injured righthander JOSH JOHNSON has already missed a start. Knuckleballing Cy Young award-winner R.A.DICKEY has been OK but not great and now he is complaining of assorted injuries.

Expensive free-agent acquisition MELKY CABRERA has been mediocre at best.
It may be too early to bestow the dubious Gary Matthews Jr Impetuous Bad Contract (hereafter cited as the GMJIBC) Award upon Melky but he better turn up his production soon.

What is the GMJIBC? Late in 2007 before the ink was dry on the [former U.S. Senator George] Mitchell Report that explained in detail PED abuse in baseball, Matthews Jr. was signed to a 4-year $50 million contract by the California Angels. He produced very little with that largesse.

This past off-season, the moment Melky became a free agent after the end of his 50-game suspension for PED abuse, the Blue Jays rushed to bestow upon him a 2-year $16 million contract. Let the buyer beware and yet another sign that all it takes is one owner to go bonkers in the free agent auctions.

On the plus side of the AL East, early returns from Boston indicate that new manager JOHN FARRELL, Bosox pitching coach in their recent glory years, has evidently worked wonders in reviving southpaw JON LESTER and righty CLAY BUCHHOLZ. Another nice story in Boston is the power of first baseman MIKE NAPOLI who always hit well at Fenway as a visiting player and is keeping it up in the home whites.

As someone who wishes more players were on one-year contracts so their determination to produce every day could not be questioned, I am pleased with Napoli’s year so far. He was set to sign a multi-year free agent contract when physical examinations revealed a chronic hip condition. After much negotiation, he and his agents settled on a one-year deal and so far so good for both sides.

My Orioles remain right in the mix as the two players who made all the difference late last season, 20-year-old third baseman MANNY MACHADO and 32-year-old left fielder NATE MCLOUTH, are picking up right where they left off.

The poise of Machado has astonished everyone in baseball except probably himself. He has responded to manager Buck Showalter’s installation of him as the number 2 batter in the lineup with consistently good at-bats and he continues to sparkle in the field.
Often hitting leadoff, McLouth is reminding people of the player who made the 2008 All-Star Game as a Pittsburgh Pirate.

The Orioles’ starting pitching remains a cause for concern. They have no ace but JASON HAMMEL and the Taiwanese southpaw WEI-YIN CHEN are generally reliable. The unsung MIGUEL GONZALEZ has been inconsistent this year though CHRIS TILLMAN is showing signs that he might emerge as a reliable starter. But when he loses his release point, it is not a bad idea to reach for the channel clicker.

JAKE ARRIETA, the Hamlet on the rubber, has pitched himself back to Triple-A yet again. Maybe he needs a change of scenery into another organization. Onetime major league stars, aging FREDDY GARCIA and the younger JAIR JURRJENS, are waiting in the wings at Norfolk. Gritty STEVE JOHNSON, a righthander with average stuff who gets the most out of his ability, could be up before any of them. Once-heralded southpaw ZACH BRITTON gets a chance tonight in Seattle to show he belongs in the bigs.

In spite of all these question marks which are already putting a strain on the Orioles’ vaunted bullpen, the O’s are watchable again after years and years in the wilderness far from contention. God Bless Showalter and general manager DAN DUQUETTE who is proving that his success in Montreal and Boston were no flukes.

No assessment of the AL East would be complete without a shout-out to the Tampa Bay Rays. Though they are still a couple of games under .500, they are fun to watch. And manager JOE MADDON knows how to loosen them up when he senses they are trying too hard.

Before successive games at home after a tough early season road trip, Maddon brought into the clubhouse a cockatoo, a DJ spinning hip contemporary records, and two penguins. It is a long season and no one knows better than Maddon how to keep an intense team from being too tense.

Though the Rays traded mound stalwarts JAMES SHIELDS and WADE DAVIS to KC (the young heralded outfielder WIL MYERS they received in return is still polishing his skills at Triple A), any team that can throw out a rotation of reigning AL Cy Young award-winner DAVID PRICE, JEREMY HELLICKSON, ALEX COBB and the youngest sensation MATT MOORE should ultimately contend.

NOTEWORTHY UPCOMING EVENTS OF MAY:
**On FSa May 3-4, Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame opens its “Diamond Mines” exhibit devoted to the life and work of baseball’s most underappreciated people, the scouts.
Among the notables attending will be Hall of Famer PAT GILLICK, the general manager who brought World Series championships to Toronto and Philadelphia and contending teams to Baltimore and Seattle, and Buck O’Neil Award winner ROLAND HEMOND, who has championed scouts throughout a career that now stretches over six decades.
Watch this space for a report about this celebration later this month.

**On SaSu May 4-5, Dartmouth invades Columbia for a best two-out-of-three series to determine the Ivy League entry into the NCAA baseball tournament starting later in May.
Both the Big Green and the Lions feature dominant pitching and timely hitting. They are beginning to send into pro baseball some of their stars - for example, shortstop JOE SCLAFANI from Dartmouth and outfielder DARIO PIZZANO formerly with the Lions.

I’m keeping an eye on the development of Columbia’s dh/cleanup hitter JOEY FALCONE. Nearly 27, Falcone is the oldest player in Division I. After high school in Louisiana, Falcone joined the Navy as a corpsman. He served with the Marines in two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He is the son of former major league southpaw PETE FALCONE.
His stats in 2013 - .303 AB, .525 SA, 5 HR 24 RBIs in only 101 at-bats - only scratch the surface of what might be ahead for this left-handed hitting slugger.

**Here’s notice of another fascinating exploration into international baseball.
In November 2013, a group of six American coaches and scouts are heading to Kenya to provide free clinics in baseball and softball for the boys and girls of that area who are interested in the sports but have limited access and resources.

The team is headed by White Sox scout JOHN TUMMINIA who has previously led
groups to Monte Plata, Dominican Republic, and the Pine Ridge, South Dakota Native American reservation. Among those joining him in the Kenyan trip will be the former major league pitcher ROB BELL, now working in the front office of the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Penn League, and JEFF TAYLOR, special assistant to the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager.

The trips are guided by the Christian relief organizations, Bethlehem Tessema and the Bread and Water Foundation. Contributions are welcome to defray some of the travel expenses to Kenya. Please contact John Tumminia at jtumminia@chisox.com or call 845/742-8772

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

Mid-April Thoughts on the Evolving Baseball Season

April 18, 2013

Tags: DH quandareis, Yankees/Red Sox good starts, Orioles middling start, Adam Jones, official scouring

In the old days one didn't make an intelligent comment on the current baseball season until Memorial Day. Of course in the old days there were only 16 major league teams, eight in each league, and everyone played each other 22 times, 11 home and 11 away.

With the crazy quilt schedule of today, all symmetry is lost. The Yankees are hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks this week and the LA Dodgers come into Baltimore over the weekend. The sense of "league" is gone even though the dh remains in AL home games for both teams and no dh for anyone in NL parks.

I'd like to see the dh abolished but it likely won't happen. But I would like to see one year or two where the dh is used in the NL parks and no dh in the AL parks. And then one could decide on that experience its future.

Early analysis of any season is always risky but it sure looks the consignment of Yankees and Red Sox to the nether regions of AL East was premature. New Red Sox manager John Farrell (their former pitching coach) has seemingly revived the potent one-two punch of lefty Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz and free agent signings, the speedy Shane Victorino and first baseman Mike Napoli, have provided punch. Longtime dh David Ortiz returns to action at end of this week and right now Boston has the early lead in the AL East.

Close on Boston's tail are the Yankees Newcomers, leftfielder Vernon Wells, corner infielder Kevin Youkilis and dh Travis Hafner, have provided big hits. As his speedy center fielder Brett Gardner. They won their recent first series over the Orioles behind sturdy pitching of CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.

In the first game they were aided by a three-run error by Adam Jones, the Gold Glove center fielder of 2012 who has been clanking too many balls in 2013. I count at least three games already where Jones, seemingly more interested in styling than catching, has not made plays that must be made if your team is really a contender.

It may be too early to jump off a bridge while proclaiming the return of a team I used to call the Woerioles. But there are clearly chinks in the armor of the surprise playoff 2012 team.
Brian Roberts went down with a hamstring injury in the third game of the season, and the oft-injured gritty second baseman cannot be counted on in the future. The offense would have been far more productive with a healthy Roberts, but that dream has died.

The starting rotation remains a work in progress with only Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez evidently capable of getting through six innings. Current fourth and fifth starters Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman are woefully inconsistent. Lefty Zack Britton is in the minors trying to work his way back. Slightly built bulldog Steve Johnson is on a rehab assignment and he should be able to help soon.

And most ominously, heralded 20 year old Dylan Bundy is on the shelf with arm issues.
They are saying he needs to strengthen his arm. Well, this is a workout fanatic who I always worried about doing too much in that regard. I am fearful that there are serious issues with someone who was considered the top pitching prospect in all of baseball.

How true former Oriole manager Paul Richards was when he said, "You can never have too much pitching." So danger signs ahead in Baltimore though obviously plenty of time to right the ship.

One last screed: WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OFFICIAL SCORING? It seems that home scorers do not want to charge any errors these days. I was at the Sunday night rubber match of the Yankee-Oriole series last week. Gifted O's third baseman Manny Machado made three bad plays, two definitely errors and none were charged.

Last night in Baltimore Adam Jones did not get an error for misplaying a short hop in the outfield that cost at least one base, probably more.

Watching the MLB Extra Innings package on TV provides more examples of questionable official scoring. I know the decisions are not always easy and there are rules to follow but I do not like the trend I am seeing.

Speaking of seeing will catch "42" for a second time next week. Am glad it is getting attention and Harrison Ford does get inside Branch Rickey quite well.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!

How Can April Be The Cruelest Month With The Return of Baseball and It's Also Jazz Appreciation Month?

April 8, 2013

Tags: Thelonious Monk, "Sweet Georgia Brown, " "September In The Rain, " Muggsy Spanier, Orioles Opening Day, Diva: All Women's Big Band, Art Lande

Thelonious Monk once had a wonderfully pithy answer to the question, “What Is Jazz?” “New York is jazz. It’s in the air.”

I can testify to that on my recent wanderings through my hometown of Manhattan, named the Big Apple by jazz musicians long ago. The other day on the way downtown by subway, a jazz combo at the 103rd Street station of the #1 train greeted me with the infectious strains of Maceo Pinkard’s immortal tune “Sweet Georgia Brown”. All that was missing was the Harlem Globetrotters’ dribbling and passing. (For you recent movie buffs, that 103rd St. station is where Natalie Portman waits for the train to Lincoln Center in her Oscar-awarding ballerina portrayal in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”.)

Just this past weekend I was coming back from a swim at the nearby Columbia University pool when I heard a sax-bass duo belt out a swinging “September in the Rain” at the corner of Broadway and 110th Street (aka Cathedral Parkway because one block east resides the majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine).

The song title might not fit for early April but we sure have had our share of rain in the Big Apple and frigid temps more like fall and winter. The great thing about swinging jazz music is that the best tunes transcend transient woes like the weather and one’s own foul moods.

“September in the Rain” just exudes happiness. With music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, the song was written in 1937 for the movie “Melody for Two” starring James Melton. I first heard it on a MUGGSY SPANIER recording. Cornetist Spanier has been gone since 1967 but he lives on in many of his cornet-led tunes.

They say that he got his nickname Muggsy from his love for the New York Giants baseball manager John “Muggsy” McGraw (a name you wouldn’t say of course to McGraw’s face). As a Chicagoan Spanier was a Cubs fan and he occasionally would lead his band wearing a full Cubs uniform.

Ah the great connection between baseball and jazz that was especially alive in the hard years of the Great Depression and World War II. There is no doubt in my mind that the beauty and drama of both baseball and jazz, its challenges and consolations, kept the U S of A on a reasonably even keel during those cataclysmic decades.

So as an unpredictable baseball season unfolds in all its glories and gut-wrenching downers, it is good to keep these thoughts in mind. I went to Orioles Opening Day in Baltimore on Friday April 5th and was thrilled by their gritty victory capped by the red-hot Chris Davis’ bottom of the 8th grand slam. Then they proceeded to lose two winnable one-run games to the Minnesota Twins, a team determined to return to the winning side of baseball’s ledgers after some recent horrible seasons.

The great historian of the U.S. Charles Beard once said, "History never exactly repeats myself," and it is true of baseball. The Orioles lost only 9 one-run games all last year and already in 2013 their three losses are by one run.

Let’s calm down, I tell myself, and enjoy the day-by-day game-by-game pitch-by-pitch drama of baseball. And keep our eyes and ears open for sounds of jazz, too.

Two recommendations for early April with a baseball and jazz connection:

Wed April 10 at 8p and 9:45p Pianist ART LANDE leads a quartet into KITANO JAZZ
the south side of East 38th Street a little bit east of Park Avenue. The brilliant pianist-improviser rarely appears in New York though he’s a Long Island native and longtime Mets fan.

Sun April 14 at 3p SHERRIE MARICLE and DIVA: THE ALL-WOMAN’S BIG BAND at the Mayo Cultural Center on State Street in Morristown, New Jersey. Drummer Maricle and her talented 18-piece band are celebrating their 20th anniversary. The band was founded by drummer STANLEY KAY, a long-time manager of Buddy Rich. Kay in his last years served as George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees’ musical director. I saw them at IRIDIUM last week and they were a knockout in every sense.

That’s all for now – 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
Biography/Sports
“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