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Joe Maddon’s Hazelton Integration Project Banquet A Big Hit on the Hot Stove Circuit

December 24, 2013

Tags: Joe Maddon, Hazleton Integration Project (HIP), Larry Bowa, Mick Billmeyer, Luis Tiant, Kim Jones, Ed Randall, Ken Rosenthal, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, David Price, Andrew McCutchen, Clint Hurdle

The third annual Hazelton Integration Project shindig on Friday night Dec 20 drew over 600 people in support of the program inspired by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Blessed with a nice acronym and slogan, “Get HIP!”, the goal of the program is to provide literacy and other vital services for the more than 10,000 Hispanics that have recently settled in Hazleton, Maddon’s home town, a onetime thriving hard coal community in central Pennsylvania.

A few years ago widely publicized local hostility to the new immigrants disturbed Maddon who was certain that the negative attitude did not represent the real Hazelton. He vowed that once he established some national profile he would do something to welcome the newcomers as his Polish-Italian ancestors had been made to feel at home when they first settled in town.

An impressive turnout of baseball people and members of the media came out to support HIP. The dais included Maddon; newly-appointed Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, a shortstop hero on their first World Series winners of 1980; legendary Cuban-born pitcher Luis Tiant; new Tigers bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer who formerly held the same position with the Phillies; and broadcasters Kimberly Jones, Ed Randall and Ken Rosenthal. Baseball’s most talented and outrageous mascot the Philly Fanatic also made a cameo appearance drawing squeals of delight from the many youngsters in the audience.

Pennsylvania native-Penn State graduate Kim Jones summed up beautifully the essential idealism of the Hazelton Integration Project. “Some of our differences make for the strongest bonds,” said the former YES network clubhouse reporter for the Yankees who now works for the NFL TV network. Fox Sports and MLB analyst Ken Rosenthal added that “acceptance, tolerance, and unity” were the watchwords of HIP.

In a free-wheeling exchange of views with peppy veteran broadcaster Ed Randall, Maddon tipped his cap to the Red Sox who won it all in 2013 and dominated the Rays in head-to-head meetings. He said he was not surprised in the least when the last place Bostonians of 2012 surged to the top. A great believer in the makeup of players not just the statistics on their bubblegum cards, Maddon knew the Red Sox would be trouble once they signed free agents Jonny Gomes, a former Ray, and Mike Napoli, who Maddon knew from his years as a California Angel scout, instructor, and coach.

Maddon said it was “50-50” whether the Rays can hold on to star southpaw David Price who will soon be too expensive for the budget-challenged Rays. (Most observers think it is sadly close to a sure bet that Price will be traded maybe even before the start of spring training.) However, Maddon is convinced the Rays will always contend because of the organization’s outstanding player evaluation from the amateurs through the pros.

Maddon pulled a surprise when he answered a youngster’s question about his favorite player: “Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.” He explained that last season during a early spring training game between the Rays and the Pirates, McCutchen beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop even though it was two out in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Pirates were well behind. After the game, Maddon congratulated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for instilling that kind of hustle in the centerfielder who went on to become the 2013 National League MVP.

I certainly hope Maddon is right that the Rays will continue to contend because they go about things the right way. They have locked up their best player third baseman Evan Longoria into the next decade and have always managed to find the pieces to fit around him, beginning with the biggest part of all, the pitching staff.

Maddon is as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’ve ever met not just in baseball but also in any walk of life. Whether he is wearing a faux sharkskin sport jacket - as he did at the banquet –- or inviting penguins and snakes into a Rays clubhouse that needed some relaxing last season or building team unity by organizing wardrobe themes for his players on road trips, Maddon is always trying to get the most out of his men and the most out of his life. At a time when baseball talk is too often about millions of dollars and almost double-digit years in contracts, he is a most refreshing breath of fresh air and intelligence.

In honor of him, I will appropriate his closing salutation to end this Christmas Eve post:
Be well and be fun!

An Oriole Fan’s Early Lament by The Hot Stove League Fires

December 7, 2013

Tags: Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Scott Feldman, Nate McLouth, Nolan Reimold, Jim Johnson, Jemile Weeks, Manny Machado, Dan Duquette, Jamie Moyer, Harvey Doorman

Baseball has never seen a week like the first one in December. Especially when you consider that the annual “winter” meetings are not taking place, appropriately in Disney World in Orlando, until the second week in December. That was when the big action was supposed to occur. But with every team loaded with at least $25 million of new television cash, the owners couldn’t wait to dish it out.

Free agent signings galore – the biggest being Robinson Cano bolting from the Yankees to the Seattle Mariners for a 10-year contract worth reportedly $240 million. Never mind that the long-term contract never works out – see under Angels, Los Angeles of Anaheim, Pujols, Albert and Hamilton, Josh. Seattle has been a loser for so long that it just felt it had to reward the fan base with a big splash.

The Yankees have not been inactive. Shortly before Cano left, they signed free agent catcher Brian McCann away from the Braves on a five-year deal. For seven years Jacoby Ellsbury took his center field/base stealing talents from the Red Sox to the Yanks. And now word comes that Carlos Beltran, the former Met who starred in the last two post-seasons for the Cardinals, will fulfill a dream to play for the Yankees while Curtis Granderson moves crosstown from the Bronx to the Mets.

Meanwhile down in Baltimore, a disturbing quiet settles in. My Orioles are doing nothing except losing less prominent but useful free agents like pitcher Scott Feldman who went to the Astros (who after successive 100-loss seasons have nowhere to go but up). And outfielder Nate McLouth is going down the Beltway to the Washington Nationals.
The Birds instead offered a far cheaper contract to the always-injured left fielder Nolan Reimold.

Even worse, the Orioles traded its erratic but often effective closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A’s for yet another minor league second baseman Jemile Weeks. This move cut into the emotional core of Oriole fandom. A home-grown Oriole like Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, Johnson had lived through the worst of the Oriole bad years and his 51 saves in 54 chances in 2012 were a big part of their great comeback season.

He even moved his permanent home from upstate Endicott NY to Sarasota where the Orioles have at long last established a great spring training and all-season base. Johnson took the high road when learning the news. He expressed deserved great pride in being a part of the Orioles turnaround.

“Baseball is a business,” we hear that endlessly but the loss of Johnson for so little in return was a blow to me almost as severe as seeing Manny Machado on that gurney after injuring his knee in Tampa Bay late last season.

Machado is reportedly recovering well from his surgery and could be ready for Opening Day. But it will be a far different Oriole team from the 2013 squad that finished out of the playoffs yet still eight games over .500. I am nervous when general manager Dan Duquette says publicly that he is happy with his starting rotation that still lacks an ace and durable pitchers and now has a huge hole at the back end of the bullpen.

Branch Rickey liked to talk about addition by subtraction, i.e. getting rid of a player who
would not be missed and allowed opportunities for others to step up. Oriole manager Buck Showalter is talking that brave game publicly. But it is hard not to feel uneasy about what the future holds for a young fan base (and a youthful curmudgeon like yours truly) that brimmed with hope in the last two seasons after nearly three decades in the darkness.

In the meantime, here’s a plug for a very interesting read: Jamie Moyer and Larry Platt,
JUST TELL ME I CAN’T: HOW JAMIE MOYER DEFIED THE RADAR GUN AND DEFEATED TIME (Grand Central Publishing). The book is dedicated to the late Harvey Dorfman, the sport psychologist who rescued Moyer’s career (and many others like Roy Halladay).

Dorfman is a prominent figure in the book. His penetrating epigrams begin every chapter. "Hoping you will do something means you don't believe you can" and "When we fail to learn, we've learned to fail" are two examples of his tough-love method.

Moyer also provides revealing profiles of other unknown helpmates. He livens up the read with good anecdotes about pitching for the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners and his home town 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. He also adds in stories about his life as the son-in-law of basketball's Digger Phelps.

In short, JUST TELL ME I CAN'T is a detailed often inspirational saga that both baseball fans and general readers should enjoy. (more…)

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