January 21, 2015
Earlier this month I attended the 42nd annual BeTheBest baseball clinic in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill NJ. We live in an age when mountains of space are wasted on ranking teams' off-seasons before spring training camps have even opened.
I suggest finding out more about teaching the fundamentals of our beautiful game is a better use of time. So here are some of the highlights of an intense informative two-day gathering that warmed the heart and mind during a particularly frigid early January cold snap.
“We don’t go on because we’re ready,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen quoted Lorne Michaels longtime producer of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”. “We go on because it is 11:30.” Moral of story – you are never really ready but the show must go on and you should improvise if necessary.
Cohen suggested creating DVDs as a teaching device for coaches. It forces you to understand the process, he said. Some of his DVDs are hilarious. Bunting is made fun when you try it lying down, behind the back, or with a paddle having only a quarter-inch surface available to use.
It was fascinating to watch Cohen and assistant coach Nick Mingiori lead sessions in a batting cage with two high school seniors from Manasquan NJ, the Jersey shore town of coach Jack Hawkins who founded and has nurtured the BeTheBest clinic.
In one of his sessions Pat McMahon, formerly Mississippi State pitching coach now working as an international scout with the Yankees, stressed the importance of the 1-1 pitch in any at-bat. “Challenge time, boys!” is what he calls it.
McMahon was one of several clinicians who instructed on the importance of catching, receiving the ball not retrieving it. He warned, “The best way to screw up a pitching staff is a bad catcher.”
Grand Canyon University coach Andy Stankiewicz stressed the importance of positive thinking in nurturing players: “Think well of yourself as a player.”
He cited the Reverse ABCs: “Conceive It, Believe It, Achieve It.”
(In his four years on the job Stankiewicz has overseen the rise of Grand Canyon, a private Christian university in Phoenix, from a Division II to a competitive Division I program.
Incidentally Dan Majerle, the former Phoenix Sun star, is now the Grand Canyon basketball coach.)
Ron Polk, a 1965 graduate of Grand Canyon who is now a volunteer coach at the UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham), embellished the point about positive reinforcement with a story from his early days as third base coach for the University of Arizona’s grizzled longtime coach Frank Sancet.
In one game against arch-rival Arizona State, inexperienced Polk twice sent runners home only to see each thrown out easily by center fielder Reggie Jackson. Expecting to be chewed out after the inning, Sancet told him quietly: “That Jackson has quite an arm doesn’t he?” Moral of story – Don’t embarrass anyone publicly. There is plenty of time afterward to discuss mistakes privately.
The final-day speaker at the clinic was Pat Murphy, the San Diego Padres Triple-A manager who built a Notre Dame program from scratch and took Arizona State teams to the College World Series. One of Murphy’s themes was “team offense,” creating runs as individuals in a team setting.
“I am a member of this team and I will not detach myself from it” was a litany that Murphy delivered more than once. When a batter makes an out, Murphy has required that he return to the dugout by way of the on-deck circle so he can make eye contact with his teammate. As if to say, “I didn’t get the pitcher this time, but you will.”
When players are in slumps, Murphy doesn't want them to mope or whine about their fate.
"Go sweep out the dugout - that's how you get better," he tells them.
McMahon praised a “woodpecker mentality” as essential for success. He cited two great examples of such grinders among his former college players: Craig Counsell, his first scholarship athlete at Notre Dame who went on to score the winning run in the 1997 Florida Marlins World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians, and his Arizona State Sun Devil Dustin Pedroia who has become a Boston Red Sox mainstay and league MVP.
Murphy concluded with more inspirational thoughts: “Young players cannot conceive how good they are.” And the job of coaches is to be like anonymous offensive linemen in football – “helping players become their best selves.”
As you can see, there was plenty of nourishing food for thought on a very cold January weekend. More reports next time on the big late January dinners in NYC of the Baseball Writers Association and the 50th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League.
Until then, Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
January 13, 2015
As the days get colder but also happily longer, it is about time to issue my first YIBF - Yours In Baseball Forever – blog of 2015. It was a disappointment that the Orioles’ remarkable 96-win regular season did not lead to their first World Series since 1983.
After sweeping the bullpen-and-bench deprived Tigers in three games in the ALDS, the remarkable speed and bullpen arms of the Kansas City Royals turned the tables on the Orioles in the ALCS.
And the Royals certainly contributed to a memorable seven-game World Series before succumbing to the mastery of Madison Bumgarner of the Giants. It is hard to recall a Series where one player was so outstanding and dominant as Bumgarner.
Whether as a starter or five-inning reliever in the climactic Game Seven, the good young boy from North Carolina put himself in the record books forever.
Fully deserving of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s 2014 Sportsman of the Year award.
What does 2015 look like for my Orioles? Certainly much work is needed to replace the 40 home runs of Nelson Cruz (off to Seattle on a four-year deal) and the stellar southpaw bullpen work of Andrew Miller (off to the hated Yankees also on a four-year deal).
Those defections did not surprise me, but most surprisingly, the O’s will now have to replace the steady, daily grinding presence and great defense of Nick Markakis (off to Atlanta on another four-year deal). No doubt owner Peter Angelos felt burned by the long-term contracts he gave the now-retired second baseman Brian Roberts and Markakis.
Unlike the oft-injured Roberts, Markakis played every day and played hard even if his run production has fallen off year by year. He was an Oriole all his career and probably wanted to stay. But the Braves, having traded potential superstar Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for righthander Shelby Miller, needed Markakis, who grew up in the Atlanta area. Unlike Angelos and Oriole general manager Dan Duquette, the Braves under new gm John Hart did not seem concerned about Markakis’ pending neck surgery and came up with the better contract.
(I cross my fingers that Manny Machado, back from a second major knee injury in two years, Chris Davis, eligible to play in game 2 of the season after his adderall suspension, and catcher Matt Wieters back from Tommy John surgery can all pick up some of the offensive slack.)
Speaking of John Hart, he was one of the protégés of former Oriole general manager Hank Peters who died at the end of 2014. Peters, 90, had a distinguished career in the front office beginning with the St. Louis Browns, the Orioles’ lineal descendant.
He went on to work for Charlie Finley’s A’s in both Kansas City and Oakland. Peters was instrumental in signing the core of the Oakland great dynasty from 1972-1974 – Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi.
Under Peters the Orioles survived the major defections of the first free agent class of 1976-77, notably Bobby Grich and Reggie Jackson, to stay in contention and win the AL pennants of 1979 and 1983. It was no coincidence that when Peters left the Birds for Cleveland after 1986, Baltimore sunk and the Indians rose to contention with such home-grown stars as Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome.
On the cusp of the new year, the baseball world also lost two notable nonagenarian scouts – the longtime Red Sox talent hunter Bill Enos and the Mariners’ Bill Kearns. At the age of 92 Kearns was still working for Seattle when he suffered a ruptured aorta and drove himself to a Boston hospital where he passed away quietly.
I had the pleasure of conversing with Kearns when in the spring of 2013 the scouting profession was honored with a permanent exhibition at Cooperstown.
He was courtly, incisive, and modest. “I’m just a guy,” he often said, but those who knew him will never forget his grace and intelligence.
Stay warm, dear readers, and back to you soon with another YIBF installment focusing on the post-season dinners and clinics I have attended. Here's a tease.
At the 42nd annual BeTheBest baseball clinic in Cherry Hill, NJ earlier this month, Grand Canyon University coach Andy Stankiewicz had one of the great comments.
The former Yankee and Diamondback second baseman said that he couldn't relate to pro golfer or pro tennis players.
"I liked to pick up my teammates and have them pick me up,"he observed. You can see why that scrappy little guy, who never signed more than a one-year contract in his 14-year MLB career, is considered a comer in the coaching ranks.
BTW Grand Canyon is in Phoenix and happens to be the alma mater of Ron Polk class of 1965, another clinician in Cherry Hill. The irreverent Polk is the only coach to take three teams to the College World Series and is now the volunteer assistant at UAB - University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Until next time - Stay warm, dear readers, and always remember: Take it easy but take it!