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“Champions Are Made When No One Is Watching” and Other Observations From The Mid-July Baseball Scene

July 20, 2015

Tags: Paul Hoover, Mario Mendoza, Ervin Santana, Glen Perkins, AL West, Oriole free agents, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zach Britton

I saw a T-shirt with the above saying while watching workouts prior to a Hudson Valley Renegades game earlier this month. The wearer of the shirt, Tampa Bay Rays minor league catching instructor Paul Hoover, didn’t know the origin of the saying but it is a beauty - A testament to the hard work and long hours needed to make a champion in any sport.

Meanwhile on the MLB front, parity is the rule though I would argue parity=mediocrity. The number of regular players batting under .200 is astonishing.
Mario Mendoza, who actually was a career .215 hitter, is beginning to look like Roberto Clemente.

Dumbest play I saw on TV – Ervin Santana of the Twins, back from his PED suspension for the surprising Minnesotans, kept throwing to first base to keep a runner close with two out in the 8th inning of a game in which he led 5-0.

You have a solid lead and you have one of the greatest closers for the 9th inning Glen Perkins in the bullpen. And you are worried about a man on first stealing second on you?

Baseball fortunes can change in a twinkling. Perkins blew his first save of the year at Oakland on Saturday night July 18 and Sunday the A’s routed former Oakland lefty Tom Milone in a 14-1 romp.

Supposed pre-season contenders Oakland and Seattle are mired in the lower regions
of the AL West. The so-far-elusive winning streak could bring each near .500 and a shot perhaps at a second wild-card berth.

The build-up has begun for the trade deadline on July 31st. The MLB TV network will have a week of programming leading up to that date. I fear the pressure to improve teams will mount exponentially with the air coverage.

My Orioles finally won a series after losing four in a row and going 3-11. It destroyed the edge their 18-5 run in June had given them. Their mid-week series at Yankee Stadium starting Tuesday night July 21 will give them a better idea of where they will stand once the dog days of August begin.

The Yankees will not be easy to catch but a four-game lead is not an overwhelming obstacle. If the Oriole starters pitch well and the hitters rediscover how to hit with runners in scoring position. If not, then failure to hit with RISP will mean RIP 2015 season.

The Birds still have 8 pending free agents on the roster. They include big ones like Chris Davis, who has proven very agile and effective in right field, catcher Matt Wieters (slowly recovering from Tommy John surgery), starters Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris (recently demoted to the bullpen), All-Star setup man Darren O’Day, and at times useful relievers Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz.

Of course, fans cannot control any of these decisions. For now I’m trying to enjoy the possibility of "playing meaningful games in September." The youthful powerful brilliant play on both sides of the ball of youngsters Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop has been a joy to watch. Also the so-far-almost-flawless effectiveness of closer Zach Britton.

That’s all for now – this is Teny Ymota (The Earl of NY Your Man On The Aisle) reminding you always – “Take it easy but take it.”

On The Eve of the All-Star Break: Celebrating College Baseball & John Brush Steps Rededication While Putting Oriole Woes On Back Burner

July 10, 2015

Tags: Paul Molitor, Tom Brunansky, Neil Allen, Lance Berkman, Rick Reichardt, Frank Viola, Al Holland, Wayne Graham, Howie Gershberg, Ron Darling, Roger Angell, POTUS 41: George H. W. Bush, John Brush, Staci Slaughter, Peter Magowan, Willie Mays, Lee Mazzilli, NYS Assemblyman Denny Farrell, NYC Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, The Alou brothers, Mitchell J. Silver

The MLB season is more than half over and the first half-plus is ending with a thud for my Baltimore Orioles. After finally spurting 7 games over .500, they have lost three series in a row including a sweep on the road by the very improved Minnesota Twins.

Though they have four deserved AllStars – Manny Machado playing with abandon after knee operations, Adam Jones recovering from a rare shoulder injury, shutdown closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O’Day – the rest of their lineup and the starting pitching has been inconsistent. They trail the Yankee$$$ by three games as of Friday morning July 10.

Deserved kudos to new Twins manager Paul Molitor, the St. Paul MN-native and Hall of Famer in his first year as skipper, whose Twins thoroughly spanked the Birds. Molitor so far is belying that myth that great players cannot make good managers.

He presents a fascinating calm presence in the dugout. No Joe Girardi-Captain Queeg-like-squeezing-baseballs-like-ball bearings for him. Or Buck Showalter-grimaces-a la Earl Weaver. It is hard to know what he is thinking (except I did catch him looking down when his starter Kyle Gibson was temporarily losing sight of the strike zone with a eight-run lead).

So far Molitor’s hirings look good. He has brought aboard former Twins slugger Tom Brunansky as hitting coach. He also hired as rookie pitching coach Neil Allen, the former Met and Yankee hurler who served many years at Triple A-Durham NC helping develop the Tampa Bay Rays’ arsenal of fine pitchers.

After four miserable years, the Twins have taken advantage of their high draft picks and they remain a solid player development organization. They are fielding virtually a home-grown team with such promising talent as center fielder Aaron Hicks and third baseman/dh Miguel Sano, the highly touted Dominican Republic native whose first games in the big leagues have been a rousing success.

The Twins are getting a solid year from two veterans and definite leaders: quiet Joe Mauer, no longer catching but playing first base, and ebullient right fielder Torii Hunter who is proving you can go home again.

There is no assurance, of course, that the young Twins can challenge the Royals or even hold off the Tigers in the AL Central – where the White Sox and Indians are also showing signs of life though under .500. However as July advances, the Twins are a top feel-good story of 2015.

ON THE COLLEGE BASEBALL/HISTORICAL BASEBALL TRAIL
On June 29 the annual “Night of Champions,” sponsored by the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, provided as always an invigorating evening.

Player inductees into the CBHofF this year were Lance Berkman (Rice), Al Holland (North Carolina A & T), Rick Reichardt (University of Wisconsin), and Frank Viola (St. Johns of Queens, NY). All attended and were genuinely moved by the honor.

Berkman, who retired after a stellar major league career (366 HRs, .290 career BA) mainly with the Astros, looked trim, like he could still put on a MLB uniform.

He said that Rice coach Wayne Graham, briefly a Mets third baseman and already inducted in the Lubbock shrine, was a demanding taskmaster who made you feel “a sense of desperation.”

(Little-known fact about Berkman’s trade to the Yankees late in his career: The Astros received two minor leaguers now shining for other teams: Jimmy Paredes as the Orioles’ surprising if streaky DH, and Mark Melancon the Pirates closer and 2015 All-Star.)

Reichardt, whose record-setting bonus from the California Angels of over $200,000 in 1964 precipitated the creation of the amateur free agent draft the following year, was also a very heralded football running back and pass receiver. (He played in the famous 1963 Rose Bowl in which Wisconsin’s fourth-quarter comeback fell just short in a 42-37 loss to USC.)

Reichardt said that he loved his time in baseball though a loss of a kidney during his rookie season and his activities in the Players Association curtailed his career. He wished that today’s players would remember how past players’ actions led to the big salaries of today. He also regretted that most of today’s players don’t work harder on developing their skills.

Frank Viola flew in from his current job as the Mets’ pitching coach at Triple-A Las Vegas. His 26-2 record in three seasons at St. John’s was a remarkable career accomplishment. He gave great credit to his late pitching coach Howie Gershberg.

For a single game exploit, everyone still talks about Viola’s extra-inning victory over Ron Darling and Yale in a 1981 NCAA regional. Roger Angell immortalized the game in his “Web of the Game” essay in The New Yorker magazine (reprinted in the anthology “Late Innings”).

Viola said that the two things he most remembered about the game were: 1. The entire Yale dugout stood to applaud Darling when he gave up his first hit, a bloop, in the 11th inning. 2. The next day Darling also the Yale right fielder made a 310-foot throw on one hop to home plate. (Darling now is a member of Mets TV broadcasting team.)

Al Holland spoke forcefully and delightfully. Undrafted and rarely scouted at the historically black North Carolina A & T in Greensboro, Holland was signed at a tryout camp in Charlotte NC in 1975 by Branch Barrett Rickey, Branch Rickey’s grandson who was then an assistant farm director for the Pirates. (Today BB Rickey is the president of the Pacific Coast League.)

Holland received no bonus, just a dinner and a copy of an early illustrated book on visualization techniques. Holland made a bet with Rickey that he would arrive in Pittsburgh within two years and wanted a steak dinner. Sure enough Holland made the Pirates in 1977 and got his dinner.

He made his first mark in the big leagues with the San Francisco Giants under manager Frank Robinson. After compiling a long string of hitless innings, Robinson offered Holland a day off. “Did I tell you I was tired?” Holland remembered telling the intense skipper. “When I’m tired, I’ll tell you.

Holland finished his 10-year career with a 34-30 record, an ERA of 2.98, and 82 saves including 54 for the Phillies who he starred for in their 1983 pennant-winning season.

More good news from Lubbock was the ceremonial ground-breaking for the George HW Bush College Baseball Hall of Fame museum building. Bush, POTUS 41, played first base for Yale in the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948.

One final historical moment: On the 102nd anniversary of their original dedication, the John Brush Steps were formally re-opened on Thursday July 9. Giants owner John Brush died in 1912 and the steps from Edgecombe Avenue on Sugar Hill down toward the entrance to the bathtub-shaped Polo Grounds were a memorial to him.

Many dignitaries and abiding baseball fans gathered for the ceremony.
A huge tip of the cap goes to Staci Slaughter, SF Giants Communications Exec V-P, who flew in from San Francisco for the occasion. Beginning with former owner Peter Magowan, a New York native who loved the NY Giants, the SF franchise has been very cognizant of its roots.

The SF Giants, the Mets and the Yankees, the football Giants and Jets, MLB as a corporate entity, and NYC government all contributed to make possible the re-dedicated Brush steps.

Lee Mazzilli, a Brooklyn boy who played for both the Mets and Yankees, spoke very movingly about the Polo Grounds and what it meant in American history not just baseball history. He said he grew up a SF Giant fan of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey,
Juan Marichal, and Dick Dietz.

Longtime New York State assemblyman Herman D. "Denny" Farrell Jr. grew up in Sugar Hill above the Polo Grounds. He told the story of how one day the St. Louis Cardinals got lost on the subway to the ballpark.

Carrying bats and wearing Cardinal jackets, they trudged up the hill towards the Polo Grounds. Soon word spread among Farrell and his friends. "Look, there's a real baseball team here!" they exulted. Farrell still vividly remembers the white hair of Cards third baseman Whitey Kurowski trudging up the hill towards the ballpark.

NYC parks commissioner Mitchell J. Silver and city councilman Ydanis Rodriguez are confident that the Harlem River Driveway (north of 155th Street that leads to Harlem River Drive) will soon be named after Willie Mays.

Also on the agenda is naming a street for the Alou brothers, Felipe, Mateo and Jesus, who were signed and starred for the San Francisco Giants. "Thank you, San Francisco, for giving three brothers a chance," Councilman Rodriguez noted gratefully.

That’s all this time. This is Teny Ymota (The Earl Of NY, Your Man On The Aisle), reminding you: 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