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No Baseball Excitement In Baltimore This September

August 31, 2015

Tags: Baltimore Orioles, Buck Showalter, Dan Duquette, Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller, Chris Davis, Wei-Yin Chen, Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Joe Torre, Hudson Valley Renegades, Goldklang group, John Kosciak

It is hard for an Orioles fan to face the disaster the 2015 season has become. Since 2012, “Playing meaningful games in September” had returned as a happy Birdland mantra.

It won’t be chanted this September. A four-game sweep at home by the resurgent Minnesota Twins followed by a 1-6 road trip at defending AL champion Kansas City and surprising Texas has put Baltimore four games under .500 and in danger of falling into the AL East basement.

The two biggest culprits have been the lack of consistent starting pitching and a homer-happy strikeout-happy offense that produces little else. The defense has remained solid and at times spectacular, but you have to score some runs. When you don’t, the pressure on mediocre pitching to be perfect builds to impossible levels.

There is still a full slate of September games to be played, mainly in the AL East where the O’s so far have a 26-24 record. Playing spoiler is not what Oriole diehards expected in March though I did pick them for 4th.

I thought the starting pitching was overrated and the loss of free agent outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis would create a void in the offense. Having top reliever Andrew Miller bolt to the Yankees didn’t bode too well either.

The MLB's 2014 executive of the year Dan Duquette thought he could piece together an outfield from bargain-basement free agent pickups but the strategy failed miserably.
Losing Markakis to the Braves really hurt because he played hard and played hurt and he played every day.

I can understand why Duquette probably convinced owner Peter Angelos not to give a fourth year to both Markakis and Cruz, but in Nick’s case he had been a loyal Oriole for 10 years and deserved the reward.

Though his new team the Braves are rebuilding in a very difficult way for Braves fans, Markakis's numbers are excellent. And again he was always more than the numbers.

The state of the Oriole farm system has improved and the worst thing a franchise can do is to throw money wildly into the free agent market. Unfortunately, the Orioles stand to lose its biggest run-producer Chris Davis (wildly streaky that he is) and useful southpaw-though-no-ace Wei-Yin Chen to free agency after the season.

So it is not an easy time to be an Orioles fan. There have been no rabbits in manager Buck Showalter's hat this season. However, there is some core young talent that should be given reasonable multi-year contracts, esp. third baseman Manny Machado, an emerging though still immature star, and All-Star closer Zach Britton.

Alas, I will watch the last weeks of the regular season and the post-season with interest but devoid of the passion of the true fan.

I’ve always liked Joe Torre’s explanation for why he returned to managing after years in the broadcast booth. “I missed the winning, . . . and the losing,” he said.
When games matter and there is always hope for tomorrow and the day after, that is what baseball rooting is all about.

I will also keep an eye on the waning days of the minor league season in the New York City area, esp. the short season New York-Penn League that ends its regular campaign on Labor Day, followed by two short best-of-3 playoffs.

There is quite a race going down to the wire in the McNamara division of the NY-PL.
Only a half game separates the Staten Island Yankees, the Hudson Valley Renegades (the Tampa Bay farm club), and the Aberdeen Ironbirds (the Orioles affiliate).

In late August I saw the SI Yankees and the Ironbirds split a doubleheader in front of an intimate crowd at the lovely ballpark on New York Harbor, only a short walk from the Staten Island ferry. BTW the ferry is a free ride in each direction and remains one of the great attractions of NYC.

A tip of the cap to the HV Renegades, one of the Goldklang group of minor league franchises. On Sat Sep 5 at 5:30p, before the regularly scheduled 7:05p game against Aberdeen, veteran scout John Kosciak will be the 14th talent hunter honored with a plaque on the Dutchess Stadium Wall of Fame.

Kosciak, now a pro scout with the Pirates, has worked in baseball for more than three decades. As a Houston Astros scout, he was instrumental in signing of budding star outfielder George Springer from the University of Connecticut.

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

The Cape Cod Baseball League Should Be On Every Fan's Bucket List

August 19, 2015

Tags: Buster Posey, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Mark Teixeira, Matt Wieters, Joe Girardi, Mike Matheny, Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, Gio Brusa, Donnie Walton, Orleans Firebirds, Ronnie Dawson, Josh Vidales, Hyannis Harbor Hawks, Tristan Hildebrandt, Judy Scarafile

In early August I spent five wonderful days watching playoff action in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Probably the oldest summer league in the country, dating back to 1885, the Cape is also the most prestigious. As many as 1 in 7 of current major leaguers played at least a summer on one of the ten teams in the CCBL.

The Giants’ Buster Posey (Florida State), Astro stalwarts Dallas Keuchel (Arkansas) and George Springer (Connecticut) and the Yankees' Mark Teixeira and the Orioles' Matt Wieters (both Georgia Tech) honed their skills in the CCBL. So did onetime catchers and current MLB managers Joe Girardi of the Yankees (Northwestern) and Mike Matheny of the Cardinals (Michigan).

One of the many charms of the CCBL is the players’ college is always announced as well as their names. There is never an admission charge during the regular season that stretches from early June to late July. Only in Hyannis for the playoffs, where the Harbor Hawks lost the final series to repeat champion Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, did I see a suggested donation sign of $5.

The secret to CCBL success has been that it is a wholly volunteer operation. Players stay with host families all summer and many are provided with day jobs. All athletes are expected to participate in youth clinics. There are no ground crews so it’s players you see watering and raking the field before and after games.

During games, one of the players – usually a pitcher not slated to hurl that day – joins an team intern and they pass around a basket collecting money for raffle tickets. It adds to the pleasant informal feeling that permeates every ballpark in the CCBL.

I didn’t get to visit every stadium, but I attended games in Orleans, Yarmouth-Dennis, and Hyannis. There are very few stands at Eldredge Park in Orleans, but families come out early and bring lawn and beach chairs to stake out places behind the foul lines.

There is more seating at Yarmouth-Dennis’s Red Wilson Field located behind the regional high school. Here, too, portable chairs line the area behind the foul lines. Y.D’s public address announcer morphs the late Sherm Feller of Fenway Park in his opening greeting: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.”

Another nice touch at Y-D is before the game the Johnny Carson Show theme is played. Just another a retro charm of Red Wilson Field.

Hyannis’s McKeon Field is the biggest park I visited. It is located behind a Catholic high school not far from Main Street and the JFK Memorial museum. To my delight I discovered a Cape Cod League Museum in the basement of the JFK building.

The room is not yet air-conditioned but it is a considerable collection of memorabilia and an explanatory film about CCBL history. I am sure it will reward more visits in the future.

The sense of intense quietude at the Cape Cod ballparks is remarkable, especially to a New Yorker who goes to a lot of major and minor league games where there is no escape from blaring sound systems.

There is some canned music at CCBL games but in moderation and never during an inning. So there is time to savor the interval between pitches without being bombarded with the puerile “Everybody clap yo’ hands!” and other maddening noise.

As for the games, most memorable was the semi-final series between the favored Orleans Firebirds, possessor of the best regular season record, and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
All games were the kind of tight pitchers' battles I adore.

After losing the opener at Orleans, 4-0, the Y-D Red Sox stayed alive by winning a classic 13-inning 2-1 game that was decided on a two-out bases-loaded wild pitch on an 0-2 count. Orleans had tied the game in the 7th inning on a home run by outfielder Ronnie Dawson (Ohio State).

Adding drama to the Y-D elimination game was the absence of lights at Red Wilson Field.
The game could have been called by darkness and would have been resumed at noon the next day.

Unfortunately for the Firebirds, Dawson and fellow Buckeye, pitcher Taylor Tully, couldn’t stay for the rubber match because they had to fly back to Columbus for the funeral of a teammate who died of leukemia.

In the deciding third game, Y-D held off Orleans, 2-1, behind a great performance by Cory Macolm (Arkansas, Little Rock) and a first inning home run by Gio Brusa (U. of Pacific). The jury is out on whether Brusa has the bat speed to advance high in the pros, but Brusa is certainly a great name for a slugger.

Red Sox shortstop Donnie Walton (Oklahoma State), undersized in this day and age at 5’ 10”, saved the game with a remarkable diving stop up the middle in the bottom of the 8th inning with the tying run on third base. Somehow from his rear end Walton managed to throw the ball to second to force an Orleans runner preserving the 2-1 lead.

Gio Brusa also came up big at the plate in the final best-of-three games against Hyannis. The series proved almost anti-climactic because none of the games were close.

The Red Sox again lost the first game on the road, a one-sided affair that did feature two of the most remarkable diving infield catches I have ever seen: one by Hyannis shortstop Tristan Hildebrandt (Cal State-Fullerton) and the other by Y-D second baseman Jose Vidales (U. of Houston).

The Y-D Red Sox came back to win the final two games convincingly thereby copping their second straight CCBL flag. Kudos to coach Chad Gassman and his remarkable volunteer coach Ron Polk, one of the all-time winningest coaches in college baseball history at Georgia and Mississippi State and now a volunteer coach at U of Alabama-Birmingham.

It was a year of loss in the CCBL. Legendary Red Sox scouts Bill Enos and Buzz Bowers and Bill Kearns, a longtime Mariners talent hunter, all passed away.
A moment of silence was held at Red Wilson Field in memory of Florence Wilson, Red’s widow, who also recently died.

At the end of the playoffs league president Judy Scarafile announced her retirement after 24 years on the job. More than anyone Scarafile epitomizes the volunteer spirit of the CCBL. Though these losses are signficiant, I predict the CCBL will continue to thrive in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable, forty miles out to sea from the Massachusetts mainland.

Next year I am vowing to see more Cape Cod baseball, starting with that special Elizabeth Lowell Park in Cotuit with its renovated wooden grandstand and a convenient ramp that will make access easier for your creaky correspondent.

Next time – commentary on the exciting major league pennant races that should all go down to the wire.
For now - Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Reflections on the Just-Passed Trade Deadline + Remembering Buzz Bowers

August 1, 2015

Tags: Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Bud Norris, JJ Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Goldklang group, Ed Creech, Mike Arbuckle, John Kosciak, Buzz Bowers, Lenny Merullo, Robin Roberts, Bill Enos, Carl Pavano, Tony Armas Jr., Lou Merloni, Pedro Martinez

The overhyped July 31st Major League Trade Deadline has come and gone. It could very well happen that the old adage will come true again: “The best trades are the ones you don’t make.” But in this age of incessant TV and internet coverage, you would think that Armageddon was near if your team didn’t make a trade.

The games on the field remain the best barometer for how your team is doing.
Toronto has been struggling to get over .500 all season. Yet many pundits are proclaiming they “won” the deadline deal process by nabbing shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies and southpaw David Price from the Tigers.

‘Taint so easy, McGee (boy, am I showing my age referring to Fibber McGee and Molly the Golden Age of Radio couple.) Toronto still has bullpen issues that obtaining 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins in the Tulowitzki trade is not necessarily going to solve. Adding Mark Lowe from Seattle may help.

The Jays are also not deep in starters even adding Price. And amazing how short memories are in baseball. The financially-strapped Tampa Rays traded Price a year ago and many pundits again declared the Tigers winners of Deadline Day.

What happened? The Orioles swept Detroit in three games, neutralizing their top ace Max Scherzer (now with the Nats), knocking out fading Justin Verlander, and beating Price 2-0 in the clinching game.

Yet I understand Toronto’s acquisitions – the Jays haven’t made the post-season since 1993 when they won the second of back-to-back World Series.

What a difference a year makes! Bud Norris won that clincher for the Orioles over Detroit but was designated for assignment on Trade Deadline Day. After winning 15 games in 2014, he fell to 2-7 in 2015 and was demoted to the bullpen.

My Orioles have been underachieving from spring training on. I saw it coming – that they were basically a .500 team - but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Watch I still do because I love their defense, especially now that shortstop JJ Hardy has returned to anchor it.

A prime example was the great 8-4-2 relay – Adam Jones-Jonathan Schoop-Matt Wieters – that saved the Friday night July 31 8-7 victory over the Tigers. The good news was that the O’s made up an early 6-0 deficit. The bad news was that pending free agent southpaw Wei-Yin Chen put the Birds in such an early hole.

Hardy’s power bat may be on permanent hiatus, but he remains a pleasure to watch on the defensive side of the ball. With Manny Machado at third and Schoop at second, both healthy again after serious knee injuries, the Oriole infield should be in very capable hands for a few years.

Free agent-to-be Chris Davis is more than adequate at first base but recent addition Minnesota castoff Chris Parmelee was truly excellent at first – if only he could find his batting stroke. Davis played a surprisingly good right field, filling in for a while the huge hole left when Nick Markakis departed to Atlanta as a free agent.

However, Parmelee was designated for assignment on Trade Deadline Day when the Orioles received left fielder Gerardo Parra from the Brewers in exchange for promising minor league righthander Zach Davies.

Now that the hoopla is over for July 31st it is time to take careful note of how your teams are playing in the dog days of August. As humidity increases and the sun keeps beating down, staying in condition and keeping firm one's readiness to win are more important than ever.

GOOD AND SAD NEWS ON THE SCOUTING FRONT
A well-deserved kudo is in order to the Goldklang Group of minor league franchises for continuing their project of honoring baseball scouts at their different ballparks.
On August 7, the Charleston (South Carolina) River Dogs will erect a plaque in
honor of current Giants scout Ed Creech.

Later in the summer the St. Paul Saints will honor Mike Arbuckle, long with the Phillies and now with the Royals, and the Hudson Valley Renegades will honor longtime Astros scout John Kosciak.

The sad news is the passing on Cape Cod on July 31st of Charles “Buzz” Bowers, a renowned New England scout. Buzz was one of the first scouts inducted into the Goldklang group’s Scouts Wall of Fame. He was joined by Lenny Merullo, who also passed away earlier this year.

Bowers was a contemporary and friend of a fellow pitcher Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. Like Roberts, Bowers attended Michigan State and both also played in the Vermont college summer league. Buzz considered former Reds hurler Ray Fisher, the legendary U. of Michigan and Vermont summer coach, his greatest mentor.

Buzz never made it out of Triple-A for the Phillies but began his scouting career with Philadelphia and later worked for the Dodgers.

In 1992 he went to work full time for the Red Sox. The legendary scout Bill Enos, who died in January 2015, named Bowers as his replacement.

Among the future major leaguers Bowers signed were infielder Lou Merloni, now a Boston sports commentator, and pitcher Carl Pavano, who after some success in Boston was traded to Montreal with fellow righthander Tony Armas Jr. for Pedro Martinez.

A scout is not only judged by the future big leaguers he signed, but by his commitment to evaluation of all players and devotion to the game. Buzz Bowers got high marks in all these areas.

A long-time high school teacher and coach, Buzz liked being around young people. He was not one of those nay-sayers he thought the "good old days" were better.

He was a firm believer that the measurement of talent had improved immensely since he was a player. He also was impressed by how many young pitchers starting in high school realized the importance of the changeup.

I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with Buzz Bowers on my first visit to the Cape Cod summer league five years ago. I will never forget his insight that he picked up from Bill Enos: “You don’t have to be drafted to play in the big leagues.”

Well, that’s all for now. I will be making my second trip to Cape Cod baseball next week and will be back to you with more stories from that legendary league next time.
In the meantime Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

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