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Pre-75th Birthday Musings on Orioles and Baseball's Wonderful Unpredictability

June 25, 2017

Tags: Dylan Bundy, Donnie Hart, Mychal Givens, Chris Tillman, Evan Longoria, Trey Mancini, Jonathan Schoop, Joey Rickard, Brad Brach, Darren O'Day, Zach Britton AL East and AL Central tight races, Warren Giles

I'm not going to say that the Orioles are back in the AL East race on the basis of two satisfying wins at Tampa Bay on Sat. and Sun. But as a pre-birthday caution to myself,
I have dropped the idea of calling this blog entry "The Return of the Woerioles."

Perhaps from little victories big oaks will grow. Dylan Bundy stepped up on Sat. to pitch seven innings of three run ball - late thunder by the Birds led to a 8-3 win.

The score was not insignificant because Bundy's effort - and the work of relievers Donnie Hart and Mychal Givens - broke an embarrassing string of 20 straight games in which Oriole hurlers had given up five or more runs.

That ugly mark is now an unwelcome American League record and ties the 1924 Phillies for major league mound inefficiency. Those Phillies finished 55-96 and 7th in the National League.

The 2017 Orioles have slumped from first in early May to fourth in the five-team AL East. Yet they will resume play on Tuesday June 27 - my birthday - 37-38, only four games behind the Yankees who all of a sudden have lost 10 out of 12 games. The Red Sox are in a virtual tie with their great Bronx rival but they have sputtered lately too.

Since the Orioles burst into contention in 2012, they have not really had a mound ace, but Chris Tillman, a 9-year veteran, was the closest to it. On Sunday June 25 he showed flashes of his previous form at one point striking out four tough Rays in a row.
But he weakened in the 5th and gave up a three-run homer to personal nemesis Evan Longoria.

The Birds battled back and tied it on solo homers by sensational rookie Trey Mancini and increasingly reliable second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Defensively Schoop belongs on a Mount Rushmore of defenders for the way he stands in on a double play and rifles throws to first base. The former shortstop's range is also impressive.

Rays discard Joey Rickard got the game-deciding hit in the 9th, a double down the left-field line, and Brad Brach picked up a two-inning save. Last year's perfect closer Zach Britton should be back from injury in about 10 days, key veteran Darren O'Day is already back so the Orioles bullpen might become a force again.

IF THE STARTERS PROVIDE LENGTH. Still a big IF.

Only the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals are seeming locks to be in the post-season. I don't know if the late National League president Warren Giles ever
really said that his dream year was for every team to be near .500 come September, but it could be true for the NL Central and most of the American League in 2017.

To give you a sense of the delicious inconsistency in the A.L. - delicious if you are not an ardent Minnesota or Cleveland fan - the defending league champ Indians went into the Twins' Target Field a week ago and swept the Minnesotans and knocked them out of first place. This weekend the Twins turned the tables on the Indians at Progressive Field.

With more than a half-season to play, the best advice to all fans including yours truly is to take deep breaths and realize that the game of baseball is design to confound you. But if you throw strike one and play solid defense (meaning not giving any outs away), you will be in the hunt come September.

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

How To Cope When Your Team Goes Belly-Up

June 12, 2017

Tags: Dylan Bundy, Edwin Jackson, Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, JJ Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, Darren O'Day, Zach Britton, Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, Fidel Castro, Minnie Minoso, Connie Marrero, The Central Texas BasebALZ Reminiscence Program

For those who follow the Baltimore Orioles, things have gone south in a hurry. On May 10 we were 22-10 and it looked like a year of contention again. Since then the Birds have gone 9-20 and sunk to fourth place with improving Toronto ready to switch places with us in the cellar.

What we hope is the nadir happened this past weekend at Yankee Stadium. I went to the Friday night game with our best pitcher in 2017 on the mound, Dylan Bundy. He pitched creditably and left with the O’s trailing 3-2 after 6 innings.

Once oft-traveled Edwin Jackson came in, I expected the worst and wasn't disappointed. He immediately gave up two runs and I headed for the exits - something I don't like to do, but I did have to get up early to play tennis for the first time in 2017.

Sat. and Sun.games could have used mercy rules a la amateur baseball. Chris Tillman, whose aching shoulder may ultimately need surgery, gave up six in the first and 3 in the second before he was yanked.

The next day Kevin Gausman, the first number one draft pick of the Dan Duquette regime in 2012, was only slightly better, giving up 5 in the first before being knocked out in the 4th. He is presumably healthy physically, but mentally he must be hurting.

The jury is still out as to what Gausman's future competence might be. He must stay in the rotation because he still has great stuff and there are few other starting options. And Oriole brass must fear the specter of another Jake Arrieta being dealt away too hastily.

The absence of Manny Machado for the whole series - due to a freak wrist injury caused by Andrew McCutchen’s awkward slide earlier in the week - didn’t help matters. But Manny’s not having a good year and he needs to pick it up a lot for the Orioles to dream of contending in 2017.

I love JJ Hardy as one of the most underrated Orioles in my lifetime. But his home run power is gone and his assortment of injuries has slowed him in the field.

Though the Birds don’t have a replacement for Machado at third, maybe it is time to move him to his desired position at shortstop. And see how he likes being paired with his pal at second Jonathan Schoop who has really blossomed this year as a rare Oriole clutch hitter.

Some feel that Schoop with his great arm could be a successor to Hardy at short. Seemingly the Orioles have more options in-house at second than third.

The big problem remains starting pitching. And now that Darren O’Day has his own shoulder injury to deal with on the DL and closer Zach Britton is out until probably the All-Star Game, the relief corps is hurting, too.

So how does one cope when his team goes belly-up? If you love the game, there is consolation everywhere - watching high school and college ball and other major league teams without emotional involvement. (Dispassion can only go so far, I hasten to add.)

And reading and talking about the game always brings me pleasure. On Fri June 2, the last day of the 28th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, I gave a talk at the Hall of Fame based on my trip to Cuba over New Year’s in 2016.

I called it: “If We Had Known He Wanted To Be A Dictator, We Would Have Made Him An Umpire: Reflections on Castro and Cuba’s Ardent Love of Baseball.” The great quotation comes from either Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, the first great post-World War II Cuban star in MLB, or pitcher Conrado “Connie” Marrero who pitched in MLB for five year in the 1950s before living the rest of his 100-plus years in Cuba.

There is no doubt that Fidel Castro genuinely loved the game though it is only a myth that he was really a pro prospect. He probably had more talent as a basketball player though again not of pro quality.

Fidel was a canny enough politician to realize that most Cubans of his generation shared his passion for baseball. After all, the game took off in Cuba as an act of rebellion against the Spanish colonialists during the 10 Years War in the 1870s. It has continued its popularity though the defections of Cuban stars since the early 1990s has gravely weakened Cuba’s impressive amateur baseball organization.

As always at these chock-filled-with-papers conferences, there was no way to hear everything. But many presentations left a lasting impact with me. I'll mention one in closing, the BasebALZ Reminiscence Program of Austin, Texas.

Scotland took the lead in 2009 by creating a program to use sports memories to help
Alzheimer's patients connect with the past and discuss their stories in the present.
There are now over 200 programs in Scotland dealing mainly with memories of soccer and cricket.

There are only three projects started so far in the U.S. but the one in central Texas has had some very rewarding success. Jim Kenton talked about one Alzheimer's patient in a wheelchair who had barely spoken for three months.

When prodded about his baseball memories, he suddenly remembered a game when Jack Kramer on the 1946 Browns, threw a ball out of Fenway Park after a bad call by the first base umpire. He also remembered that it was on an anniversary of D-Day and George Metkovich led off that day. SABR researchers later confirmed the accuracy of the reminiscence.

More on the Symposium next blog - That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!

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Story of baseball's reserve system and the men who fought to change it
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