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And Then There Were Two: Houston-LA Dodgers Get Ready for World Series (revised with Rose Bowl update)

October 22, 2017

Tags: Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter, Minute Maid Park, Enron Field, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, Aaron Judge, Lance McCullers, Jose Altuve, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Rich Hill, Jake Fox, Yu Darvish, Cody Bellinger, Clay Bellinger, Kenley Jensen, Justin Turner, Enrique "Kike' Hernandez, Dee Gordon

"Sports Illustrated," often accused of jinxing players with cover stories, must be feeling vindicated. Three years ago Ben Reiter wrote a cover story predicting the Astros as World Series champions in 2017.

Starting Tuesday Oct 24 the Astros will have a chance to fulfill that prophecy when they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in Game 1. They triumphed over the Yankees in the seven full games of the AL Championship Series.

They won every home game at Minute Maid Park (which used to be called Enron Field until that corporation fell in disgrace). Houston did play pitifully in the three games in New York, undoubtedly cowed by the loud Yankee Stadium fans and the aura of invincibility they like to project.

Yet the Yankees were equally punchless in their four losses in Houston, scoring a total of only three runs. Justin Verlander’s dominance in his two starts for the Astros was not surprising, and he was the deserved MVP of the ALCS.

Yet the Yankees put up very little fight in the final game against the combined offerings of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, two good pitchers when on their game but not exactly aces. Morton got the win for 5 innings of work and McCullers got the very rare 4-inning save.

There was some great defense in the ALCS. Right fielder Aaron Judge stole two home runs from the Astros, one in each park. Center fielder George Springer cemented Houston’s last two victories with similarly outstanding grabs. The Astro double play combination of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve outplayed their Yankee counterparts Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro.

Not enough can be said about the all-around play and leadership by example of Altuve who listed at 5’ 7” 155 pounds is one of the smallest players in MLB. Yet he has won three out of the last four AL batting titles showing power as well as an ability to spray balls to all fields.

The Dodgers, in what 90-year-old former manager Tommy Lasorda loves to call “The Fall Classic,” will be a formidable opponent. In their first World Series since 1988, they won the most games in baseball in 2017 and will have the home field advantage.

Clayton Kershaw gets the nod in the opener likely against fellow lefty Dallas Keuchel, he of the beard that reminds me of one of the Smith Brothers (cough drop manufacturers for you youngsters reading).

Kershaw, the $32 million a year/three time Cy Young award winner, is at the top of his game. He wants to improve on his over-4 point ERA in post-season play.

Another southpaw 37-year-old Rich Hill gets LA's Game 2 nod.
Hill is a nice story - a journeyman originally signed by the Cubs, he has endured several injuries over the years. He bounced to many teams including the Orioles briefly and the Red Sox and the A’s. He also pitched in Asia trying to keep his dream alive.

The deep-pocketed Dodgers signed him to a three-year $36 million contract last off-season. He has been a consistent pitcher when not bothered by nagging hand blisters.

Hill attended the University of Michigan where one of his roommates was catcher-utility player Jake Fox. Last I heard Fox was still playing in the independent leagues after sipping cups of coffee with the Pirates, A's and O's.

As you probably know, I love acronyms. Fox once scribbled in his glove T.E.W.S.I.C.:
To Everyone Who Said I Couldn't. I wouldn't be surprised if Rich Hill wrote or thought something very similar in his long journey to The Show.

The Dodgers have another rewarding story in utility man in Kike (short for Enrique) Hernandez. A journeyman from Puerto Rico, he was obtained from the Marlins (along with versatile catcher Austin Barnes) in the trade for second baseman Dee Gordon. Hernandez belted three home runs in the Dodgers' clinching 11-1 rout of the Cubs in the NLCS.

Yu Darvish, the Japanese pitcher of Iranian descent picked up from the Texas Rangers late this season, probably gets the nod for Game 3. I know the international wing of MLB was salivating at the thought of Darvish pitching against the Yankees’ Japanese import Masohiro Tanaka. But you can’t always get what you want (to coin a phrase).

At the back of a deep Dodgers pitching staff looms Curacao’s Kenley Jansen, a onetime 6’ 5” 280 pound catcher who has become 2017’s best closer. New Yorkers that can forgive Walter O’Malley for taking the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA in 1957 might find some New York connections of interest on the Dodgers roster.

Justin Turner, a former Mets utility player, has blossomed into a standout third baseman on both sides of the ball. First baseman Cody Bellinger, a shoo-in for NL Rookie of the Year, is the son of Clay Bellinger who earned two World Series rings as a utility player on the Yankees last dynasty of the late 1990s.

No doubt MLB was craving building up a battle between top rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger in the World Series but there should be no absence of drama in this Series. I think the Dodgers will win but I’m hoping for a long and dramatic series. Because once again I say - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.”

That’s all for now - Columbia and Wisconsin football remain undefeated and I am binging on BIRGing - Basking In Reflected Glory. Don’t know how long it will last but nice to enjoy the streaks while they last.

I need to make a correction from my last blog. I said that I'd be satisfied with a Wisconsin win in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champion. But this year the historic Pasadena CA site is part of the playoff system.

So if the Badgers make the Rose Bowl, they'll have to be part of the four-team championship playoff. That means they'll have to run the table impressively to smell the roses and the ultimate crown.

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

The Joys of Autumn in New York, Part I

October 18, 2017

Tags: Columbia and Wisconsin undefeated football (so far), Al Bagnoli, Anders Hill, Josh Wainwright, Michael Murphy, Jonathan Taylor, Ron Dayne, Orpheus, Mischa Maisky, New York City Ballet farewell to Robert Fairchild

It has been more like late summer or even mid-summer in Gotham the last few weeks.
I am not complaining except that there is a shocking lack of fall foliage so far.

As you know I am not a Yankees fan but they and the Dodgers are clearly the hottest teams left in the post-season. The Dodgers are undefeated after sweeping Arizona in three games in round one of the playoffs - NLDS. And now they have a seemingly impregnable lead of 3-0 in the NLCS over the soon ex-champion Cubs.

The sports highlight of my fall has been the undefeated Columbia Lions football team. They beat Penn in overtime on Saturday October 14 - An absolutely thrilling game before over 13,000 fans at Homecoming way north in Manhattan at the Baker Field complex west of 218th Street and Broadway.

It was the first win over Penn in 21 years and was very sweet for Columbia coach Al Bagnoli who coached the Quakers to most of those wins over Columbia and brought many Ivy League titles to the storied Philadelphia campus.

After the dramatic win, Bagnoli wisely and accurately credited the coming of age of the players who rallied from a 14-point deficit to score 3 TDs in the 4th quarter. In overtime, it was senior quarterback Anders Hill who threw a perfect 24-yard pass to sensational sophomore wide receiver Josh Wainwright for the winning points.

Wainwright spiked the ball with emphasis and the celebration began. Ecstatic fans almost tore down the goalposts until security and calmer heads arrived on the scene.

Columbia faces two tough road games with also-undefeated Dartmouth this Saturday Oct 21. Up next is a visit to Yale on Oct 28 before a home tussle with Harvard on Nov 4. The season ends with Cornell in Ithaca on Nov 11 and a home finale against Brown on Nov 18.

Columbia is a fun team to watch on offense and defense. Sophomore linebacker Michael Murphy was seemingly all over the field in the Penn win and won league accolades for his play.

In his third season Bagnoli clearly seems to have turned the program around.
There is more pride and less resignation in Columbia fandom, a truly welcome development. Expecting to win instead of fearing the worst is a wonderful feeling!
(But believe me, that feeling of dread doesn't die totally after decades of drought.)

My other alma mater Wisconsin is also undefeated but their offense has sputtered at times. They have a remarkable freshman running back in Jonathan Taylor from Salem NJ (not far from the home of former Heisman winner Ron Dayne). But it has been Badger defense that has excelled all year.

The schedule is admittedly weak in 2017 so the road to the playoff in Indianapolis against probably Ohio State or Penn State seems smooth. But it says here that the
offense has to become more consistent if the Badgers hope for a major bowl.

I personally doubt given the weak schedule that they will make the four-team playoff. But as a traditionalist, an appearance in the Rose Bowl would suit me fine.

On the arts and musical side, I've experienced some great performances lately.
I saw the opening of the Orpheus season at the 92nd Street Y. The conductor-less chamber orchestra featured special guest cellist Mischa Maisky.

Citizen of the world fits the intense and lyrical Maisky born in Latvia, educated in Russia, now residing in Israel. His renditions of Arensky and the Tchaikovsky "Andante Cantabile" as an encore connected deeply with my Russian roots.

I also caught the farewell performance of ballet star Robert Fairchild with the New York City Ballet this past Sunday Oct 15. Only 30, Fairchild is the youngest dancer ever to be honored with a "farewell".

He enjoyed several standing ovations at the end and graciously handed out roses to all of the company's principal dancers. Fairchild may be leaving ballet. but he is in line for many musical theatre and other opportunities.

He should be a delightful and rewarding presence on the arts scene for years to come. I loved him as the male lead in "An American In Paris" that ran recently for over a year at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

I'll be back next time with final thoughts on the MLB baseball season and Orpheus's next performance on Oct 26 at Carnegie Hall with guest soloist pianist Andre Watts.

For now: Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Prize Fight Intensity On Display in Baseball Playoffs

October 10, 2017

Tags: Bobby Thomson, Dave Winfield, Hagler-Hearns, Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius, Corey Kluber, CC Sabathia, Joe Girardi, Francisco Lindor, Masahiro Tanaka, Greg Bird, Andrew Miller, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Ramirez, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, George Springer, Jake Marisnick, David Cone, Joe Davis, AJ Pierzynski, Dan Quisenberry

After watching the Yankees-Minnesota first inning last Tuesday Oct 3 (Bobby Thomson Day BTW in 1951 and Dave Winfield's birthday), I couldn’t help thinking of the first round of the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns middleweight fight in April 1985.

More haymakers were thrown in the first round of that classic fight than in most entire bouts (Hagler won it by a third-round KO - I saw it on small theatre TV at Madison Square Garden’s long-gone Felt Forum.)

The Twins hit two HRs and knocked out Yankee ace Luis Severino in first inning. But Curacao’s pride Didi Gregorius smacked a three-run dinger to tie the game immediately, and Yanks won going away.

Nothing like playoff games to reveal intensity a la boxing’s concentrated mayhem. (I’m not an ardent boxing fan because the aim of the sport is really to concuss your rival. But I’m a flawed human being who does believe in a fair fight with no favor.)

And with the exception of LA Dodgers sweep of the Diamondbacks, the playoffs have been intense and gripping (despite the length of the games due to extra commercials and incessant meetings between catchers and pitchers).

We’ll see if Cleveland can continue in the playoffs by winning Game 5 at home tomorrow night (Wed Oct 11). “Momentum in baseball is the next day’s starting pitcher” will be truer than ever. Cleveland ace Corey Kluber will be matched against the former Indian CC Sabathia.

Kluber was treated rudely by the Yankees in the now-infamous Game 2 - you know the one where Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, the obsessive note-taker with the big thick looseleaf book, didn’t appeal a bad call on a hit-by-pitch. And moments later Indians leader Francisco Lindor hit a grand-slammer to bring the Indians back into a game they won in extra innings.

Just hope it is a good game like the classic Game 3 in which Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka won a gripping 1-0 shutout that proved again that nothing quite beats a low-scoring baseball game with plenty of base runners but stout pitching.
Revived Yankee first baseman Greg Bird homered deep into the upper right field stands off usually impregnable reliever Andrew Miller for the game's only run.

It would be nice for Cleveland if they can get injured slugger Edwin Encarnacion back into the lineup. And if their number three hitter Jose Ramirez finds his hitting stroke.
The playoffs, being so short compared to the long grind of the regular season where “tomorrow is your best friend,” intensify slumps. Hope J Ramirez snaps out of it.

Meanwhile Houston eliminated the Red Sox three games to one. The Astros embarrassed punchless Boston in the first two games in Texas by identical 8-2 scores.
The Red Sox salvaged some respect by winning the third game at home and leading the fourth one by one run into the 8th.

But the talented young Alex Bregman, a natural shortstop now playing third because of the emergence of Carlos Correa at short, homered to tie it. And then former Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick hit an opposite field single to give the Astros the lead in their ultimate 5-4 win.

The only blemish on the Astros performance was center fielder George Springer’s botching balls in Fenway Park’s tricky deep center field. On Sunday he played a catchable ball into a double when he didn’t realize he had more room to catch it.

Yesterday (Monday Oct 9) Springer allowed an inside-the-park home run to talented Red Sox 20-year-old rookie third baseman Rafael Devers when the ball ricocheted wildly off the metal wall into Fenway’s vast right field.

For Houston’s sake I hope Springer plays better on the road in the upcoming ALCS either in Cleveland or New York. Or maybe Jake Marisnick returns to the lineup.

In the National League, the Cubs have taken a 2-1 lead over the Washington Nationals. The pitching has been great in this series - the defense not so great.
I was glad that the Nats at least won a game at home before heading to Wrigley Field for Games 3 and 4. They'll have to conquer Jake Arrieta to stay alive.

Washington has not won a playoff series since they returned to the majors in 2005 as the former Montreal Expos. It looks like they will have their work cut out for them to break that bad streak.

Before I close, I want to tip my cap to some of the insights of the Fox Sports One team covering Boston-Houston, Joe Davis and former players David Cone and AJ Pierzynski.

Cone, whose first team was the KC Royals, paid homage to the former Kansas City reliever the late great Dan Quisenberry who once noted that Fenway’s Green Monster Wall had a heartbeat and as the games got close, you felt it beating.

It was also Quisenberry that described the secret to his success: “Thirty ground balls, thirty strikeouts, thirty great plays.”

Cone, Davis, and Pierzinski also deserve kudos for praising Alex Bregman’s confident take of a pitch seconds before he hit his tying home over the Green Monster off Red Sox ace closer Craig Kimbrel.

Just remember as these games go on until the end of the month - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.” Next time I hope to say about my two alma maters currently undefeated on the gridiron - Columbia (4-0) and Wisconsin (5-0).
Both have tough games ahead so not feeling overconfident.

In the meantime, always remember: “take it easy but take it."

New York City Pays Homage To Willie Mays & More on Dear Departed Baseball Scouts

October 1, 2017

Tags: Willie Mays, Vic Wertz, Dusty Rhodes and 1954 World Series, NYC Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Rico Pena, Rio III Gallery, Gene Michael, George Steinbrenner, Gene Bennett, Mel Didier, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, Dennis Eckersley

Friday September 29 was the 63rd anniversary of Willie Mays’ great catch off Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. Along with a timely Dusty Rhodes home run over the Polo Grounds short right field fence, Mays’ defensive gem sparked the New York Giants to a sweep over the favored Cleveland Indians.

To commemorate this anniversary, New York City's Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed Sept 29 Willie Mays Day. In a noontime ceremony, the sign Willie Mays Drive was unveiled at the northeast corner of 155th Street and the Harlem River Driveway.

Down below stood the Polo Grounds where I saw my first baseball game at the age of 6 in the summer of 1948. Now a school and housing project occupy the space.

One of the prime movers in this celebration was City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez who represents the 10th city council district that includes the Polo Grounds on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. Normally the City of New York does not permit streets to be named for living people but Rodriguez lobbied successfully to make an exception in the case of Mays.

Councilman Rodriguez is a native of the Dominican Republic who came to NYC as a eighteen-year old. He thrust himself into community affairs as a student at City College and has been a longtime advocate for making his constituents aware of the rich athletic history of his neighborhood.

Another honored invitee was fellow Dominican Rico Pena, the coach of the Luperon High School baseball team that in its brief history has already become a contender for the city championship. Pena brought several of his players to the ceremony.

Mays is now 86 — Willie Mays is 86 years old! - and makes his primary home just south of San Francisco (though he has long kept an apartment in the western Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale). He didn’t make the trip for this honor but his adopted son Michael Mays was on hand. So was Mario Alioto, the executive VP of Business Operations for the SF Giants.

“I don’t make history, I just catch fly balls,” Mays once said. He was being modest because he was the epitome of the five-tool player who could run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit with power. In one of his pithiest phrases, Branch Rickey once said of Mays, “The secret to his success is the frivolity in his bloodstream.”

At a reception after the ceremony at the Rio III gallery on the SE corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, a portrait was unveiled of Mays playing stickball
with neighborhood Harlem kids.

The lower floors of this handsome new building on 898 St. Nicholas Ave. house The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Arts and Storytelling. This new facility was designed by famed architect David Adjaye who created the acclaimed African-American cultural museum in DC and just was selected to build the new Studio Museum in Harlem.

The Sugar Hill Children's Museum should be a must-visit for parents who want to educate their children about the rich cultural history of their neighborhood and urban and rural life in general.

Before I conclude this first October blog, I want to say a few more words about the achievements of three great baseball people who passed on in recent weeks.

Gene Michael, 79, may have been the classic "good field, no hit" player. But he learned from his failures to become a top-notch player evaluator who somehow survived the George Steinbrenner firing machine to be a key part of the Yankees resurgence in the 1990s.

Gene Bennett, 91, spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Branch Rickey country of Scioto County in southern Ohio, Bennett was advised by Rickey to take a job as scout instead of minor league manager.

"You can get fired if one season you are given a bad team," Rickey sagely advised. A good scout, though, can perform a service to the team if he finds prospects year after year. "TALENT SETS THE STAGE, CHARACTER SETS THE CEILING," was one of Bennett's most memorable adages.

Last but not least, Mel Didier, 91, left a remarkable legacy in baseball. He was the only man to work on the ground floor of three expansion franchises - the Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Didier signed future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for Montreal. He tried valiantly to sign Kirk Gibson for Seattle but team owners weren't supportive and Gibson insisted on finishing his athletic career at Michigan State.

Ten years later when working for the LA Dodgers, Didier was instrumental in getting Gibson to sign with LA as a free agent. It was his scouting report on Dennis Eckersley's penchant for throwing sliders on 3-2 counts that Gibson remembered when he hit his walkoff homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series that propelled LA's sweep of the Oakland A's.

Didier wrote often on baseball and its techniques. His memoir with sportswriter T.R. Sullivan, PODNUH LET ME TELL YOU A STORY is one of the best of its kind.

That's all for now. Next time we'll have a better sense of how October baseball is shaping up. I still sentimentally like Cleveland to win the World Series, perhaps over Washington (but another injury to hurler Max Scherzer puts that outcome in doubt.)

In the meantime 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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“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