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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

October 4, 2018

Tags: Tony Wolters, Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, Anthony Rizzo, Theo Epstein, Aaron Judge, Billy Beane, Bob Melvin, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Joe Maddon, Paul Molitor, Buck Showalter, Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Bob Brenly, Justin Verlander, Kate Upton, Delmon Young, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jay Buhner, Ken Phelps, Zach Britton, Ubaldo Jimenez, Adam Jones, Dan Duquette, Bear Bryant

The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.

The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.

The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.

In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.

Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.

A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.

When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.

The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.

Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.

I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.

I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.

I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.

Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.

Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.

The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.

Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.

Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.

After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)

Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.

But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”

Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.

From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.

It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.

Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.

It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.

Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?

So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.

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

YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Journal - Late August Dog Days Edition

August 23, 2014

Tags: Mark Buehrle, Ken Griffey Sr., David Price, Alex Cobb, Brandon McCarthy David Adler, Billy Beane, Dave Dombrowski, Yoenis Cespedes, Austin Jackson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, Designated Hitter, Clock Between Pitches

It caught my eye while recently surfing the internet. Toronto left-hander Mark Buehrle was tipping his cap to White Sox fans in Chicago after being knocked out of the box in the bottom of the 6th inning.

Buehrle was signed and developed by the Chisox and was a key mound stalwart when they won the World Series in 2005. He left for the Florida Marlins as a free agent and then was traded to Toronto but obviously a lot of his heart was left in the Windy City.

It seemed that Buehrle was fighting back tears as he saluted the Chicago fans, who also cheered his first inning appearance on the mound. His emotion reminded me of something wise that Ken Griffey Sr. said as his son – the fabled Ken Griffey Jr. – was contemplating leaving Seattle for free agency. “The team that signs you cares the most about you,” Griffey Sr. noted sagely.

The younger Griffey ultimately opted to OK a trade to Cincinnati where he grew up. However, because of accumulated injuries and the ravages of age, he never had the impact that he had in Seattle.

David Price, the Rays’ southpaw ace traded to Detroit at the July 31st deadline, received a similar heartwarming welcome on August 21 when he pitched in Tampa for the first time as a member of the opposition. Whatta game Price pitched, too, a one-hitter but he lost it 1-0 on an unearned run in the first inning.

Tampa Bay was the scene for another poignant baseball moment a week ago when Alex Cobb of the Rays faced off against Brandon McCarthy of the Yankees. Both pitchers have bounced back, literally, from being hit on the head with line drives – Cobb last year in June and McCarthy in September 2012 while pitching for the Oakland A’s.

Never underestimate the courage of pro athletes in any sport to get out there on the firing line as soon as possible from an injury, however serious. It is what is meant by being a competitor and “getting it.” Kudos to David Adler, a writer for mlb.com in Tampa Bay, who made a point to note the back story of the Cobb-McCarthy matchup that Cobb won though McCarthy pitched very well. Cobb, whose front leg gyrations are even more pronounced than most Japanese pitchers, was the hurler who bested Price 1-0 in that classic recent game.

COULD THE DEADLINE DEALS BE BACKFIRING?
Too early to bash media darling general managers Billy Beane of the A’s (who traded center fielder Yoenis Cespedes for ace southpaw Jon Lester) and Dave Dombrowski who traded his center fielder Austin Jackson for Price. Both A’s and Tigers have struggled mightily since the deals but plenty of time to correct their ships. After all, it is still August with more than three dozen games (two NFL regular seasons) to play before the playoffs start.

There remains a wise old adage, "Sometimes the trades you don't make are the best ones."
And never forget that players are not robots and may not seamlessly fit into their new environment. Nor forget the side-effect of trades being telling your existing players that they may not be good enough to win it all.

EARLY THOUGHTS ON THE NEW COMMISSIONER
On the labor relations front in baseball, the election of Rob Manfred to replace Bud Selig as commissioner is good news for those who never want the continuity of the baseball season to be disrupted again.

There was a last-minute attempt, evidently masterminded by White Sox and Chicago Bulls basketball owner Jerry Reinsdorf, to prevent the seamless transfer of power from Bud Selig to Manfred. It got no traction and the vote to approve Manfred was made unanimous by the 30 baseball owners before their meeting broke up in Baltimore on Thursday August 14.

Manfred is an experienced lawyer who arrived in baseball in the early 1990s. He was witness to the nuclear summer of 1994 when the players went on strike and in early September the owners unilaterally cancelled the playoffs and the World Series.
Manfred soon rose to power as the chief management labor negotiator and has been instrumental in the two decades of labor peace that ensured and looks like will continue for the foreseeable future.

He has kept his personal preferences close to the vest. It will certainly be interesting to see where he comes down on such issues as the increasing length of games, the continuing failure to attract younger audiences to the game, and the four-decade-old-and-still-counting split on the designated hitter used in one major league and not the other.

Personally I have never liked the DH but with interleague games every day now it becomes an increasing disadvantage for American League pitchers to hit when they are not trained to do so. Also I have been convinced by the argument that since the DH is not utilized in World Series game in National League parks, it does put the American League at a distinct disadvantage.

As for increasing the pace of the game, I'm all for a clock to be utilized at all major league ballparks limiting a pitcher's dallying before throwing a ball. Such a clock exists in college conferences these days - 12 seconds in some cases - and it would be a good start.

That’s all for now – next edition of the YIBF Journal comments on my travels on the road to varying baseball spots from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Washington DC to Manchester, New Hampshire and the New York outer boroughs.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

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