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When The Marathon Becomes A Sprint + Homage to Don Welke (1942-2018)

September 25, 2018

Tags: Last week of MLB season playoff analysis, Mike Shildt, the Cardinal Way, Bud Norris, Don Welke, Pat Gillick, Bob Engle, John Olerud, Pat Hentgen, Jim Abbott

As I have said many times, all any baseball fan should ever ask for is to play meaningful games in September. That hope was long dashed this season (and probably for many future seasons) in Oriole land and for too many other teams this year. (Sure hope we are not seeing the rise of a permanent baseball underclass.)

For those teams still in the hunt, there is nothing like the agony and ecstasy of baseball in late September. When the number of games is reduced to just a handful, the pressure and tension can be excruciating. In a rare unqualified statement about baseball, it says here that the teams that win have the players who can stay intense without being tense.

The five teams in the American League playoffs are already set. The Red Sox and Indians have clinched their divisions, the defending World Series champion Astros will likely clinch the AL West this week (if not at lowly Toronto, then definitely at very lowly Baltimore).

The only dramatic question in the AL is whether the Oakland A’s or the Yankees will host the wild card game on Wednesday October 3. Most likely it will be the Yanks because they have to lose three games out of their last six and the A’s must win all of their remaining five for the wild card game to be played in Oakland.

The National League is far more intriguing. Only the Atlanta Braves have clinched a division title so have no worries about an elimination game. The Cubs are stumbling a bit but still lead the Brewers by two games in lost column. The soaring Dodgers only lead the Rockies by one lost game.

The Cardinals, under once-interim now-permanent manager Mike Shildt, are the most threatened with the most difficult schedule. Last night (M Sep 24) they threw away a key rain-interrupted game to the Brewers. They lost 6-4 with the eventual winning run scoring on an ill-advised errant throw to first base by pitcher Bud Norris that allowed the tie-breaking run to score from third.

Kinda ironic that erratic former Oriole Norris is subject of St Louis boo-birds because supposedly he was nicknamed Bud as a three-year-old because he liked to sip Budweiser!

I love the story of Shildt, a baseball lifer from Charlotte, North Carolina who grew up in the 1970s when the Orioles had their Double-A team in Charlotte. He was a jack-of-all-trades - ballboy, gofer, clubhouse attendant, you name it.

He is the rare MLB manager that never played pro ball. But he has imbibed the Cardinal Way that started with Branch Rickey and continued by George Kissell, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and so many more.

The Redbirds will have to play better defense if they want to make the playoffs. And gulp! after two more with the Brewers at home, they end the season with three at Wrigley Field. Though not yet a lock, it seems the Cardinals and Rockies will fight for the second wild card with Colorado hosting the Phillies and Nationals at home.

I want to conclude this post with a fond remembrance of the late Don Welke. One of the great scouts of our era, Welke died in San Diego on Wed Sep 19 just a few days shy of his 76th birthday. He was still scouting for the Padres at the time of his death.

Starting out as an associate scout with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s (as the future Big Red Machine was being formulated), Welke enjoyed a career that spanned major contributions with the expansion Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays and later the Orioles, Texas Rangers, and lastly the Padres.

During Pat Gillick’s induction speech at the Hall of Fame earlier this decade, he singled out Welke (and Bob Engle) for special commendation. It was Welke’s scouting that brought first baseman John Olerud and pitcher Pat Hentgen to Toronto. He also tried valiantly to sign Jim Abbott but the remarkable one-armed pitcher opted for the U of Michigan instead.

Welke became a world traveler in his later years and did a lot of international scouting. He was part of the staff for the gold medal-winning American baseball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Welke’s roots were in the Midwest. His early career almost reads like a traveler’s guide to that region. He liked to call himself a Harvard man, that is, a graduate of Harvard HS in Illinois.

He attended and graduated from Carthage College in Wisconsin but never played pro baseball. Instead he started a career in coaching and education as a graduate assistant at Eastern Michigan U in Ypsilanti. From 1970-75 he was the coach at Concordia College in Ann Arbor.

I had the good fortune to meet Don on a few occasions. I have an especially warm memory of his appearance on a panel that I moderated on scouting for the annual NINE Baseball Magazine conference in Phoenix.

He wasn't an advocate of analytics and its new terminology - low-key wit and pithy perception were his trademarks. “I always look for the player who makes the game look easy,” he once said, knowing of course that the game is never easy.

In a 2015 interview for Fox TV Sports that I accessed this morning via Google, Welke compared scouting to playing in one key way: you have to possess “the ability to be better than the next guy . . . and . . . have the courage to be risky some times.”

Welke is survived by three sons. He will be sorely missed. At least in the age of the internet we have everlasting access to his wit and wisdom.

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

On The Sad Return of the Woerioles Plus Other Nicer Stories

May 3, 2018

Tags: Brad Brach, Bud Norris, Joe Posnanski, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, Houston's questionable bullpen, Atlanta Braves's rise, Nick Markakis, Ivy League race for second spot in playoffs, Randell Kanemaru, St. John's-Seton Hall Big East race, Rutgers in Big Ten, Todd Frazier

The old canard, “You can’t win a pennant in April but you sure can lose it,” seems truer than ever. The Orioles’s offensive futility is so bad that I turned off a game on Monday night April 30 when they were only trailing 2-0 in the 7th.

So I missed them tying in the 9th at Anaheim against the Angels. Only to lose it in bottom of the inning. Once-reliable reliever Brad Brach must be feeling the pressure of his impending free agency because he has not been effective this year.

(It reminds me of similar problems for Bud Norris in his last year as a Bird. Norris, who won the last post-season game the Birds played in 2014 against Detroit, has landed for the time being with Cardinals.)

Oriole starting pitching was considered a big issue in 2018 and it remains that way. Now the bullpen, the defense, and the anemic offense have all been revealed as defective.

But one thing I will NOT do is pile on against my bedraggled team like Joe Posnanski did this week on mlb.com rehashing the 21-game losing streak to start the 1988 Oriole season. Instead I always find something remarkable to write about baseball on its many levels.

Here's even a tip of cap to the Yankees that won a thrilling day game at Houston on May 3, earning a series win, 3 out of 4 against the defending world champions.

Down 5-3 going into the top of the 9th (after leading 3-0 going into the bottom of the 7th), they scored 3 runs on the dreaded leadoff walk, a few singles and sprightly base running by their impressive rookies Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres and pinch-hitter Aaron Hicks.

Team speed is so undervalued in baseball and it is nice to see games won with legs and not just massive home run-hitting forearms. Houston’s bullpen ineffectiveness might become an issue as the season wears on.

Maybe Seattle and the Angels with Mike Trout and the young Japanese import DH-pitcher Shohei Otani might challenge the Astros. Meanwhile, it looks like the nomination for AL Least might be the AL Central where the Indians have sputtered out of the gate though its less-heralded rivals have been even worse.

In the NL East, the youth movement in Atlanta seems about to pay off as the Braves came into CitiField this week and swept the Mets convincingly. They have moved into first place in the very early going.

Former Oriole Nick Markakis is providing veteran leadership and great all-around play. He didn't want leave to Baltimore but management didn't want to pay him for the fourth year of his contract.

On the college baseball front, Yale is a virtual lock to host the best-of-three Ivy League championship in New Haven on May 19, and 20 (if necessary). Dartmouth has a one-game lead in the lost column over Columbia that is really two games because the Big Green won 2 out of 3 against the Lions at Dartmouth earlier in the season.

Columbia needs to sweep Cornell at Ithaca on May 12-13 and hope that Dartmouth loses two games of their remaining six against Princeton at home and Harvard in Cambridge. There is also a 4-4 tie against Penn that the Big Green may need to resume if that game becomes crucial.

Columbia ended its home season with a series victory against Penn. The Lions’s senior leader second baseman Randell Kanemaru hopefully dodged a serious injury in the climactic rally to win the rubber game.

Last year’s league MVP got on base after being hit in the “lower stomach” with a pitch. He moved to third later in the inning and then tried to score on a wild pitch. After a violent collision with the Penn pitcher at home plate, he was called out.

There are no replay provisions in the Ivy League but it looked like a bad call. Worse, he was writhing in pain after landing on his left shoulder. His right throwing shoulder has been aching all year forcing his shift to second from third base.

Fortunately there was no major injury. He has a chance to end his career on the playing field, ideally for fans of Columbia, playing deep into the spring.

In the Big East, perennial powers St. John’s and Seton Hall square off on Fri May 11 at Seton Hall at 4p. Both will make the Big East tournament that will be in Ohio May 26-28.

In the Big Ten, Rutgers has a 6-9 league record but is 23-18 overall after spanking Columbia 15-4 in a mid-week game on May 1. Mets third baseman Todd Frazier's alma mater may have a chance to do some damage in the playoffs.

That’s all 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!

First Summer Edition of the YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Journal

June 24, 2014

Tags: Yankees-Orioles June 20-23 series, Ralph Kiner, Hiroki Kuroda, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Zach Britton, Bud Norris, Chris Tillman, T. J. McFarland, Tommy Hunter

I hadn’t decided to go to the opener of the June 20-22 Oriole-Yankee series at Yankee Stadium until Friday morning. Got myself through StubHub an upper deck seat on the aisle giving me plenty of room for my aching right knee to stretch out.

Didn’t realize that the seat would also provide me plenty of exercise because there was constant traffic of fans in my row coming back and forth back and forth from concession stands. Watching the game for them was obviously of secondary importance. They didn't even get involved in the wave that kept many of the crowd involved on this pleasant evening.

The late Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner had the best line about what the wave is good for:
"straightening your shorts."

Though Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda no-hit the O’s for five innings, I didn’t think that streak could last because his pitch count was elevated. And sure enough the Orioles rallied with two runs in the 6th. But they couldn’t add more runs - a persistent problem in 2014.

Once again Lowenfish’s Law – no four run lead is ever safe until the game is over – proved correct. Usuallly reliable O’s closer Zach Britton couldn’t get the third out in the bottom of the 9th though he had two strikes on Mark Teixeira with two out and a man on first.

Teixeira walked, was pinch-run for, the latest Big Buck Yankee free agent addition Brian McCann singled in a run, and on a 3-1 count another free agent Carlos Beltran blasted a long home run to left center to win the game.

The Orioles showed their resiliency by winning the next two games convincingly,
6-1 and 8-0. In the Sunday afternoon shutout they beat another big ticket Yankee signing Japanese phenom Masanori Tanaka. And to add to the O's recent surge the following night they limited White Sox star southpaw Chris Sale to six innings. And they came from behind to win on their own walkoff homer by Chris Davis.

Walkoff homers – a term likely coined by Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley – are quite rare. And the ones that turn defeat into victory in one swing of the bat are unforgettable.

I still remember nearly 40 years ago when Orioles second baseman Bobby Grich won a game in Baltimore by beating the Red Sox reliever Jim Willoughby. And while the memory won’t be as warm, I think I’ll always remember how Beltran spoiled my Friday night. But fortunately not the entire weekend.

Lots of baseball still to be played, of course. Question marks on the mound and in the lineup continue to perplex followers of the Orioles. Even though this seems like a year of parity or mediocrity, my LD (Lively Dinosaur) roots incline me not to get too enthusiastic until my team is at least 10 games above .500.

But I am certainly keeping the faith and if the starting pitcher-winners this weekend Bud Norris and Chris Tillman and bullpen arms T. J. McFarland and Tommy Hunter continue to pitch well, 2014 might be another fun summer in Baltimore.

I will be in attendance this weekend in Baltimore when on my 72nd birthday the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays tangle in a June 27th day-night doubleheader. Impressions of that experience and more next time we meet.

In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Featured Work

History
Story of baseball's reserve system and the men who fought to change it
Biography/Sports
“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