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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!

Musings On Tolstoy As The Woerioles Continue To Sink

June 28, 2018

Tags: Leo Tolstoy, injured Woerioles: Richard Bleier, Craig Gentry, Darren O'Day, Chris Davis, Zach Britton, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Buck Showalter, Dan Duquette, Peter Angelos

The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once observed that all happy families are happy in the same way and all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways. I've been thinking a lot about that observation as I watch from afar - on TV and internet - the continuing sinking of the once-proud Orioles franchise into the Woerioles.

There is little evidence that Tolstoy had any interest in baseball. In the heyday of the Soviet Union its leaders claimed that lepka was a game that preceded baseball but research has refuted it.

When I tried to explain in the 1980s the essence of baseball to a Soviet TASS news agency correspondent - "The ball is round, the bat is round, and you have to hit it square" - he chuckled a bit but muttered, "I don't get it."

So does Tolstoy's bon mot really apply to baseball? The season is soooo looooong that story lines do emerge like in a family saga. Yet I wonder if winning and losing are just the flip side of the same coin.

Winning teams exude confidence, shake off bad breaks, come from behind, get the big hit, and make the big pitch. Losing teams do precisely the opposite and usually are afflicted with injuries.

In the painful case of the Orioles, for example, no sooner had their bullpen, once considered a team strength, seemed whole again, steady lefty Richard Bleier came down with a season-ending lat injury and Darren O'Day went back on the DL.
A key reserve outfielder Craig Gentry, who would have been a fine role player on good Orioles teams, suffered a broken rib on a hit-by-pitch and he's out indefinitely.

I caught the last innings of the Baltimore-Seattle game on my 76th birthday after a wonderful dinner of food and drink and dessert. The Birds were trailing by only a run in the bottom of the 8th. One pitch could turn the game around, and voila! Chris Davis hit a three-run homer to give the Orioles a 7-5 lead. It was a rare moment of productivity for the seemingly permanently faded slugger.

In the top of 9th the once-impregnable closer Zach Britton, just back from a injury to his Achilles tendon, promptly blew the lead. Not even a scintilla of drama. First, a single to the amazingly productive outfielder Mitch Haniger - who came in a trade from the Diamondbacks - and then boom! two-run tying home run by Kyle Seager who is generally an Oriole killer.

You could almost feel the inevitable outcome ahead - a 8-7 Seattle win in 11 innings. The sad thing is the shell shock from so much losing - 23-56 as of this writing on June 28 - is etched on the faces of everyone clad in Oriole orange and black. Starting with manager Buck Showalter.

Ailing owner Peter Angelos doesn't like to fire people because he'll still have to pay them. I knew with so many key people heading to free agency at the end of this season - including manager Showalter and gm Dan Duquette - this could be a disappointing season. But no one expected the historic horribleness.

There is no easy solution to the mess. Maybe there is no solution. I have never been a supporter of cosmetic firings. So I will stop beating the dead horse.

And suggest (to myself as well as you, dear readers) that there are plenty of other teams to follow both in the majors and in the minor league and summer amateur ranks. Baseball is always rewarding if you don't get too too emotional.

Next time I'll say more about two very good reads - "Pitching With Dick Bosman" (Rowman and Littlefield) and Felipe Alou's memoir, "Alou: My Baseball Journey" (U. of Nebraska Press). For now always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Thoughts on Winter Meetings, Hall of Fame Selections, and Doug Jones' Greatest Save

December 14, 2017

Tags: Giancarlo Stanton, Derek Jeter, Bruce Sherman, Rob Manfred, Buck Showalter, Dan Duquette, Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adan Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Dan Lozano, Josh Donaldson, Albert Pujols, Arte Moreno, Andrelton Simmons, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Chase Headley, Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Rick Dempsey, Ken Holtzman, Doyle Alexander, Rick Dempsey, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken Jr., Earl Weaver, Bob Costas, Stan Musial, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero

Though more and more it seems to me that these meetings are like a Made for TV event without much action, the Yankees certainly stole the show with the one-sided trade for the Marlins’ slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

Derek Jeter has certainly gotten off to a rocky start as the face of the Marlins, a team saddled with debt and a new stadium that doesn't draw fans. Why should they come because they've seen stars from their past 1997 and 2003 World Series winners sold off and in Stanton's eight years as a Marlin the team never experienced a .500 season.

Jeter didn't even attend the Orlando meetings. He was spotted in a luxury box at Monday night's Dolphins-Patriots game. It is a shame that commissioner Rob Manfred worked overtime to arrange the sale of the Miami franchise to Jeter and the real money man Bruce Sherman, a hedge fund executive whose last enterprise was buying and then selling or disbanding newspapers.

As an Orioles fan realizing that the glow of the Showalter-Duquette revival years starting in 2012 ended with a thud in 2017, there is foreboding that the trades of third baseman Manny Machado and star closer Zach Britton might be inevitable. Both can walk at the end of 2018 and so can manager Showalter and gm Dan Duquette and team leader and genuine Baltimore community presence center fielder Adam Jones.

It is doubtful that Machado can be signed to a long-term contract that could reach the $300 million level. Even in his off-year of 2017, he hit .259 with 33 HRs and 95 RBI along with his usual string of defensive highlights at third base.

He is represented by Dan Lozano of the Beverly Hills Sports Council who represents Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson also eligible for free agency after 2018.
A few years ago Lozano got Angels owner Arte Moreno to give Albert Pujols that lavish 10-year contract.

Since California needs a third baseman it wouldn’t surprise me if the Angels get into the bidding for Machado or Donaldson. Machado supposedly would like to play shortstop, his original position, but the Angels are set at short with the gifted Curacao native Andrelton Simmons.

The White Sox’s incumbent shortstop Tim Anderson is not an All-Star and the Chicagoans are supposedly seriously interested in Machado. But they won't part with the blue chip pitching prospects Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech the Orioles covet.

With the trade of Chase Headley back to the Padres, the Yankees have a hole at third base. Yankee fans have dreamed of getting Machado (and the Nationals Bryce Harper also eligible for free agency after 2018). But would the Orioles trade within the division?

They did it in 1976 on the dawn of free agency after the historic Messersmith-McNally arbitration decision. (See the opening chapter in my first book, “The Imperfect Diamond.”) The Yankee farm system is deep but whether they would aid the Orioles as they did in 1976 trading future Oriole stalwarts pitchers Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez and catcher Rick Dempsey for pitchers Doyle Alexander and Ken Holtzman and catcher Elrod Hendricks seems doubtful to me.

Southpaw Zach Britton had a record-breaking almost perfect 2016 regular season but injuries marred his 2017 campaign. How long can he continue to throw his magnificent bowling ball-like 95 mph sinker? That is the big question for evaluators.

It might make sense for the O’s to keep Britton through at least the July 31 trading deadline. Machado may be beyond the Oriole budgetary capacity and could be gone before spring training.

My suggestion is that the O's should re-up Adam Jones as soon as possible. He is a genuine fan favorite and respected member of the Baltimore community. His center field defense may have slipped a little but offensively he has been quite consistent. He’ll strike out a lot but he’ll also produce consistent numbers in the 20-plus HR and 80-plus RBI category.

While they are at it, the O's should extend Jonathan Schoop who had a breakout year at second base. Another Curacao native, Schoop might take the home team discount because he has been with the organization since he was 16.

More baseball news of note recently has been the election by a Hall of Fame veterans committee of two Tigers stalwarts, shortstop Alan Trammell and bulldog starting pitcher Jack Morris. Trammell was the model of consistency in the field and at the plate.

One of the greatest tributes he ever received came from Oriole manager Earl Weaver. When Cal Ripken Jr. moved from third base to shortstop early in his career, Weaver’s simple advice to him was “watch Trammell.”

Jack Morris won 254 games in his career, mainly with the Tigers where he was a key part of their 1984 World Series winners that went wire-to-wire after a 35-5 start to the regular season. I will never forget the enormous bear hug exchanged between Morris and catcher Lance Parrish after Morris's no-hitter that same magical year of 1984.

Maybe Morris is most remembered for his 1-0 10-inning shutout for the Twins over the Braves and John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

The regular election to the Hall of Fame will be announced in late January with the Braves’ switch-hitting third baseman Chipper Jones considered a shoo-in during his first year of eligibility. Slugger Jim Thome with his-600 plus career HRs and no taint of steroid use has a chance on his first try, and Vladimir Guerrero who came close last year might get the call as well.

The Ford Frick media award will go to Bob Costas who has served baseball with dignity and class for over four decades. Originally from the New York City area, Costas received his degree from Syracuse University’s powerhouse communications department and then St. Louis became his adopted home.

I love the story that when Costas first went to Stan Musial’s restaurant he left a tip of $3.31 in honor of Musial’s career batting average. That Musial wound up his career with 3630 hits, 1815 at home and 1815 on the road, has always been to me the gold standard for that elusive thing called consistency.

One political note of promise occurred on Tuesday Dec 12 when Democrat Doug Jones won the Alabama US Senate race against the alleged child predator and unrepentant Neanderthal Roy Moore. I like to think that Jones’s narrow triumph will go down in the history of our currently beleaguered republic as a Save far more valuable than the estimable reliever Doug Jones’s 303 career saves in his major league career from 1986-2000.

While I wait for spring training, basketball does involve me somewhat. Columbia’s men’s basketball record is 1-9 but they are young and are playing reasonably close games. Ditto for Wisconsin’s 5-7 record and 1-1 in Big Ten. As Tug McGraw said, “Ya gotta believe,” right?

So always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Orioles and Mets Face An Early Winter After Losing Close Wild Card Games

October 10, 2016

Tags: Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Conor Gillapsie, Jeurys Familia, Buck Showalter, Zach Britton, Mychal Givens, Darren O'Day, Edwin Encarnacion, Ubaldo Jimenez, Peter Angelos, Dan Duquette, DJ LeMathieu, Walt Weiss, Ted Williams, Daniel Murphy, Jose Lobaton, Devon Travis, Rick Porcello, David Price, Corey Kluber, Billy Blitzer, Jamie Moyer, Shawon Dunston

If you are a pure baseball fan, the pitchers’ battles that punctuated each Wild Card game last week were your cup of tea. Nothing like an elimination game to focus the minds of players and fans alike.

If you are emotional fans of the Mets and the Orioles, the losses were harder to take.
They must now face winter in the early fall. Nobody can criticize the effort of either losing Wild Card team, but when bats grow silent and runs are not scored, there is no way to win, especially in the post-season when pitching and defense matter more than ever.

The Mets lost a classic pitcher's duel with Noah Syndergaard going seven shutout innings but playoff whiz Madison Bumgarner pitching a complete-game shutout. Journeyman third baseman Conor Gillapsie's 3-run 9th inning HR off Mets usually effective closer Jeurys Familia was the deciding blow.

Gillapsie's moment in the sun was touching for Giants fans because he came up in the San Francisco organization but made his major league debut with the White Sox where he performed for two years. He then bounced around for a while until he returned to the team that first signed him. You see in baseball, you can go home again.

The O's 11-inning 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays was one that will be harder to forget. Manager Buck Showalter is being crucified for not using his perfect closer Zach Britton - 47 for 47 in the regular season - in the game. Buck might have made matters easier for himself if he just said to the press, “I wasn’t gonna use him until we had a lead.”

That’s how it works in regular season but the playoffs are different. There’s no tomorrow, to coin a phrase. As it turned out, the excellent relievers in front of Britton did do a marvelous job - two of them, hard-throwing converted shortstop Mychal Givens and soft-tossing sidearmer Darren O’Day, each got one pitch double plays.

However, going to starter Ubaldo Jimenez with one out none on in bottom of 11th inning was the disastrous choice. Within five pitches, Jimenez gave up two singles and the game-winning three-run bomb to Edwin Encarnacion. It was the top of the order and the big boppers were coming up for Toronto. That was where Britton should have been used.

I know it is so easy to second-guess, and the bottom line is the Orioles didn’t get a hit after the sixth inning. We had seen the offense disappear so often in second half of season. The illusion that the playoffs would be different faded quickly.

I sure hope the O’s make a strong effort to re-sign Mark Trumbo who produced Baltimore’s only two-runs in the wild card game with a homer that unlike his usual mammoth shots just sneaked over the left field fence.

I wanted the O’s to offer Britton a two-year deal before the season and buy out one of his arbitration years. Alas, owner Peter Angelos and gm Dan Duquette don’t do business that way. So now Britton’s one-year salary will probably escalate into the 8 digit category.

By contrast, the Colorado Rockies saw the promise in second baseman D. J. LeMahieu and offered him a $6 million-plus two-year contract before the start of 2016. Mahieu wound up winning the National League batting title.

My praise for the budding star is tempered by the poor decision by Rockies management to bench Mathieu for four of the last five games of the regular season so he could win the title over the injured Nats second baseman Daniel Murphy.

It was not Mathieu’s choice to sit but evidently management dictated it with the support of field manager Walt Weiss. It did not help save Weiss’s job as the New York metropolitan area native from Suffern was not rehired after four years on the job.

I find the contrast quite striking between Mathieu’s sitting and Ted Williams’ insistence on going for a genuine .400 average on the last day of the 1941 season. Williams could have sit out and protected a .3996 average that would be increased to .400.

The proud Williams insisted on playing and went 6 for 8 in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s. He wound up with a .406 average, a revered number in baseball history that is not likely to be surpassed.

Without the Orioles, the post-season doesn’t provide me with a real outlet for my baseball passion. I do watch many of the games because as I’ve said many times on his blog, the only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.

Before the games of Monday October 10, Toronto, riding a high ever since avoiding Zach Britton in the wild card game, is already in the AL division series after sweeping the Rangers. In hindsight, Texas’s poor run differential of only 8 runs over their regular season opponents doomed them.

Cleveland surprised Boston by routing Boston aces Rick Porcello and David Price, but they still have to contend with the Bosox in Fenway. If it comes to a game five in Cleveland, the Tribe should feel confident that their defending Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber can come through again with the kind of dominant performance he delivered in game 2.

In the National League, the Cubs convincingly dispatched the Giants in the first two games. Facing elimination, the Giants will throw the amazing playoff whiz Madison Bumgarner on Monday October 10 in an attempt to stay alive.

The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the only series that looks like it could go the distance. A fan who loves baseball’s redemptive quality has to love Jose Lobaton’s game-changing 3-run HR on Sunday.

Only playing because his friend and Venezuelan countryman Wilson Ramos tore up his knee at the end of the regular season, Lobaton bounced into a bases loaded 1-2-3 DP in his prior AB. He was ready for a better showing next time around.

Redemption was the rule again when Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis started Toronto's winning rally against the Orioles. He had bounced into two double plays earlier in that game.

Because they are franchises that have long suffered, I’d like to see a Cubs-Indians World Series with the Cubs finally winning after an 108-year drought. Their loyal scout for 35-years Billy Blitzer - who brought Shawon Dunston and Jamie Moyer and others into their fold - deserves his ring. But I do want to see some memorable gut-wrenching baseball before winter comes prematurely to all of us ardent addicted fans.

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

O's Make It To The Wild Card Game As Regular Season Ends

October 2, 2016

Tags: Craig Kimbrel, Foley's nyc bar, Mike Matheny, Joe Girardi, Matt Wieters, Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ramon Martinez, Dan Duquette, Colin Kaepernick, Cardboard to Leather-Oriole Advocates project, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Chaz Roe, Jim Johnson, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner

Baseball’s exciting, wildly unpredictable season came down to Game 162 with a real possibility that there would be play-in games before the wild-card Winner Take All playoffs. It didn’t happen because the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles won their final series on the road at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, respectively.

After taking advantage of Macy's "greatest sale of the year," I strolled the big blocks from 7th Avenue and 34th Street to Foley's bar not far from the Empire State Building where I took in the proceedings I knew that on a football Sunday there would be many TVs tuned to baseball.

Amazingly, Foley's is a big St Louis Cardinals outpost and many Redbird-clad fans gathered hoping against hope that the Giants would lose and the Cards would get in.
After the umpires on Thursday night shockingly didn't enforce a rule that a ball was a ground-rule double allowing the Cards to beat the Reds, I was glad the Cards were locked out of the 2016 playoffs. Like the Yankees, they are in there too much (but at least their manager Mike Matheny doesn't wear a number like Joe Girardi's 28 to tell the world about the inevitable next world championship.)

I was pleased when there was a family of Oriole fans from Towson, Maryland, where I started my teaching career way back then. We made appropriate noise when the O's took and kept the lead.

So now the O’s and Blue Jays will meet on Tuesday Oct 4 at 8:08 on TBS in Toronto for the right to play the Texas Rangers in the best-of-five AL Division Series. Boston, the AL East winner whose closer Craig Kimbrel is in a slump at the worst time, lost home field advantage to the Cleveland Indians who will host them in the other ALDS.

The Detroit Tigers, given up for dead a couple of months ago, made a valiant run at crashing the playoff party. But playing the role of spoiler to the utmost, the Atlanta Braves beat the Bengals on Sat. and Sun. to eliminate Detroit. The Braves in September also swept the Mets at Citi Field but the New Yorkers rebounded to win the first wild card.

It was unfortunate for Detroit that they couldn’t use their designated hitter Victor Martinez in the National League park but they had their chances to win each game. Just couldn’t come up with the big hit, a lament that is often heard when teams just miss out on the post-season.

A fascinating sidelight in the Tiger losses is that two former Oriole castoff relievers got huge outs for the Braves. Coming in with bases loaded and nobody out in the 8th on Sat night, Chaz Roe kept Atlanta's 5-2 lead by striking out fearsome Miguel Cabrera and getting stellar J.D.Martinez to hit into a double play. Former Oriole closer Jim Johnson got saves in each game.

Meanwhile the much-maligned Oriole starting pitching came up big in the last weeks of the season. Who would have thought that Ubaldo Jimenez would emerge as a consistent contributor?

Ramon Martinez, Pedro’s older brother and a special adviser to Oriole gm Dan Duquette, has become a confidant with fellow Dominican Ubaldo. Ramon has evidently helped to eliminate some extraneous movement from Ubaldo’s complicated delivery.

Things are going well in Ubaldo’s outside life that certainly hasn't hurt his performance.
**He recently became father for the first time.
**In early September he flew to Miami in between starts to attend a swearing-in ceremony to become an American citizen.

At a time when the national media is making such a big deal about journeyman quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, most of the country doesn’t know about Ubaldo Jimenez’s unabashed affirmation of his adopted land.

He also has become the new spokesperson for the Cardboard to Leather philanthropic project of the Oriole Advocates, a longtime baseball-loving community service organization in Baltimore. Cardboard to Leather makes annual trips to Latin America bringing baseball equipment to the needy.

If the Orioles manage to beat Toronto in the wild card game, Jimenez will certainly get a start in the division series. The Orioles young veteran Chris Tillman is likely to get the wild card start with the finally healthy Dylan Bundy ready to aid in relief.

The Birds’ other young hard-throwing right-hander Kevin Gausman beat the Yankees in Game 162 to clinch the wild card bid. All of a sudden, with Bundy, Gausman, and Tillman, and one more year of revived Jimenez and maybe Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley, Oriole pitching doesn't look so foreboding.

One of the interesting sidebars in the upcoming Toronto-Baltimore wild card tussle is that two sluggers on each team might be playing their last game for their current franchises. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays and Mark Trumbo and Matt Wieters of the Orioles are all free agents at the end of the post-season.

All year on this blog I have refused to speculate on where these run-producers might go and I’m not gonna start now. Wieters, a switch-hitter and an excellent defensive catcher, probably has the most value. It certainly went up when he smashed for the first time in his career home runs from both sides of the plate in the O's Game 162 5-2 victory over the Yanks.

We’ll cross that bridge of free agency speculation after the World Series.
For now I’m just glad that we have at least this extra game to look forward to.

Ditto the National League Wild Card game that will pit the defending NL champion Mets against the Giants who swept the Dodgers in San Francisco to earn a chance to go for their third straight even-year World Series title. The Wednesday matchup between the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and the Giants’ World Series hero Madison Bumgarner should be a beauty.

But it’s baseball - it could be a rout or a slugfest. We don’t know and neither do the stat heads. That’s why they play the games.

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

Only One Week Left of Misery for 2015 Orioles

September 28, 2015

Tags: Baltimore Orioles disappointing 2015, Dan Duquette, Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller, Jake Arrieta, Steve Clevenger, Tyler Kepner, Eduardo Rodriguez, Zach Davies, Gerardo Parra, Manny Machado, Zach Britton, playoff predictions, Greg Holland, Jays v Cardinals

They have been the epitome of inconsistency. Most recently they swept the Nationals in Washington but then went on to Boston and not only were swept but were shut out three times – the first time they endured such embarrassment in 58 years.

I never thought they would really contend in 2015 because they did not replace Nick Markakis’s consistency and Nelson Cruz’s power and presence in the lineup. I didn’t think their starting pitching was as good as team management thought.

I was sadly proven right in both cases. I would have loved to be wrong.

The specter of more free agent defections looms after the regular season ends mercifully on Sunday Oct. 4. And the farm system, though not as bad as some of the pundits claim, doesn’t look like it will provide quality replacements for the most likely Orioles to leave, slugger Chris Davis and southpaw starter Wei-Yin Chen.

Trades are possible and so are some less expensive free agent signings. However, the glitter has faded from Orioles gm Dan Duquette, last year’s MLB Executive of the Year.

In the last two years Duquette has traded three starting pitchers who are helping other teams considerably. The Orioles’ return was negligible though I have hopes that backup catcher/solid hitter/Baltimore native Steve Clevenger might stick for all of 2016.

Jake Arrieta is the most notable loss, starring for the Cubs who have made the playoffs in the first year under the helm of former Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.
I am not going to cry too much about this trade because Arrieta simply could not
put it together in Baltimore after being Opening Day starter in two seasons.

He’s not yet 30 and pitchers can bloom late. According to the New York Times excellent national baseball reporter Tyler Kepner, Oriole coaches discouraged Arrieta from throwing across the body for fear of inconsistency and injury.

The Cubs have allowed Arrieta to be himself and he has rewarded them with an astonishing year. Not only baseball’s first 20-game winner of 2015 but becoming nearly unhittable and rarely scored upon.

As the future of Oriole starting pitching is murky at best, the Red Sox can look forward to years with southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez who Duquette traded late in 2014 to rent reliever Andrew Miller. Miller helped the Orioles to the playoffs but then signed as a free agent with the Yankees where he has been a shutdown closer.

Late this season, believing that Birds were only one bat from real contention, Duquette traded young righthander Zach Davies to the Brewers for the rental of Gerardo Parra. Parra has not been the answer at the plate while Davies has shown promise in Milwaukee with a victory over the Cubs already under his belt.

I realize that ardent fans can let emotions eclipse reason so maybe I’m going too far when I say that Davies has potential Greg Maddux-type abilities. But signed after high school he did improve every year working up the minor league ladder.

Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are signed on for at least the next three years in Baltimore. Though Duquette flirted with taking the presidency of the Toronto Blue Jays last off-season (a position recently filled by longtime Indians executive Mark Shapiro), I presume he will stay on the job.

I just hope that the future of my favorite team doesn’t seem as bleak as it does at the current time. One thing that I would highly recommend though is the rewarding with longer than one-year contracts Manny Machado and closer Zach Britton.
Along with a healthy second baseman Jonathan Schoop their performance has
made the Orioles usually worthy of watching this disappointing year.

AN ATTEMPT AT PUNDITRY: Looks like the playoffs will be very exciting again and maybe even a Wild Card play-in between Astros and Angels before they start. Defending American League champion Kansas City has lost a lot of games in September as well as its closer Greg Holland to likely Tommy John surgery.

It is true that the Royals have not had meaningful games to play for weeks. They must be thinking that they can turn it on when it matters. That remains to be seen.

Toronto has passed them for best record in the American League and thus home field throughout the playoffs. They could make the World Series for the first time since 1993.
David Price has become the ace they had lacked and despite the injury to another late-season pickup/shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, they are showing that they know how to win.

I don’t watch the National League as closely as the AL but the Cardinals are on pace to win 100 or more regular season games. Despite many major injuries they are like the Timex watch – “they just keep on ticking.”

So a week before the playoffs I am leaning towards a first-ever Toronto-St. Louis World Series. But I think the Pirates, Cubs, Mets, Dodgers in the NL and the Yankees,
Rangers, Astros or Angels or less likely Twins, will disagree firmly.

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

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!

Giving Pearce A Chance, Deep Depth, and Other Wonderful 2014 Oriole Storylines

September 17, 2014

Tags: David Simon, Steve Pearce, Chris Davis, Earl Weaver, Caleb Joseph, Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter

I first heard the phrase “Give Pearce A Chance” (a takeoff on a famous John Lennon song) in a July Sports Illustrated piece by David Simon, creator of the HBO series set in Baltimore, “The Wire”.

I use it all the time now – thank you David - because the saga of Steve Pearce, the 31-year-old journeyman who was even designated for assignment early this season (left off the active roster for a few days), is one of the best stories in the season.

Pearce hit a first inning three-run home run in the AL East division-clinching game that brought the Orioles their first title since 1997. For good measure Pearce hit another one the next night, bringing his seasonal total to 20, three more than he hit in his entire career. His batting average is on the cusp of .300 and his RBI total is nearly 50.

Pearce is now a fixture in the lineup, often protecting cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz as the #5 hitter. He also runs the bases hard, breaking up many a potential double play, and providing superior defense at first base.

What a godsend Pearce has been now that last year’s homer king Chris Davis has been suspended for 25 games for taking the stimulant Adderall without written permission. Davis had flunked one drug test already but for reasons known only to himself he continued to use the speed-like drug.

(Adderall is probably a performance-enabling drug not a performing-enhancing drug, but the collective bargaining agreement in baseball doesn’t make a major distinction – though the penalty for repeat violation is less drastic for Adderall than it is for steroids.)

Missing due to physical injury All-Star players third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters, the Orioles have stunned much of the baseball world by running away with the division flag in the usually hotly competitive AL East.

How have they done it? The answer can be found in one of late Hall of Fame Oriole manager Earl Weaver’s favorite phrases, DEEP DEPTH. When Wieters went down in May the Orioles brought up career minor leaguer Caleb Joseph who has been excellent. He receives well, throws out more than 40% of base stealers, and in one stretch hit home runs in five consecutive games.

Joseph is also known to be a good impressionist. He does one of manager Buck Showalter that breaks up the clubhouse. He also can mimic general manager Dan Duquette but he keeps that one to himself. “Buck can only send me to the minor leagues,” he has explained sagely. “Duquette can release me.”

Showalter and Duquette might be in line for Manager of the Year and Executive of the Year awards that are voted before the post-season begins. I don’t want to jinx the team’s chances of winning their first World Series since 1983, but the Buck and Dan show has been a pleasure to watch in 2014 as both seek to win their first World Series rings.

Showalter taught the Yankees of the early 1990s how to win but it was Joe Torre in 1996 who took them to the World Series victory stand. Buck was the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks expansion team but it was Bob Brenly who led them to the 2001 title. Showalter also was at the helm of the improving Texas Rangers last decade but it was the recently resigned Ron Washington who led them to the 2010-11 World Series.

When he took the Oriole helm late in the 2010 season, Showalter wryly noted that he looked forward to finally walking down the aisle with someone he raised.

He immediately embraced the Orioles’ proud past that made them the envy of baseball during their glory years from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.
Framed photos of the six Oriole Hall of Famers, in action photos with their teammates, now adorn the halls of the modern clubhouse at Camden Yards: pitcher Jim Palmer, manager Earl Weaver, the Robinsons – Frank and Brooks – and Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.

During the great 2012 season of rebirth (when they made the playoffs as a wild card but lost in the divisional round), the six Oriole Hall of Famers were honored by statues created by talented sculptor Toby Mendez. They now grace the area beyond the center field fence at Camden Yards.

GM Dan Duquette has a similar history of near-misses in his career. He built a contending team in Montreal under manager Felipe Alou but the 1994 strike wiped out the World Series that year (leaving Showalter's Yankees similarly frustrated). Later he ran the Red Sox, but he was his successor Theo Epstein who got to enjoy the end of the so-called Curse of the Bambino in 2004 with a repeat championship in 2007.

Away from major league baseball for nearly 10 years, Duquette never left the game. He created a summer college baseball league in his home area of western Massachusetts and remained interested in the international game.

Drawing on recommendations of veteran scouts Ray Poitevint and especially Fred Ferreira (who was with the Yankees when they developed the haul that produced Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Ramiro Mendoza in the early 90s), Duquette brought two key starting pitchers to Baltimore: Miguel Gonzalez from the Mexican League and Wei-Yin Chen from Taiwan via the Japanese pro leagues.

No one can predict how the playoffs will turn out. Some pundits think that the early clinching by the Orioles could make them rusty when playing for keeps begins again on Thursday October 2 against an opponent still to be determined.

Personally I don’t think that will happen. The team is too resilient and hungry. And there remains an outside chance that the Orioles could still nose out the California Angels for best record in the American League and home field advantage throughout all the playoffs.

For the moment as an Oriole fan for nearly a half-century it is time to celebrate and relax a little and be ready to turn on the faucet full-bore in early October.

And always remember to Take It Easy But Take It!

An Oriole Fan’s Early Lament by The Hot Stove League Fires

December 7, 2013

Tags: Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Scott Feldman, Nate McLouth, Nolan Reimold, Jim Johnson, Jemile Weeks, Manny Machado, Dan Duquette, Jamie Moyer, Harvey Doorman

Baseball has never seen a week like the first one in December. Especially when you consider that the annual “winter” meetings are not taking place, appropriately in Disney World in Orlando, until the second week in December. That was when the big action was supposed to occur. But with every team loaded with at least $25 million of new television cash, the owners couldn’t wait to dish it out.

Free agent signings galore – the biggest being Robinson Cano bolting from the Yankees to the Seattle Mariners for a 10-year contract worth reportedly $240 million. Never mind that the long-term contract never works out – see under Angels, Los Angeles of Anaheim, Pujols, Albert and Hamilton, Josh. Seattle has been a loser for so long that it just felt it had to reward the fan base with a big splash.

The Yankees have not been inactive. Shortly before Cano left, they signed free agent catcher Brian McCann away from the Braves on a five-year deal. For seven years Jacoby Ellsbury took his center field/base stealing talents from the Red Sox to the Yanks. And now word comes that Carlos Beltran, the former Met who starred in the last two post-seasons for the Cardinals, will fulfill a dream to play for the Yankees while Curtis Granderson moves crosstown from the Bronx to the Mets.

Meanwhile down in Baltimore, a disturbing quiet settles in. My Orioles are doing nothing except losing less prominent but useful free agents like pitcher Scott Feldman who went to the Astros (who after successive 100-loss seasons have nowhere to go but up). And outfielder Nate McLouth is going down the Beltway to the Washington Nationals.
The Birds instead offered a far cheaper contract to the always-injured left fielder Nolan Reimold.

Even worse, the Orioles traded its erratic but often effective closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A’s for yet another minor league second baseman Jemile Weeks. This move cut into the emotional core of Oriole fandom. A home-grown Oriole like Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, Johnson had lived through the worst of the Oriole bad years and his 51 saves in 54 chances in 2012 were a big part of their great comeback season.

He even moved his permanent home from upstate Endicott NY to Sarasota where the Orioles have at long last established a great spring training and all-season base. Johnson took the high road when learning the news. He expressed deserved great pride in being a part of the Orioles turnaround.

“Baseball is a business,” we hear that endlessly but the loss of Johnson for so little in return was a blow to me almost as severe as seeing Manny Machado on that gurney after injuring his knee in Tampa Bay late last season.

Machado is reportedly recovering well from his surgery and could be ready for Opening Day. But it will be a far different Oriole team from the 2013 squad that finished out of the playoffs yet still eight games over .500. I am nervous when general manager Dan Duquette says publicly that he is happy with his starting rotation that still lacks an ace and durable pitchers and now has a huge hole at the back end of the bullpen.

Branch Rickey liked to talk about addition by subtraction, i.e. getting rid of a player who
would not be missed and allowed opportunities for others to step up. Oriole manager Buck Showalter is talking that brave game publicly. But it is hard not to feel uneasy about what the future holds for a young fan base (and a youthful curmudgeon like yours truly) that brimmed with hope in the last two seasons after nearly three decades in the darkness.

In the meantime, here’s a plug for a very interesting read: Jamie Moyer and Larry Platt,
JUST TELL ME I CAN’T: HOW JAMIE MOYER DEFIED THE RADAR GUN AND DEFEATED TIME (Grand Central Publishing). The book is dedicated to the late Harvey Dorfman, the sport psychologist who rescued Moyer’s career (and many others like Roy Halladay).

Dorfman is a prominent figure in the book. His penetrating epigrams begin every chapter. "Hoping you will do something means you don't believe you can" and "When we fail to learn, we've learned to fail" are two examples of his tough-love method.

Moyer also provides revealing profiles of other unknown helpmates. He livens up the read with good anecdotes about pitching for the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners and his home town 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. He also adds in stories about his life as the son-in-law of basketball's Digger Phelps.

In short, JUST TELL ME I CAN'T is a detailed often inspirational saga that both baseball fans and general readers should enjoy. (more…)

Meaningful Games in September Have At Last Returned to Baltimore

September 5, 2012

Tags: Orioles pennant fever, Buck Showalter, Nick Markakis, Manny Machado, Miguel Gonzalez, Dan Duquette, Fred Ferreira

It has been 15 years since the Orioles could look forward to playoff baseball.
15 depressing miserable years during which the big bullies of the A. L. East the Yankees and the Red Sox used to come to Camden Yards and watch their fans turn Baltimore’s beautiful retro Oriole Park at Camden Yards into home games for the opposition. (more…)

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