October 4, 2018
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!
January 30, 2018
The last weekend of January has always marked for me the beginning of the baseball season. Because it usually means the annual Hot Stove League dinner of the New York-area baseball scouts.
I have been attending this friendly informative gathering for about 30 years. For the quality of the pithy speeches, this past Friday's gathering at Leonard's of Great Neck ranks as among the best ever.
The scouts have a sense of history, naming the awards after departed brethren.
Here are some of the highlights from the evening:
The Turk Karam Scout of the Year Dennis Sheehan, now with the Diamondbacks after a long career with the Braves and as a NY area coach, urged young scouts "to fight to the end for your kid." He also wryly predicted that his son Joseph Sheehan, now a VP for the Cleveland Browns, would win at least one game in the next NFL season.
Ralph DiLullo College Coach of the Year Dom Scala from Adelphi in Garden City LI said eloquently, "Only scouts can judge the pulse and heart of a player." The onetime 6th round choice of the Oakland A's, Scala was a Yankee bullpen coach for nine years earning a 1978 World Series ring. He then went into scouting and then college coaching.
"I'm proud to be a baseball lifer," he said. Like Sheehan he told the young scouts in attendance, "I hope you find your dream player."
When it was announced that the Marlins as well as the Mets and Yankees had bought tables for the dinner, Scala quipped, "Does Derek Jeter know [this]?" A reference, of course, to the onetime Yankee hero (and heartthrob) who has gotten off to a miserable start as the face of the Marlins' cost-cutting fire sale of star players.
The Herb Stein Future Star award winner Zack Granite was a pleasant surprise. Often young players don't come to the dinner, but the Staten Island Tottenville HS and Seton Hall college star Granite talked movingly about the thrill of his callup in midseason to the Twins - a team, incidentally, that Herb Stein served ably for decades, signing Hall of Famer Rod Carew, Frank Viola, Gene Larkin, and many others).
The biggest plus so far of being a major leaguer, outfielder Granite said, was wearing the single-flap helmet instead of the hockey-like double flap required in the minors.
He created laughter when he told the story of his uncle Tom who braved the wrath of the Yankee Stadium bleacher creatures by wearing a full Twins uniform during their wild card game loss last October.
Last but not least in the evening was Billy Altman's eloquent acceptance of the Jim Quigley Service to Baseball award (that I was thrilled to receive in 2010). Altman memorably covered the Mets for the "Village Voice" and now is one of the
official scorers for the Yankees and Mets. (This Renaissance man is also a pioneering rock 'n' critic who is serving in key capacities for the new St. Louis blues museum and the forthcoming African-American music museum in Nashville).
Altman remembered his first experience at a World Series in 1981 when he stood behind home plate alongside Howard Cosell and Jim Palmer and watched Sandy Koufax in full uniform pitch batting practice for the Dodgers.
Altman suggested that the beauty and democracy of baseball was exemplified last year when during the World Series 6' 7" Aaron Judge stood as a baserunner at second base next to Astros second sacker 5' 6" Jose Altuve.
I didn't go to the baseball writers dinner the following Sunday, but I read that the genuinely humble Judge paid a touching tribute to his parents seated in the audience: “I could never repay you guys for all the baseball tournaments you’ve driven to, the times I forgot my cleats at home and you had to go back and get them.”
I did attend another late January event that is becoming a fixture on the New York baseball, the annual meeting of the Casey Stengel chapter of SABR. Among the highlights were a friendly and refreshing hour with Tyler Kepner, the excellent national baseball reporter for the New York Times.
Tyler passed around the self-published baseball magazine that he created as a teenager in Philadelphia that led him to become one of the youngest credentialed sportswriters in the country. He has never lost his love for the game and the talented players - it surely shows in his writing.
Before I close, let me say that I have no real objections to the six new Hall of Famers players that will be inducted into Cooperstown in the last week of July. It is the largest number since the initial class voted in during the late 1930s. I don't want multiple inductions every year because the Hall of Fame should be for the truly great not just the very good.
But Atlanta’s Chipper Jones was clearly a no-brainer - a switch-hitter with power and a fine third base glove. He even showed some humor by naming a child Shea in honor of the Mets fans who booed him lustily out of grudging respect.
Second in the voting was Vladimir Guerrero who never played in a World Series but his lethal bat and astounding right field arm deserve immortality.
Closer Trevor Hoffman lost the one World Series he played in for the Padres, and on other big stages he always seemed to come up short. But his accumulation of regular season saves and the nice backstory of his conversion from weak-hitting infielder to the mound contributed to his selection.
Slugger Jim Thome’s career number of 612 HRs made him almost a lock for the Hall of Fame. He also was never tainted with suspicion of PED use, maybe because he was such a giant of a man from early on.
His back story is rather neat too. A 13th round pick of the Indians, he was signed as a shortstop out of Illinois Central college near his home town of Peoria. Scout Tom Couston had followed the power bat of Thome since high school and knew he couldn't let him get away. Charlie Manuel as Thome's hitting coach and later manager helped develop Thome's skills, and Jim gave him due credit when he learned of his selection.
Joining these four in Cooperstown in late July will be two Detroit Tiger stalwarts picked by a Veteran's Committee, pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell. They were teammates on the 1984 World Series champs that went wire-to-wire in the regular season and lost only one post-season game. They were also models of consistency throughout their careers.
That’s all for now. Always: remember - Take it easy but take it!
January 14, 2018
Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training by Valentine's Day. Still one of the greatest phrases in the English language! Banquet season begins in earnest in January.
One of the great hot stove league dinners is the Portsmouth, Ohio banquet to support the remarkable Portsmouth Flood Wall Murals on the Ohio River in Scioto County southern Ohio (a stone's throw from Kentucky). Here is the link for a piece I wrote for the The National Pastime Museum website. You can access it at https://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/portsmouth-murals-banquet-supports-great-cause-baseball-rich-area
UPDATE: Reports I received from Portsmouth indicate it was a very moving banquet evening with tributes galore to the late Gene Bennett. It may be the first dinner where an umpire relieved a starting pitcher. Main speaker Tom Browning, the former Reds southpaw and perfect game hurler, couldn't make the date and active umpire Greg Gibson filled in for him very capably.
The spirit of Gene Bennett imbued the evening from all I heard. Gene's adage:
"Talent sets the stage, character sets the ceiling," should be repeated again and again.
Another late Cincinnati scout Julian Mock had a wonderful series of Five Questions he asked every possible prospect. It goes one better than the Four Questions of the Passover Seder that we Jews were raised with. Here they are:
**1. Do you really love the game of baseball?
**2. Are you willing to work harder than you ever worked in your life?
**3. Are you willing to learn new things about your craft?
**4. Are you willing to laugh every day?
**5. Will you never forget where you came from?
The last question may be the hardest to project an answer in this age of mega-million dollar salaries. The latest stunner being Josh Donaldson's $23 million single-season contract to avoid arbitration with the Blue Jays.
He still might be traded as may be fellow third baseman Manny Machado of Orioles who received over $16 million to avoid arbitration. Both are represented by the same agent Dan Lozano of the Beverly Hills Sports Council that got Albert Pujols his humongous and now onerous 10-year contract with the Angels.
Maybe owners are wising up that you don't give long-term contracts to players who inevitably age often not gracefully. Especially pitchers. We'll see if there is always "a greater fool" owner out there wanting that moose to put on the wall.
Donaldson and especially Machado are young enough to get long-term contracts when they are free agents after this season. All the millions being thrown around these days and the constant coverage of it sometimes makes me wonder why I still care.
Not for long though - it is too great a game and still better than any other sport IMO.
"The ball is round, the bat is round, and you have to hit square" still holds true.
Back later in the month with more news on signings and the upcoming Hall of Fame vote to be announced on January 24. In the meantime: Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
December 14, 2017
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!