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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!

On The Inevitable Manny Machado Trade (updated) + In Memory of Ken Ravizza

July 18, 2018

Tags: Manny Machado, Roch Kubatko, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Yusniel Diaz, rest of Orioles 2018 season, Sparky Anderson, Ken Ravizza, Howard Slusher, Joe Maddon, Gracie Gold

My take on the now-official trade of Manny Machado to the Dodgers is that I hope he realizes the microscope will now be grinding 24/7. (That's not the best metaphor I know but I never was very good in science classes despite attending Bronx HS of Science.)

Some of his last comments to MASNSports.com reporter Roch Kubatko indicated that the enormity of the change was only now beginning to dawn on him. Players are not robots or simply vessels of stats that can be transferred from one team to another as easily as the click on a computer.

Still, the Dodgers offense will likely get an uptick with him hitting in the middle of the lineup. I am sure Dodgers management will deal with the issue of what happens when incumbent shortstop Corey Seager returns from injury next spring. And what about Justin Turner the incumbent third baseman?

I rarely make predictions since I've always loved the baseball adage - "the farther away from the clubhouse the less you know what you are talking about." (A sanitized version of the adage!)

But I did say that the pre-season injury to Justin Turner would be a big blow to the Dodgers and they indeed got off to an awful start until he returned somewhat to form recently. Turner has been a versatile player in past so they'll find a spot for him.

Whether Machado is shortstop or third baseman of future for LA is an intriguing question. Manny will have many suitors as a free agent come November.

As for my Orioles, it remains to be seen if 21-year-old Cuban-born Double A outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the most heralded of the five minor leaguers received from LA, ultimately becomes a core piece of a rebuilt team. I am also curious to see if homegrown outfielders Cedric Mullins and currently injured Austin Hays can make the grade.

I expect another big trade chip to be sent away shortly when closer Zach Britton finds a new home. I think the Indians want him badly because of health issues and free agency looming for fellow left-handed reliever Andrew Miller. But I also think the Orioles would prefer sending Britton to National League.

I still watch the Orioles out of habit and a love that borders on - who am I kidding? -that actually overflows into addiction. They enter post-All-Star-Game play on a two-game winning streak after a 4-4 home stand that featured splitting four games with the hated Yankees (who trail Boston by 4 1/2 games but only 3 in the A-ILC (All-Important Lost Column).

The lineup without the powerful productive Machado batting third could be even more embarrassing than the one WITH Manny that is 41 games under .500. But call me a cockeyed optimist - I think they will be surpass the Mets 1962 debut of 40-120 and even the Tigers 1999 43-119.

The key always remains in baseball pitching. "Without pitching you got nothin'," Sparky Anderson wisely said. And if they are to become the real Orioles again and not the 2018 version I call sadly Woerioles, the starters must step up and not be Five Jokers and No Aces.

Before I close, I want to say goodbye to someone who left us recently, much too early of a heart attack at age 70. KEN RAVIZZA was a pioneering sports psychologist - born in Connecticut, graduate of the renowned physical education program at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He got his doctorate at USC, studying with among others Howard Slusher, a sports philosophy professor who later became a sports agent.

Ken rose to become both a widely published academic author and an applied sports psychologist in great demand by sports teams like Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs and individual competitors like figure skater Gracie Gold.

Some of Ken's aphorisms that are indelibly etched in my mind include:
"Attitude is a decision."
"Never let the pressure of a situation exceed the pleasure you get from it."
"Learning to be comfortable while being uncomfortable" is a big key to success.

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


Pre-Thanksgiving Reflections on An Unprecedented Year (Not Just In Sports)

November 22, 2016

Tags: Cubs and Cavaliers championships, Donald Trump, Roger Simon quoting Leonard Cohen, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Joe Maddon, 1976 Basic Agreement

I find it amazing that to the best of my knowledge no one has noticed that 2016 marks the first time in the long history of Major League Baseball and the shorter history of the National Basketball Association that each champion was crowned after coming back from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the final series.

Not only that but both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Cubs won their titles on the road - over the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Indians, respectively. It was a volatile year in sports, and the upset tide spilled over to politics with Donald Trump’s wholly unpredicted triumph over Hillary Clinton.

As usual the results in sports were clear-cut and indisputable unlike the very unsettling Trump electoral college victory that finds him the loser in the popular vote by at last count over one and a half million votes.

Hardly a mandate for alt-right foreign and domestic policies but that seems to be the direction the Trump administration will be going.

Roger Simon in the November 16 politico.com quoted a Leonard Cohen poem to provide the solace for those upset by the election result. Cohen, who died a day before 11/8/16, once wrote:

Ring the bells that can still ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

RETURNING TO BASEBALL . . .
For those who love the triumph of underdogs, the World Series was a no-lose affair except, of course, for fans of Cleveland who will now have to wait until next year for the chance to win their first World Series since 1948.

The Indians have a young core of players not too close to free agency like shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis plus their formidable mound staff. So they surely have a fighting chance to return to the Series as early as 2017.

Though the Cubs had not won a world series since 1908, they were prohibitive favorites from the first day of spring training. It is not easy to deal with that pressure but master psychologist-manager Joe Maddon had the team embrace the challenge from day one.

At the same time, he tried to downplay the expectations with another one of his famous T-shirts, “Try Not To Suck.” His first T-shirt may have been his best.

Before the 2008 season of the Tampa Bay Rays, he handed out “9=8” shirts. It meant nine players working as a team can make one of the eight playoff spots. Sure enough Tampa Bay, a chronic non-contender before Maddon's arrival, made the playoffs though lost a rain-plagued World Series in five games to the Phillies.

The 2016 Cubs won their division going away with 103 wins. But October and early November baseball is another animal.

The Cubs showed their mettle by coming from behind in their last two playoff series. Not only in the Fall Classic over the Indians, but in beating the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series after falling behind two games to one.

Now the silly season of free agency is upon us. Part of me wishes that the first years of free agency could be restored. When the first Basic Agreement without the perpetual reserve clause was signed before the 1976 season, there was a limit to how many free agents could be signed by any club.

It’s unrealistic to think that will happen as every year there seem to be more and more free agents on the market. Some are very good, some not so good at all. It depends on smart management to decide what will work for one’s team and what won’t.

I just hope that players make sane judgments themselves and don’t allow their agents to make the choices for them.

That’s all for now. More thoughts on the hot stove league next month.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Extolling Cubs' Feel-Good Triumph Despite Trump's Feel-Bad Triumph

November 13, 2016

Tags: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Theo Epstein, Kyle Hendricks, Ryan Dempster, Harry Caray, Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Scott Feldman, Steve Clevenger, David Ross, Joe Maddon, Andrew Miller, Rajai Davis, Clinton Inc., Ben Zobrist

The Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years of futility started the month of November like a feel-good story for the ages.

The young Cubs were essentially a very likable team. The youthful veterans at the corners, third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, were both productive and amazingly poised for relatively inexperienced players.

They were both home-grown and lived through the bad years to further appreciate the surge to the top. I will never forget Hall of Fame southpaw Tom Glavine making the same point to me years ago.

He said that the secret to the Atlanta Braves’ great playoff run of the 1990s and early 2000s was that they learned to lose together before they were able to win together. Glavine and fellow Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz and under-appreciated double play combination Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke all came through the Atlanta farm system.

Though the everyday core of the Cubs’ promising future also came from astute amateur scouting, the key pitchers on the new World Champions were either trade or free agent acquisitions. Jon Lester, a leading contender for the National League Cy Young award, and John Lackey were both free agent signings though Cubs president Theo Epstein knew them both from their work in Boston.

Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta were obtained in savvy trades. Hendricks, the Dartmouth economics grad inevitably nicknamed “The Professor,” was still a minor leaguer when obtained from the Rangers for fading pitcher Ryan Dempster. (Dempster has become a broadcaster who does a good imitation of the late legendary voice of the Cubs and previously the Cardinals, Harry Caray).

As we Oriole fans never forget, Arrieta came from the Birds along with valuable reliever Pedro Strop. The Orioles received journeyman pitcher Scott Feldman - who finished 2016 with the Blue Jays - and minor league catcher Steve Clevenger.
(The latter will probably be best remembered for his thinly veiled racist-misogynist tweet that caused his release late last season by the Seattle Mariners.)

No mention of the Cubs triumph would be complete without an homage to backup catcher David Ross. Nicknamed “Grandpa Rossy” by Anthony Rizzo, Ross announced his retirement before 2016 started.

As Jon Lester’s special catcher, Ross was summoned into World Series Game 7 in the bottom of the 5th along with the star southpaw. (Why manager Joe Maddon yanked effective starter Hendricks after a controversial walk is still a mystery. My guess is that once Lester warmed up and was ready to pitch, Maddon decided he had to use him.)

Ross’s throwing error on a tough roller and a wild pitch that he couldn’t corral turned a comfortable 5-1 lead into a 5-3 nail-biter.

YET BASEBALL IS ALWAYS ABOUT REDEMPTION!

Though Hollywood might have turned down the story of the last AB of Ross’s career, in the very next half-inning, the top of the 6th, Ross homered to dead center off Cleveland’s usually unhittable reliever Andrew Miller. The dinger provided a crucial insurance run. So when Rajai Davis homered in the bottom of the 8th it only tied the game.

And now for something completely different . . .

The 2016 World Series was both an artistic and financial triumph. 40 million people evidently watched Game 7 and the Sunday night Game 5 easily outdrew Sunday night football.

And then Election Day happened.

In hindsight, we should have known it would be close, especially in a year that
was volatile all over the world. None of the “experts” thought Great Britain would leave the European Union, but “Br-exit” forces won.

In baseball terms, I felt all along that the Clinton, Inc. organization reminded me of the worst aspect of Yankee entitlement. They virtually bragged about having the most money and supposedly the best “ground game” to get out the vote on Election Day.

Well, it turned out this election might be summed up as The Revolt of the Deplorables. Hillary’s unfortunate description of the worst Trump supporters was a tasty morsel served to the opposition.

A disappointed friend of mine offered this analogy: “Hillary was like the pitcher given a six-run lead who couldn't finish or win the game.” Given the rightward drift of the country and the uneasiness of so many people who feel left behind, that judgment might be a bit harsh.

Yet I certainly don’t look forward to what these next four years might bring politically. But as always baseball serves as a huge consolation for those who understand it. Swinging for the fences works now and then, but hitting up the middle and controlled slashing down the lines remains the best weapons for success. That's how Series MVP Zobrist got the big hits in both the NL Championship and World Series.

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

You Can’t Always Get What You Want But I Did Get My Dream Extra-Inning Game 7

November 3, 2016

Tags: Lowenfish's Law, Aroldis Chapman, Rajai Davis, Bernie Carbo, Carlton Fisk, Ben Zobrist, Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Terry "Tito" Francona, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Kyle Hendricks, David Ross, Dexter Fowler, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen

If you scroll through these blogs over the past few years, you’ll see that I fervently believe in Lowenfish’s Law: No lead of four runs or less is ever safe in a baseball game until the last man is out.

In my last blog, I wrote that the Indians just might win a seventh game in what shaped up as a very close World Series. Well, the Indians did have a chance to win that seventh game on the second night of November.

They rallied from 5-1 and 6-3 deficits to score three in the 8th against the Cubs’ star closer Aroldis Chapman. Journeyman Rajai Davis hit a two-run home run to tie the game.

I couldn’t help thinking of a similar great World Series game in 1975 when Bernie Carbo hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game against Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Would there be a Carlton Fisk to win the game in extra innings?

That classic contest was only a Game 6 and this one was for all the marbles, a Game 7.
Alas for Cleveland, there was no Carlton Fisk on their roster. Chapman recovered his poise to retire the Indians in order in the 9th, and the Cubs got the lead in the top of the 10th on a clutch RBI single by Ben Zobrist, the deserving MVP of the Series.

I really had no horse in this race. Both teams deserved to win but in organized sports there is only one winner. I was glad that the triumphant Cubs were gracious in victory. Both manager Joe Maddon and team architect Theo Epstein praised the Indians for their gallant effort.

Zobrist, who now has won back-to-back World Series (he played for the 2015 champion KC Royals), added to his laurels as one of the classiest as well as most versatile of MLB players. He praised his teammate Anthony Rizzo for being so good that he was walked intentionally to get to Zobrist in the chance of getting the inning-ending double play.

People who truly love sports know there are times when it is a shame that there has to be a loser. The 2016 World Series was a prime example.

The Indians showed amazing heart not just in the last game but in sweeping the Red Sox in the first round, knocking out the Blue Jays in five games in the ALCS, and taking the highly favored Cubs to the last out of game 7 in the Series.

That the Tribe accomplished all this missing two key starters in their rotation, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, was quite remarkable. I know this is small consolation for Cleveland which has now not won a World Series since 1948 and has only appeared in four since then.

I think the most astonishing part of this Series is that no starting pitcher threw a ball in the seventh inning and very few got far into the sixth. The Indians had the superior bullpen and excellent manager Terry "Tito" Francona was not afraid to use Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Bryan Shaw more than one inning.

Joe Maddon didn’t have as many relief reliables as Francona but he hoped to get as many as three innings out of the powerful arm of Aroldis Chapman. This strategy almost backfired in Game 7 when starter Kyle Hendricks was yanked with two out in the 5th inning with a four run lead.

A throwing error by catcher David Ross followed by a wild pitch that led to two immediate runs made it a 5-3 game. But Ross, ending his 15-year major league career in style, atoned for his miscue with a big solo home run in the next half inning.
ANSWERING RUNS IN BASEBALL IS ALWAYS HUGE, ESPECIALLY IN BIG GAMES LIKE THIS.

So now winter has come for everyone in baseball, but very soon news of free agent possibilities and signings will hit the sports pages. Teams have exclusive rights to their potential free agents until five days after the Series ends, which means Monday November 7.

Here are some questions for the Series teams and one other playoff team to answer:
**Will the Cubs re-sign Dexter Fowler their leadoff hitter and centerfielder?

**Will they re-sign Aroldis Chapman or will he possibly return to the Yankees ?

**How will the Indians fortify their lineup with more power and consistent hitting?

**Will the Dodgers, who actually led the Cubs two games to one in the NLCS, keep their free agents - solid third baseman/timely hitter Justin Turner and potent closer Kenley Jansen?

Those answers will be coming soon. In the meantime, let’s salute everyone on the Cubs and Indians who kept winter away for so long.

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

Cleveland On Verge of World Series While Cubs-Dodgers Are All Even

October 18, 2016

Tags: Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Terry Francona, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Dave Roberts, Joe Maddon, Adrian Gonzalez, Aroldis Chapman, Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Tyler Naquin

Baseball never fails to deliver the unexpected. The National League had a ho-hum season in which only a few teams - the Cubs, the Nats, and the Dodgers won more than 90 games.

The American League had far more competition and until the last week of the regular season it was possible that four teams (more…)

Roughned Odor's Baserunning and More Drama from Baseball's Division Series

October 11, 2015

Tags: Texas Rangers surge, Roughned Odor, Rangers bullpen, Rangers international roster, Delino DeShields, Troy Tulowitzki, Joe Maddon, Jake Arrieta, Chase Utley, Ruben Tejada, Wilmer Flores

As a chastened Orioles fan, I can take a little solace that the Texas Rangers’ surprise rise to the edge of the American League Championship Series may have started when they took three out of four in Baltimore just before the All-Star break.

It was before they made the trade deadline deals in late (more…)

YIBF JOURNAL, Camden Yards Edition

July 4, 2014

Tags: Camden Yards visits, Buck Showalter, Joe Maddon, sculptor Toby Mendez, Donald Schaefer, Lowenfish's Two Laws of Baseball Dynamics

I’ve written in this blog in prior years about growing up a baseball fan from the late 1940s onward and how the magical number of (2) appeared in the baseball listings for the big holidays of Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day to honor the dead of World War I), the Fourth of July, and Labor Day (which incidentally for those of you planning late summer activities is the earliest possible in 2014, Sept. 1.)

Since the 1970s modern baseball has given up the holiday doubleheader and virtually all scheduled two-for-the-price-of-one doubleheaders. And most players and managers are very glad for that because most twin bills are split and nobody working in baseball really likes spending all day at the ballpark to win and to lose.

Yet on my 72nd birthday on June 27 I couldn’t resist the day-night doubleheader between the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays at Camden Yards. O’s skipper Buck Showalter and Rays manager Joe Maddon dripped with sarcasm at the scheduling of these games to keep their players at the park from nearly dawn to midnight but it proved to be a personal delight for me – even if my Orioles only split and then lost the Sat and Sun games.

Baseball doesn’t require victory every day to enjoy it immensely. (You hear that, Yankee winnites?) And if you’ve never been to Camden Yards, the first and the best of the newer urban ballparks, put it on your bucket list. It was nice to see people gathering before the games at Toby Mendez's sculptures behind the center field fence. Erected during the 2012 revival season of the Birds, they honor the six Oriole Hall of Famers from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken Jr.

Once in the stands at Camden Yards the views of the field from almost section are good and sometimes spectacular. My perch for the Friday and Saturday games was from the first-base-right-field side. Reminded me of storied Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street where the amenities may have been minimal but so many seats were angled directly at the pitcher’s mound and infield. And the impressive 19th century warehouse that now houses Oriole offices hovers protectively over the field.

In Sunday’s game I sat in the upper deck third base side, affording me a stirring view of the Baltimore skyline with the restored Camden Station a major part of the thrill. Its two cupolas with clocks atop are quite arresting.

A strikingly thin skyscraper also caught my eye, a building that once housed Donald Schaefer’s office – the former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor who was a driving force in getting approval for Camden Yards after the football Colts fled to Indianapolis in the middle of the night early in 1984.

I do have some quibbles about the Camden Yards scoreboard operation. Rarely did the names of the players at bat and the defenders in the field display in unison. So if you wanted to know who was in the field when the opponent was at bat, you were disappointed.

Also in Sunday’s game, a couple of innings after Tampa Bay had broken it open with their biggest outburst of the year, a 7-run 6th, the Orioles substituted freely but the public address announcer did not say in what place in the order the new players were batting.

These are little things but baseball is made of a series of little things that lead to the big thing known as victory. Nonetheless it was a memorable visit to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and made the first days of my 73rd year on earth most pleasurable.

That’s all for now. The Orioles were rained out on Fourth of July and now face another day-night doubleheader in Boston on Saturday the 5th. They are actually percentage points ahead of Toronto in first place and for the first time in 2014 seven games over .500.

But remember Lowenfish’s Second Law of Baseball Dynamics is:
NO TEAM IS A TRUE CONTENDER UNTIL IT MOVES TO 10 GAMES OVER .500 AND STAYS THERE.

Lowenfish’s First Law of Baseball Dynamics, noted here in past seasons, remains:
NO FOUR-RUN LEAD IS SAFE UNTIL THE GAME IS OVER.

Always remember, most of all: Take it easy but take it!

Joe Maddon’s Hazelton Integration Project Banquet A Big Hit on the Hot Stove Circuit

December 24, 2013

Tags: Joe Maddon, Hazleton Integration Project (HIP), Larry Bowa, Mick Billmeyer, Luis Tiant, Kim Jones, Ed Randall, Ken Rosenthal, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, David Price, Andrew McCutchen, Clint Hurdle

The third annual Hazelton Integration Project shindig on Friday night Dec 20 drew over 600 people in support of the program inspired by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Blessed with a nice acronym and slogan, “Get HIP!”, the goal of the program is to provide literacy and other vital services for the more than 10,000 Hispanics that have recently settled in Hazleton, Maddon’s home town, a onetime thriving hard coal community in central Pennsylvania.

A few years ago widely publicized local hostility to the new immigrants disturbed Maddon who was certain that the negative attitude did not represent the real Hazelton. He vowed that once he established some national profile he would do something to welcome the newcomers as his Polish-Italian ancestors had been made to feel at home when they first settled in town.

An impressive turnout of baseball people and members of the media came out to support HIP. The dais included Maddon; newly-appointed Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, a shortstop hero on their first World Series winners of 1980; legendary Cuban-born pitcher Luis Tiant; new Tigers bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer who formerly held the same position with the Phillies; and broadcasters Kimberly Jones, Ed Randall and Ken Rosenthal. Baseball’s most talented and outrageous mascot the Philly Fanatic also made a cameo appearance drawing squeals of delight from the many youngsters in the audience.

Pennsylvania native-Penn State graduate Kim Jones summed up beautifully the essential idealism of the Hazelton Integration Project. “Some of our differences make for the strongest bonds,” said the former YES network clubhouse reporter for the Yankees who now works for the NFL TV network. Fox Sports and MLB analyst Ken Rosenthal added that “acceptance, tolerance, and unity” were the watchwords of HIP.

In a free-wheeling exchange of views with peppy veteran broadcaster Ed Randall, Maddon tipped his cap to the Red Sox who won it all in 2013 and dominated the Rays in head-to-head meetings. He said he was not surprised in the least when the last place Bostonians of 2012 surged to the top. A great believer in the makeup of players not just the statistics on their bubblegum cards, Maddon knew the Red Sox would be trouble once they signed free agents Jonny Gomes, a former Ray, and Mike Napoli, who Maddon knew from his years as a California Angel scout, instructor, and coach.

Maddon said it was “50-50” whether the Rays can hold on to star southpaw David Price who will soon be too expensive for the budget-challenged Rays. (Most observers think it is sadly close to a sure bet that Price will be traded maybe even before the start of spring training.) However, Maddon is convinced the Rays will always contend because of the organization’s outstanding player evaluation from the amateurs through the pros.

Maddon pulled a surprise when he answered a youngster’s question about his favorite player: “Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.” He explained that last season during a early spring training game between the Rays and the Pirates, McCutchen beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop even though it was two out in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Pirates were well behind. After the game, Maddon congratulated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for instilling that kind of hustle in the centerfielder who went on to become the 2013 National League MVP.

I certainly hope Maddon is right that the Rays will continue to contend because they go about things the right way. They have locked up their best player third baseman Evan Longoria into the next decade and have always managed to find the pieces to fit around him, beginning with the biggest part of all, the pitching staff.

Maddon is as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’ve ever met not just in baseball but also in any walk of life. Whether he is wearing a faux sharkskin sport jacket - as he did at the banquet –- or inviting penguins and snakes into a Rays clubhouse that needed some relaxing last season or building team unity by organizing wardrobe themes for his players on road trips, Maddon is always trying to get the most out of his men and the most out of his life. At a time when baseball talk is too often about millions of dollars and almost double-digit years in contracts, he is a most refreshing breath of fresh air and intelligence.

In honor of him, I will appropriate his closing salutation to end this Christmas Eve post:
Be well and be fun!

End-of-April Thoughts on AL East + Noteworthy Events in Early May

April 29, 2013

Tags: Struggling Toronto, Melky Cabrera, Gary Matthews Jr., Soaring Red Sox and Yankees, Mike Napoli, Hanging-On Orioles and Rays, Manny Machado, Nate McLouth, Joe Maddon, Cooperstown Scouts exhibit, Ivy League preview

Thoughts on Baseball’s Adventurous AL East April + Notes on Noteworthy May Events

April proved a deliciously unpredictable month for Major League Baseball. The old saying remains very valid: “You cannot win a pennant in April but you sure can lose one.” Branch Rickey used to say that a win in April means two less you have to win in August and September.

The trendy AL East pick Toronto Blue Jays have already dug themselves a big hole. After being swept in four straight at Yankee Stadium to close out April, they languish eight games under .500. They have a lot of work to do to catch up with the high-flying Boston Red Sox and the surprisingly strong Yankees who swept the Jays though wracked by injuries. Good pitching and new life for veterans TRAVIS HAFNER, LYLE OVERBAY and VERNON WELLS will do that. Not to mention the return of MARIANO RIVERA.

Those expensive Toronto acquisitions from the downsizing Miami Marlins don’t look so good now. An awkward slide into second base by shortstop JOSE REYES led to a severely sprained ankle that will sideline him until July. Southpaw MARK BUEHRLE is showing his age and oft-injured righthander JOSH JOHNSON has already missed a start. Knuckleballing Cy Young award-winner R.A.DICKEY has been OK but not great and now he is complaining of assorted injuries.

Expensive free-agent acquisition MELKY CABRERA has been mediocre at best.
It may be too early to bestow the dubious Gary Matthews Jr Impetuous Bad Contract (hereafter cited as the GMJIBC) Award upon Melky but he better turn up his production soon.

What is the GMJIBC? Late in 2007 before the ink was dry on the [former U.S. Senator George] Mitchell Report that explained in detail PED abuse in baseball, Matthews Jr. was signed to a 4-year $50 million contract by the California Angels. He produced very little with that largesse.

This past off-season, the moment Melky became a free agent after the end of his 50-game suspension for PED abuse, the Blue Jays rushed to bestow upon him a 2-year $16 million contract. Let the buyer beware and yet another sign that all it takes is one owner to go bonkers in the free agent auctions.

On the plus side of the AL East, early returns from Boston indicate that new manager JOHN FARRELL, Bosox pitching coach in their recent glory years, has evidently worked wonders in reviving southpaw JON LESTER and righty CLAY BUCHHOLZ. Another nice story in Boston is the power of first baseman MIKE NAPOLI who always hit well at Fenway as a visiting player and is keeping it up in the home whites.

As someone who wishes more players were on one-year contracts so their determination to produce every day could not be questioned, I am pleased with Napoli’s year so far. He was set to sign a multi-year free agent contract when physical examinations revealed a chronic hip condition. After much negotiation, he and his agents settled on a one-year deal and so far so good for both sides.

My Orioles remain right in the mix as the two players who made all the difference late last season, 20-year-old third baseman MANNY MACHADO and 32-year-old left fielder NATE MCLOUTH, are picking up right where they left off.

The poise of Machado has astonished everyone in baseball except probably himself. He has responded to manager Buck Showalter’s installation of him as the number 2 batter in the lineup with consistently good at-bats and he continues to sparkle in the field.
Often hitting leadoff, McLouth is reminding people of the player who made the 2008 All-Star Game as a Pittsburgh Pirate.

The Orioles’ starting pitching remains a cause for concern. They have no ace but JASON HAMMEL and the Taiwanese southpaw WEI-YIN CHEN are generally reliable. The unsung MIGUEL GONZALEZ has been inconsistent this year though CHRIS TILLMAN is showing signs that he might emerge as a reliable starter. But when he loses his release point, it is not a bad idea to reach for the channel clicker.

JAKE ARRIETA, the Hamlet on the rubber, has pitched himself back to Triple-A yet again. Maybe he needs a change of scenery into another organization. Onetime major league stars, aging FREDDY GARCIA and the younger JAIR JURRJENS, are waiting in the wings at Norfolk. Gritty STEVE JOHNSON, a righthander with average stuff who gets the most out of his ability, could be up before any of them. Once-heralded southpaw ZACH BRITTON gets a chance tonight in Seattle to show he belongs in the bigs.

In spite of all these question marks which are already putting a strain on the Orioles’ vaunted bullpen, the O’s are watchable again after years and years in the wilderness far from contention. God Bless Showalter and general manager DAN DUQUETTE who is proving that his success in Montreal and Boston were no flukes.

No assessment of the AL East would be complete without a shout-out to the Tampa Bay Rays. Though they are still a couple of games under .500, they are fun to watch. And manager JOE MADDON knows how to loosen them up when he senses they are trying too hard.

Before successive games at home after a tough early season road trip, Maddon brought into the clubhouse a cockatoo, a DJ spinning hip contemporary records, and two penguins. It is a long season and no one knows better than Maddon how to keep an intense team from being too tense.

Though the Rays traded mound stalwarts JAMES SHIELDS and WADE DAVIS to KC (the young heralded outfielder WIL MYERS they received in return is still polishing his skills at Triple A), any team that can throw out a rotation of reigning AL Cy Young award-winner DAVID PRICE, JEREMY HELLICKSON, ALEX COBB and the youngest sensation MATT MOORE should ultimately contend.

NOTEWORTHY UPCOMING EVENTS OF MAY:
**On FSa May 3-4, Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame opens its “Diamond Mines” exhibit devoted to the life and work of baseball’s most underappreciated people, the scouts.
Among the notables attending will be Hall of Famer PAT GILLICK, the general manager who brought World Series championships to Toronto and Philadelphia and contending teams to Baltimore and Seattle, and Buck O’Neil Award winner ROLAND HEMOND, who has championed scouts throughout a career that now stretches over six decades.
Watch this space for a report about this celebration later this month.

**On SaSu May 4-5, Dartmouth invades Columbia for a best two-out-of-three series to determine the Ivy League entry into the NCAA baseball tournament starting later in May.
Both the Big Green and the Lions feature dominant pitching and timely hitting. They are beginning to send into pro baseball some of their stars - for example, shortstop JOE SCLAFANI from Dartmouth and outfielder DARIO PIZZANO formerly with the Lions.

I’m keeping an eye on the development of Columbia’s dh/cleanup hitter JOEY FALCONE. Nearly 27, Falcone is the oldest player in Division I. After high school in Louisiana, Falcone joined the Navy as a corpsman. He served with the Marines in two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He is the son of former major league southpaw PETE FALCONE.
His stats in 2013 - .303 AB, .525 SA, 5 HR 24 RBIs in only 101 at-bats - only scratch the surface of what might be ahead for this left-handed hitting slugger.

**Here’s notice of another fascinating exploration into international baseball.
In November 2013, a group of six American coaches and scouts are heading to Kenya to provide free clinics in baseball and softball for the boys and girls of that area who are interested in the sports but have limited access and resources.

The team is headed by White Sox scout JOHN TUMMINIA who has previously led
groups to Monte Plata, Dominican Republic, and the Pine Ridge, South Dakota Native American reservation. Among those joining him in the Kenyan trip will be the former major league pitcher ROB BELL, now working in the front office of the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Penn League, and JEFF TAYLOR, special assistant to the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager.

The trips are guided by the Christian relief organizations, Bethlehem Tessema and the Bread and Water Foundation. Contributions are welcome to defray some of the travel expenses to Kenya. Please contact John Tumminia at jtumminia@chisox.com or call 845/742-8772

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

ON THE EVE OF PITCHERS AND CATCHERS 2012

February 16, 2012

Tags: Baseball Scouts, Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Off-Season Banquets

(portions of this post appeared originally at booktrib.com)
New York City and much of the Northeast has enjoyed an incredibly mild winter so far – but I remember when Andy Pettitte dodged snowflakes while pitching an early April Opening Day for the Yankees so I won’t get cocky or put my overcoat and (more…)

ON THE ASTOUNDING RED SOX COLLAPSE & OTHER SEPTEMBER STORIES

September 25, 2011

Tags: Terry Francona, Jerry Kindall, Dave Magadan, College Baseball Hall of Fame, Joe Maddon, Matt Moore, Vladimir Guerrero, Ken Singleton

[most of this post originally appeared on booktrib.com]
I hadn’t been to Fenway Park in over a decade and on Wednesday September 14th I made my first visit ever to the Fenway press box.

As usual I was wearing many hats when it comes to loving and writing about baseball. I am a board member of the College Baseball Foundation and I was covering for mlb.com the pre-game ceremony honoring Bosox manager TERRY FRANCONA’s recent induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. (more…)

CHEERS FROM SPRING TRAINING

March 12, 2010

Tags: April 15 as holiday, Exaggerated Baseball Prospectus predictions, Joe Maddon, Marty Appel, Larry Dierker

Greetings from Phoenix where the weather has turned balmy after some unusual coolness and even rain just before I arrived in town. Yesterday I saw Ichiro rope the second pitch of the Mariners-Giants exhibition game from Tim Lincecum into the right field corner for a double that during the regular season Seattle’s great (more…)

"TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK NOT WHAT YOU'VE HEARD"

June 10, 2009

Tags: Joe Maddon, Ken Revizza, Earl Weaver, Columbia Sport Management program, Norman Thomas High School, Mariel Checo

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is a man of many adages and aphorisms. “Attitude is a decision” caught my eye last year, coined by the sport psychologist Ken Revizza who is a consultant for the Rays. My grad students in the Columbia sport management program really latched onto it. (And as someone who (more…)

THOUGHTS ON AMATEUR DRAFT DAY

June 9, 2009

Tags: Ben McDonald, Mark Prior, Branch Rickey, Joe Maddon, Scott Boras

Tonight for the first time in history the first round of Major League Baseball’s Amateur Free Agent Draft will be televised on the sport’s new MLB cable TV network. The consensus is that San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg will be the number one pick by the Washington Nationals even though super-agent Scott Boras is throwing around a $50 million price tag that would shatter the $10.5 record set by another right-hander Mark Prior in 2001. Computer addicts will be able to view the rounds after the first one on the TV link to mlb.com . (more…)

BACK FROM COOPERSTOWN

June 8, 2009

Tags: Cooperstown Symposium, George Powles, Curt Flood, Ed Edmonds, Jeff Katz, Marjorie Maddox, Joe Maddon

Last week’s annual Baseball and American Culture symposium at the National Baseball Hall of Fame attracted the largest attendance of scholars, writers, and informed fans in its 21-year history. There were so many interesting presentations that concurrent sessions were the rule and it was impossible to hear many of the (more…)

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