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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!

Thoughts on "Mariners' Cano Apologizes For Failed Drug Test"

July 8, 2018

Tags: Robinson Cano, furosemide drug, Manny Ramirez, Levinson Brothers, Dee Gordon, Melky Cabrera, surge of Seattle Mariners, Mitchell Report, Sammy Sosa, Jason Buckland and Ben Reiter, Luke Heimlich, S. L. (Scott) Price, Manny Machado, Zach Britton

I confess. Many times I read headlines more than stories in both print and on line. The above "hed' was from an AP story, buried in the Sunday July 8 sports section of the World Cup-soccer-obsessed New York Times.

What a perfect example of the relativism of our age! Cano is sorry he failed the test. He claims he used it for a high blood pressure condition but the diuretic drug Furosemide is also known to be a good masking agent for PED use. Maybe he didn't want to use the female hormones that nabbed Manny Ramirez some years ago.

At least Cano spoke to the press when he visited the Seattle clubhouse this weekend. He didn't send his Brooklyn-born agents the Levinson brothers who also represented Cano's former Yankee teammate Melky Cabrera who was suspended a few seasons ago for PED use. (Cabrera is now in the minors, and the Levinsons' assistant who was fired for supplying clean urine for Melky is now reportedly suing the brothers).

Surprisingly, despite Cano's suspension for 80 games (that will end August 14 but keep him out of post-season games), the Mariners have surged into contention in the AL West, challenging the world champion Houston Astros.

If you like ironies, one of the big factors in Seattle's improved play is Cano's replacement at second, Dee Gordon (son of former star reliever Tom Gordon), who himself was suspended for 80 games last season for PED use.

I'm not generally a hanging judge on drug abusers in baseball. The Mitchell Report, released in December 2007, revealed that relief pitchers even more than hitters experimented with chemical enhancement. But collective bargained rules on testing must be upheld. It is a sadness for many Hispanic followers of baseball that a disproportionate number of drug violators have come from the Dominican Republic.

The failure of slugger Sammy Sosa to show any contrition for his enhanced home run total of over 600 homers has played a large role in his virtual banishment from the sport. There was a searching and poignant cover story by Jason Buckland and Ben Reiter about Sosa in the July 2-9 double issue of Sports Illustrated.

Before the College World Series, SI devoted a cover story by the excellent S. L. (Scott) Price to the travails of star Oregon State southpaw Luke Heimlich. While a teenager Heimlich had pleaded guilty to the sexual molesting of his 6-year-old niece.

The story of his plea had become public just before the CWS in 2017 and Heimlich voluntarily withdrew from the team before the Omaha event. He kept out of the public limelight but he privately denied that he violated his niece and only signed the confession to avoid a family-wrenching trial.

This season he was the star pitcher on the top-rated Beavers but he performed poorly on college baseball's largest stage. Oregon State still won the national crown. But for the second year in a row Heimlich went unselected in Major League Baseball's annual June draft.

There are rumors that the Kansas City Royals are in discussions with him but they remain unverified. I'm someone who believes that minors should not have the book thrown at them. In this specific case there is evidence that Heimlich took all steps to follow rehabilitation procedures and is not labeled a recidivist threat.

Saying this is not to make light of the victim's duress. It does remain a story that continues to draw my interest.

That's all for now as the Orioles's descent into the netherworld continues. By the next time I post, their main assets of Manny Machado and reliever Zach Britton may already have been traded. Whether the front office people who got the Birds into this mess have the ability to start the process to restore a respectable franchise remains a huge question. Since I have no answer and have my doubts, I will close: Let us pray.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

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!

Featured Work

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