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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 Eve of the All-Star Break: Celebrating College Baseball & John Brush Steps Rededication While Putting Oriole Woes On Back Burner

July 10, 2015

Tags: Paul Molitor, Tom Brunansky, Neil Allen, Lance Berkman, Rick Reichardt, Frank Viola, Al Holland, Wayne Graham, Howie Gershberg, Ron Darling, Roger Angell, POTUS 41: George H. W. Bush, John Brush, Staci Slaughter, Peter Magowan, Willie Mays, Lee Mazzilli, NYS Assemblyman Denny Farrell, NYC Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, The Alou brothers, Mitchell J. Silver

The MLB season is more than half over and the first half-plus is ending with a thud for my Baltimore Orioles. After finally spurting 7 games over .500, they have lost three series in a row including a sweep on the road by the very improved Minnesota Twins.

Though they have four deserved AllStars – Manny Machado playing with abandon after knee operations, Adam Jones recovering from a rare shoulder injury, shutdown closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O’Day – the rest of their lineup and the starting pitching has been inconsistent. They trail the Yankee$$$ by three games as of Friday morning July 10.

Deserved kudos to new Twins manager Paul Molitor, the St. Paul MN-native and Hall of Famer in his first year as skipper, whose Twins thoroughly spanked the Birds. Molitor so far is belying that myth that great players cannot make good managers.

He presents a fascinating calm presence in the dugout. No Joe Girardi-Captain Queeg-like-squeezing-baseballs-like-ball bearings for him. Or Buck Showalter-grimaces-a la Earl Weaver. It is hard to know what he is thinking (except I did catch him looking down when his starter Kyle Gibson was temporarily losing sight of the strike zone with a eight-run lead).

So far Molitor’s hirings look good. He has brought aboard former Twins slugger Tom Brunansky as hitting coach. He also hired as rookie pitching coach Neil Allen, the former Met and Yankee hurler who served many years at Triple A-Durham NC helping develop the Tampa Bay Rays’ arsenal of fine pitchers.

After four miserable years, the Twins have taken advantage of their high draft picks and they remain a solid player development organization. They are fielding virtually a home-grown team with such promising talent as center fielder Aaron Hicks and third baseman/dh Miguel Sano, the highly touted Dominican Republic native whose first games in the big leagues have been a rousing success.

The Twins are getting a solid year from two veterans and definite leaders: quiet Joe Mauer, no longer catching but playing first base, and ebullient right fielder Torii Hunter who is proving you can go home again.

There is no assurance, of course, that the young Twins can challenge the Royals or even hold off the Tigers in the AL Central – where the White Sox and Indians are also showing signs of life though under .500. However as July advances, the Twins are a top feel-good story of 2015.

ON THE COLLEGE BASEBALL/HISTORICAL BASEBALL TRAIL
On June 29 the annual “Night of Champions,” sponsored by the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, provided as always an invigorating evening.

Player inductees into the CBHofF this year were Lance Berkman (Rice), Al Holland (North Carolina A & T), Rick Reichardt (University of Wisconsin), and Frank Viola (St. Johns of Queens, NY). All attended and were genuinely moved by the honor.

Berkman, who retired after a stellar major league career (366 HRs, .290 career BA) mainly with the Astros, looked trim, like he could still put on a MLB uniform.

He said that Rice coach Wayne Graham, briefly a Mets third baseman and already inducted in the Lubbock shrine, was a demanding taskmaster who made you feel “a sense of desperation.”

(Little-known fact about Berkman’s trade to the Yankees late in his career: The Astros received two minor leaguers now shining for other teams: Jimmy Paredes as the Orioles’ surprising if streaky DH, and Mark Melancon the Pirates closer and 2015 All-Star.)

Reichardt, whose record-setting bonus from the California Angels of over $200,000 in 1964 precipitated the creation of the amateur free agent draft the following year, was also a very heralded football running back and pass receiver. (He played in the famous 1963 Rose Bowl in which Wisconsin’s fourth-quarter comeback fell just short in a 42-37 loss to USC.)

Reichardt said that he loved his time in baseball though a loss of a kidney during his rookie season and his activities in the Players Association curtailed his career. He wished that today’s players would remember how past players’ actions led to the big salaries of today. He also regretted that most of today’s players don’t work harder on developing their skills.

Frank Viola flew in from his current job as the Mets’ pitching coach at Triple-A Las Vegas. His 26-2 record in three seasons at St. John’s was a remarkable career accomplishment. He gave great credit to his late pitching coach Howie Gershberg.

For a single game exploit, everyone still talks about Viola’s extra-inning victory over Ron Darling and Yale in a 1981 NCAA regional. Roger Angell immortalized the game in his “Web of the Game” essay in The New Yorker magazine (reprinted in the anthology “Late Innings”).

Viola said that the two things he most remembered about the game were: 1. The entire Yale dugout stood to applaud Darling when he gave up his first hit, a bloop, in the 11th inning. 2. The next day Darling also the Yale right fielder made a 310-foot throw on one hop to home plate. (Darling now is a member of Mets TV broadcasting team.)

Al Holland spoke forcefully and delightfully. Undrafted and rarely scouted at the historically black North Carolina A & T in Greensboro, Holland was signed at a tryout camp in Charlotte NC in 1975 by Branch Barrett Rickey, Branch Rickey’s grandson who was then an assistant farm director for the Pirates. (Today BB Rickey is the president of the Pacific Coast League.)

Holland received no bonus, just a dinner and a copy of an early illustrated book on visualization techniques. Holland made a bet with Rickey that he would arrive in Pittsburgh within two years and wanted a steak dinner. Sure enough Holland made the Pirates in 1977 and got his dinner.

He made his first mark in the big leagues with the San Francisco Giants under manager Frank Robinson. After compiling a long string of hitless innings, Robinson offered Holland a day off. “Did I tell you I was tired?” Holland remembered telling the intense skipper. “When I’m tired, I’ll tell you.

Holland finished his 10-year career with a 34-30 record, an ERA of 2.98, and 82 saves including 54 for the Phillies who he starred for in their 1983 pennant-winning season.

More good news from Lubbock was the ceremonial ground-breaking for the George HW Bush College Baseball Hall of Fame museum building. Bush, POTUS 41, played first base for Yale in the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948.

One final historical moment: On the 102nd anniversary of their original dedication, the John Brush Steps were formally re-opened on Thursday July 9. Giants owner John Brush died in 1912 and the steps from Edgecombe Avenue on Sugar Hill down toward the entrance to the bathtub-shaped Polo Grounds were a memorial to him.

Many dignitaries and abiding baseball fans gathered for the ceremony.
A huge tip of the cap goes to Staci Slaughter, SF Giants Communications Exec V-P, who flew in from San Francisco for the occasion. Beginning with former owner Peter Magowan, a New York native who loved the NY Giants, the SF franchise has been very cognizant of its roots.

The SF Giants, the Mets and the Yankees, the football Giants and Jets, MLB as a corporate entity, and NYC government all contributed to make possible the re-dedicated Brush steps.

Lee Mazzilli, a Brooklyn boy who played for both the Mets and Yankees, spoke very movingly about the Polo Grounds and what it meant in American history not just baseball history. He said he grew up a SF Giant fan of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey,
Juan Marichal, and Dick Dietz.

Longtime New York State assemblyman Herman D. "Denny" Farrell Jr. grew up in Sugar Hill above the Polo Grounds. He told the story of how one day the St. Louis Cardinals got lost on the subway to the ballpark.

Carrying bats and wearing Cardinal jackets, they trudged up the hill towards the Polo Grounds. Soon word spread among Farrell and his friends. "Look, there's a real baseball team here!" they exulted. Farrell still vividly remembers the white hair of Cards third baseman Whitey Kurowski trudging up the hill towards the ballpark.

NYC parks commissioner Mitchell J. Silver and city councilman Ydanis Rodriguez are confident that the Harlem River Driveway (north of 155th Street that leads to Harlem River Drive) will soon be named after Willie Mays.

Also on the agenda is naming a street for the Alou brothers, Felipe, Mateo and Jesus, who were signed and starred for the San Francisco Giants. "Thank you, San Francisco, for giving three brothers a chance," Councilman Rodriguez noted gratefully.

That’s all this time. This is Teny Ymota (The Earl Of NY, Your Man On The Aisle), reminding you: Take it easy but take it!

Featured Work

History
Story of baseball's reserve system and the men who fought to change it
Biography/Sports
“Lowenfish’s take is detailed and nuanced.... he doesn’t look for simple answers; despite his own abiding admiration, he never sugarcoats or presents Rickey in anything other than a three-dimensional light.”
–David Ulin, Los Angeles Times