December 3, 2018
I love the refreshing piney smell of Christmas trees that are now piling up on the sidewalks of Broadway in my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood. For a few moments, it makes me love the changing of seasons and forget that spring training is still several weeks away.
An even better antidote for the No-Baseball Blues is to attend a gathering of players, coaches, scouts, and fans as I did last week. For the first time I attended the Annual Raymond E. Church Service to Youth Baseball Awards Dinner at Russo’s On The Bay restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens not far from JFK Airport.
The function was sponsored by the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Association (GNYSAA). My appetite for this event was whetted when I learned that the GNYSAA grew out of the New York Journal American/Hearst newspapers high school all-star game that was an annual event in NYC from 1946 through 1965.
88 future major leaguers played in a game that was held most of the time at the Polo Grounds. Among the future MLB stars that played in this game were Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Bill Skowron, and Joe Torre. Kuenn played in it during its first years from 1946-1950 when it was billed as a New York versus The World competition. (Thanks to fellow SABR member Alan Cohen for this info.)
More storied names from the past were brought up by Frank Del George, one of the evening’s coaching excellence award winners. A product of the Brooklyn housing projects, Del George is currently head coach of St. Francis Prep and once was a star shortstop for St. Francis College of Brooklyn.
Del George remembered warmly that he had played for Frank Tepedino Sr. - father of future Yankee outfielder-first baseman Frank Tepedino - for the American Legion Cummings Brothers team. His double play partner? Future Yankee second baseman and Met manager Willie Randolph.
Guest speaker Nelson Figueroa, former Mets pitcher and current Mets cable TV commentator, also spoke very movingly about his roots of his career. He pointed out in the audience Anthony Iapoce, newly appointed Cubs batting coach, and noted that he and Iapoce had played for a USA Baseball 12-and-under team in Japan 32 years ago.
Nelson was under five feet and less than 100 pounds. But he made the team, one of 16 chosen out of 600 competing. He paid tribute to his Abraham Lincoln HS coach Joe Malone who believed in him despite his small stature. He thanked Malone for having him throw only fastballs and change-ups at that tender age.
Figueroa also saluted the longtime Youth Service coach Mel Zitter, mentor of Manny Ramirez and Shawon Dunston among others. Before “tough love” was a cliche, Zitter epitomized the no-nonsense coach who drove his charges very hard in early a.m. practices. He also made sure, Figueroa noted, that the Parade Grounds field was properly maintained so no one got hurt.
Zitter was in the audience, having made the long drive from his home in North Carolina to show his devotion to NYC grass roots baseball. Figueroa thanked Zitter for taking him to a youth tournament in Waltham, Mass where he made contacts with Brandeis University coaches.
He listed himself as 6 3 and over 150 pounds. but he was barely 6 feet and much lighter. Figueroa quipped that people often asked, “Where’s the rest of you?” Yet he went on to an outstanding college career, capped in 2015 by his election to the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame, a honor worthy of the school’s only major leaguer.
An elegiac moment near the end of the evening was provided by Brother Robert Kent who was honored for his 50 years of service at St. Francis Prep as baseball coach, athletic director, and history teacher. Bemoaning that on the site where Ebbets Field once stood there is now a sign, “No Ball Playing Allowed,” he urged that we work towards a time when “more Willies, Mickeys, and Dukes” are developed in our area.
Next up on the NYC baseball banquet circuit is the grand-daddy of them all, the 54th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s at Great Neck on Northern Boulevard.
It will be held Friday January 25 starting at 630p. No tickets will be sold at the door but information can be obtained by contacting longtime Chicago Cubs scout Billy Blitzer at BBSCOUT1@aol.com
I’m off to baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas from Dec. 9-13. I will be back here with tales from those days of wheeling and dealing. Am not exactly thrilled that Jeff McNeil, the surprise of late last season for the Mets, will now be reduced to utility status with the acquisition of aging Robinson Cano from Seattle.
Another new acquisition 24-year-old Edwin Diaz, who led all of baseball with 57 saves, should help. But one never knows what happens to players in a new environment, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like New York. (See under Gray, Sonny.)
It will really be hand-wringing time if the Mets trade Noah Syndergaard. Woe to any baseball organization that feels because the MLB TV network will be providing 24/7 coverage of the meetings you must do "something." But good advice is always not to get too distraught about things that haven’t happened yet and that we have no control over.
So the best advice always remains: Take it easy but take it!
February 2, 2015
The winter in New York is taking on fearsome qualities with no end in sight. Ice on the ground may be here indefinitely, bringing back mercifully forgotten memories of my five winters in Madison, Wisconsin during my graduate school days in the 1960s.
Hot stove league baseball banquets thus provide great solace because I have long believed that winter with its saving grace of increasing daylight reinforces the love of baseball in us defiant addicted baseball nuts.
So here are some highlights of the 92th annual NYC Baseball Writers Association of America dinner and the 50th annual New York Pro Baseball Scouts Hot Stove League dinner that took place within six days of each other in the last week of January.
A highlight of the writers’ gathering was Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw who flew in to New York from Texas where the day before his wife delivered their first child. The reigning NL MVP and Cy Young award winner gave homage to virtually all his teammates including ones traded this off-season. He also thanked the clubhouse personnel and trainers by name and ended with a tip of his cap to the St. Louis Cardinals “who taught me that I am not as good as I think I am.”
A lovely conclusion to the evening was the 50th anniversary celebration of Sandy Koufax’s last perfect game in which he bested the Cubs’ southpaw Bob Hendley 1-0. Kudos to the writers for inviting Hendley too - he allowed only one hit that night and on the dais he noted that a week later he beat Koufax in Chicago, 2-1, throwing a four-hitter to Koufax’ five-hitter. (In a fascinating side note, Hendley, who labored for non-contending teams, went 3-1 in matchups against Hall of Famer Koufax.)
For a man who doesn't like to speak in public, Sandy Koufax exudes charm and class on the podium. In introducing new father Kershaw, he announced the most important statistic: "Six pounds and ten ounces."
At the scouts dinner the following Friday at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck, Long Island. event organizer Cubs scout Billy Blitzer proudly listed 11 players from the NYC metropolitan area who made their MLB debut in 2014. They included:
**Joe Panik, a World Series hero for the Giants, signed by John DiCarlo (son of the late Joe DiCarlo who signed among others Al Leiter for the Yankees)
**George Springer, a coming star outfielder with the Astros signed by John Kosciak
**Eric Campbell, Mets’ utility player signed by Art Pontarelli, and
**Nick Greenwood, Cardinals’ LHP signed for the Padres by Jim Bretz
Blitzer also paid homage to Long Island’s Jeff Biggio who starred at Seton Hall and was just elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Pride in New York-area baseball has always been a theme at the Pro Scouts dinner.
For good reason. Tilden HS of Brooklyn grad Willie Randolph received a rousing ovation. Emcee Ed Randall voiced his disbelief that Randolph has not returned to the managerial ranks after leading the Mets to the brink of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. (Of course Willie was also a key part of the 1976-78 Yankee pennant-winners and 2-time WS champs.)
Willie gave homage to scout Dutch Deutsch who signed him for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(Before the 1976 season the Yankees made one of their best trades ever by obtaining Randolph - still a minor league second baseman - and pitchers Ken Brett and Dock Ellis
for pitcher George "Doc" Medich.)
Former Mets gm Omar Minaya, a product of Queens Newtown HS, thanked the late Ralph DiLullo for giving him the chance to play pro ball. Recently hired as a Latin American liaison for the MLB Players Association, Minaya implored scouts to always give an opportunity to players.
“I couldn’t hit and he couldn’t hit,” Minaya said pointing to Seattle Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara who was named scout of the year, “but we had a chance.”
Tom McNamara was born in the Bronx and a large contingent of his family came out to support their favorite son. In well-chosen remarks McNamara gave tribute to the late scout Bill Lajoie who advised him early on "to watch, listen, and learn."
While working for the Milwaukee Brewers, McNamara signed slugger Prince Fielder,
son of the late-blooming home run hitter Cecil Fielder. When McNamara told Cecil that he had played one year of pro ball, the elder Fielder replied, "At least you smelled the dirt."
As I listened to the heartfelt comments this evening that concluded with a final elegy to New York baseball by St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer, I recalled the wisdom of one of the first scouts I got to know, the late Twins scout Herb Stein. “The moment you sign a letter he is automatically a better player because the monkey is off his back,” said the man who who inked Rod Carew, Frank Viola, and 1991 World Series-hero Columbia Gene Larkin.
That's all this time from my YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) journal. With spring training only a couple of weeks away, Always remember: Take it easy but take it!