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When The Marathon Becomes A Sprint + Homage to Don Welke (1942-2018)

As I have said many times, all any baseball fan should ever ask for is to play meaningful games in September. That hope was long dashed this season (and probably for many future seasons) in Oriole land and for too many other teams this year. (Sure hope we are not seeing the rise of a permanent baseball underclass.)

For those teams still in the hunt, there is nothing like the agony and ecstasy of baseball in late September. When the number of games is reduced to just a handful, the pressure and tension can be excruciating. In a rare unqualified statement about baseball, it says here that the teams that win have the players who can stay intense without being tense.

The five teams in the American League playoffs are already set. The Red Sox and Indians have clinched their divisions, the defending World Series champion Astros will likely clinch the AL West this week (if not at lowly Toronto, then definitely at very lowly Baltimore).

The only dramatic question in the AL is whether the Oakland A’s or the Yankees will host the wild card game on Wednesday October 3. Most likely it will be the Yanks because they have to lose three games out of their last six and the A’s must win all of their remaining five for the wild card game to be played in Oakland.

The National League is far more intriguing. Only the Atlanta Braves have clinched a division title so have no worries about an elimination game. The Cubs are stumbling a bit but still lead the Brewers by two games in lost column. The soaring Dodgers only lead the Rockies by one lost game.

The Cardinals, under once-interim now-permanent manager Mike Shildt, are the most threatened with the most difficult schedule. Last night (M Sep 24) they threw away a key rain-interrupted game to the Brewers. They lost 6-4 with the eventual winning run scoring on an ill-advised errant throw to first base by pitcher Bud Norris that allowed the tie-breaking run to score from third.

Kinda ironic that erratic former Oriole Norris is subject of St Louis boo-birds because supposedly he was nicknamed Bud as a three-year-old because he liked to sip Budweiser!

I love the story of Shildt, a baseball lifer from Charlotte, North Carolina who grew up in the 1970s when the Orioles had their Double-A team in Charlotte. He was a jack-of-all-trades - ballboy, gofer, clubhouse attendant, you name it.

He is the rare MLB manager that never played pro ball. But he has imbibed the Cardinal Way that started with Branch Rickey and continued by George Kissell, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and so many more.

The Redbirds will have to play better defense if they want to make the playoffs. And gulp! after two more with the Brewers at home, they end the season with three at Wrigley Field. Though not yet a lock, it seems the Cardinals and Rockies will fight for the second wild card with Colorado hosting the Phillies and Nationals at home.

I want to conclude this post with a fond remembrance of the late Don Welke. One of the great scouts of our era, Welke died in San Diego on Wed Sep 19 just a few days shy of his 76th birthday. He was still scouting for the Padres at the time of his death.

Starting out as an associate scout with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s (as the future Big Red Machine was being formulated), Welke enjoyed a career that spanned major contributions with the expansion Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays and later the Orioles, Texas Rangers, and lastly the Padres.

During Pat Gillick’s induction speech at the Hall of Fame earlier this decade, he singled out Welke (and Bob Engle) for special commendation. It was Welke’s scouting that brought first baseman John Olerud and pitcher Pat Hentgen to Toronto. He also tried valiantly to sign Jim Abbott but the remarkable one-armed pitcher opted for the U of Michigan instead.

Welke became a world traveler in his later years and did a lot of international scouting. He was part of the staff for the gold medal-winning American baseball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Welke’s roots were in the Midwest. His early career almost reads like a traveler’s guide to that region. He liked to call himself a Harvard man, that is, a graduate of Harvard HS in Illinois.

He attended and graduated from Carthage College in Wisconsin but never played pro baseball. Instead he started a career in coaching and education as a graduate assistant at Eastern Michigan U in Ypsilanti. From 1970-75 he was the coach at Concordia College in Ann Arbor.

I had the good fortune to meet Don on a few occasions. I have an especially warm memory of his appearance on a panel that I moderated on scouting for the annual NINE Baseball Magazine conference in Phoenix.

He wasn't an advocate of analytics and its new terminology - low-key wit and pithy perception were his trademarks. “I always look for the player who makes the game look easy,” he once said, knowing of course that the game is never easy.

In a 2015 interview for Fox TV Sports that I accessed this morning via Google, Welke compared scouting to playing in one key way: you have to possess “the ability to be better than the next guy . . . and . . . have the courage to be risky some times.”

Welke is survived by three sons. He will be sorely missed. At least in the age of the internet we have everlasting access to his wit and wisdom.

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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On Revenge As Motivation and How Grand Slams Kill Rallies

This is an amazing time of year for the sports nut and couch potatoes. Baseball pennant and wild card races are heading towards climaxes and college football has begun with a fury.

I was worried that my graduate alma mater Wisconsin was overrated as a possible college playoff team and Brigham Young proved my fears warranted Saturday afternoon in Madison. On the second hottest day in Camp Randall Stadium history - field temperatures rose to 120 at one point - the Utah eleven avenged last year's rout by the Badgers in Provo with a hard-fought 24-21 victory.

The Badgers had a chance to force overtime but after two timeouts to ice him, the usually reliable kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 42-yard field goal. Wisconsin never got into a rhythm all day. Star running back Jonathan Taylor did not fumble but didn't break any big runs.

Badgers southpaw quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a key interception early in the second half that set up a Cougar TD and gave them control of the game even though Wisconsin did briefly tie. Brigham Young's 25-year-old senior quarterback Reese Mangum played virtually flawlessly.

It was sweet revenge for a team that was embarrassed 40-6 last year. There is nothing like getting even in sports - and maybe in life too - as a motivation.

The LA Dodgers are proving that in St Louis, battering the Cardinals' young pitching staff in the first three games of their pivotal series for wild card position. Just a few weeks ago, the Cardinals roared into LA and swept four from the defending NL champions.

Though by inclination I root against the rich goliath Dodgers and Yankees, I knew that the Dodgers were not to be counted out. They are an explosive team and no one can be more explosive than Cuban defector right fielder Yasiel Puig who had four homers in the Fri and Sat games in St. Louis, with 3 HRs and 7 RBI in Sat's 17-4 romp.

The only runs for St Louis in this game was a grand slam HR by rookie Patrick Wisdom. It would be their only runs this day. Of course, no one can turn down a grand slammer but I think Patrick would agree that baseball wisdom decrees that a grand slam home run often kills a rally.

Same thing happened to the Yankees on Saturday. Miguel Andujar's grand slammer brought the Yankees to 8-7 in chase of Toronto. But they never really threatened again. The grand slammer killed the rally.

Why? Because the bases are then empty so the pitcher no longer worries about base runners and can use his normal full pitching motion. Just another of baseball's wonderful anomalies and contradictions.

That's all for now but there will be more highlights ahead to discuss as wild card positioning in both leagues is still wide open. Stay tune.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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