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OF CHEROKEE PRAYERS AND OTHER THOUGHTS AT THE ALL-STAR BREAK OF THE 2009 MLB SEASON

“Oh, Great Spirit, Help me always to speak the truth quietly. To listen with an open mind when others speak. And to remember the peace that may be found in silence.” Last month when I was in Cincinnati speaking at Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Roundtable, I saw this Cherokee prayer framed on the wall of Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker’s office at the Reds’ Great American Ballpark. Wise advice for a world that is filled with endless talk radio and internet chatter just ready to pounce on a misstep by some celebrity. I don’t envy the role of any public figure today that must meet the constant demands of old media and new media and not-invented-yet media.

Dusty Baker is one of the most real and engaging people in baseball and I saw him again before the start of the Mets-Reds weekend series. I arrived at the Mets’ new CitiField very early on Friday afternoon at the start of a weekend that was absolutely California-like weather-wise, sunny skies, occasional breezes and low humidity. (Even the rain, a plague in NYC for all of June, cooperated by staying away until late Saturday night and then disappearing before dawn.) Dusty was holding court with the writers about the rich athletic hotbed of the Sacramento area he hails from. He rattled off the names of Mets manager Jerry Manuel four years Baker’s junior who was also raised in California’s state capital as was Buck Martinez, the catcher-former manager-now effective broadcaster, shortstop-coach Larry Bowa, former Dodger and Yankee second baseman Steve Sax, the Lee brothers, Leron and Leon (father of the Cubs’ Derek Lee), basketball’s Bill Cartwright, and many more. They all take pride in their region, Baker said, and push each other to greater heights.

Key West, Florida native Bronson Arroyo shut out the Mets, 3-0, on Friday night, batting for himself in the ninth inning on his way to a complete game. I can’t remember the last time I saw a starting pitcher bat for himself so late in the game in this age of specialization and I must say over-specialization. After a very uneventful game that seemed far more one-sided than the score indicated, I heard disgruntled Mets fans chanting, “Let’s Go Rangers!” a reference to the local hockey team whose season doesn’t start until early October.

However, the Mets wound up winning the series and the Reds lost their promising right fielder Jay Bruce to a broken right wrist after he dove for a fly ball in the first inning on Saturday night. The National League Central is a wide-open mediocre division but the Reds are now under .500 and missing Bruce’s erratic but potent bat will make it harder for them to contend. But I always wish Dusty Baker’s teams all the best.

One of the highlights of getting to the ballpark early on Friday was to see David Weathers, the Reds’ 39-year-old relief pitcher, hitting fungos to his 9-year-old son Ryan who is a promising left-handed Little League pitcher. Weathers used an aluminum bat to work out his son in the spacious outfield of CitiField. He also lobbed a few balls underhand to his son who looks right now like a more powerful hitter right-handed. “We don’t know yet about his power left-handed,” Weathers said.

The Tennessee-bred pitcher was a Met earlier in the career (and a Yankee, too) and it was nice to see the security and maintenance personnel greet him warmly. I saw a similar reaction to utility infielder Jose Vizcaino when the former Met came over to old Shea Stadium to play for the Yankees in the 2000 Subway World Series. For all the glitz and celebrity surrounding the sport these days, baseball remains a people business and it is always nice to see the little touches of humanity outside the distortions of the limelight.

I can’t stress enough the importance of getting out early to the ballpark for those who really love baseball and want to love baseball. I remember Ben Mondor, the owner emeritus of the Pawtucket Red Sox, telling an audience at SABR meeting (the Society for American Baseball Research) that he would open his ballpark at 3:30 in the afternoon if you wanted to see a shortstop and second baseman work on the double play.

LOW’N’FISH ‘N’ CHIPS
I noted on the Mets’ scoreboard early Friday afternoon this saying from the Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench: “Hitting slumps are like sleeping in a soft bed: easy to get into and hard to get out of.” Speaking of Bench it was nice to see a Johnny Bench trophy awarded at the Lubbock College Hall of Fame ceremonies last week to the finest college catcher this past season J. T. Wise of Oklahoma. I mistakenly identified him in a recent blog. Also one more erratum – the sports psychologist who works with the Tampa Rays and other teams is Ken Ravizza.

At the All-Star break with nearly a half of the season to play, it looks like a fight to the finish for the many teams with playoff hopes. Clearly one good team in the American League East will miss out on the post-season fun and right now the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays are the odd one out. They ended the first half by losing the last two games at home to the Oakland Athletics. They held leads late in both games but neither their starting or relief pitching could hold the A’s down and the Rays’ offense did not tack on runs. I hope the second half brings them more consistency because they have a nice mixture of speed and power but they are also finding out that repeating is the hardest thing to do in sports.

The more experienced world champion Phillies rose to the challenge by having a great homestand to end the first half of the season and now they are clearly the team to beat in the NL East. Though the Braves and the Marlins could challenge them and IF the Mets get their big horses back before too long they could make a run, too. Their lack of depth and an extraordinarily unproductive farm system make me doubt that possibility

I am not exactly enamored of giving home field advantage to the league whose team wins the All-Star Game but I hope Tuesday night’s game is as exciting as last year’s at Yankee Stadium that went 15 innings before the AL won it yet again. As I was coming home happily at 3am the next morning never did the phrase, “I don’t care if I ever back,” from you-know-what song, have more meaning. Here’s to another good competition on Tuesday!

As for Monday night’s Home Run Derby I hope who ever does well doesn’t ruin his swing for the rest of the year as seemed to have happened to Bobby Abreu a couple of years ago and Josh Hamilton last year. I wish MLB would come forward with an explanation of what kind of baseballs are really being used in the Derby but it’s just an exhibition that seems to have great fan appeal so it’s OK by me. Ciao for now!
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