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HOT STOVE REPORT NUMBER ONE

One of the greatest quotes about what to do during the off-season in baseball comes courtesy of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (a man not known for courtesy but could he swing that bat!): “I stare out the window and wait for spring to come.” Well, there’s a lot of truth to Hornsby’s lament but there are still ways to occupy yourself with baseball activities until the greatest sentence in the English language – “pitchers and catchers are reporting spring training” – comes true again.

**On Saturday night Nov 13 I attended the annual banquet of the Middle Atlantic Baseball Scouts Association at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland. (That I stumbled on subway steps going to the train station in New York and will need arthroscopic knee surgery in a couple of weeks did not stop my enjoyment of the occasion.)

Since 1986, the group has been inducting members into its Hall of Fame that is housed near the right field wall and Boog Powell’s barbecue stand at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In 2011 likenesses of the Orioles’ Jim Howard and the Blue Jays’ Tony LaCava will be unveiled at Baltimore’s heralded home park.

Prior winners of this honor include the former pitcher and Major League Scouting Bureau talent appraiser Randy Gumpert; the renowned Ed Katalinas (who signed Hall of Famer Al Kaline); Herb Stein (who signed Rod Carew and Frank Viola); and John Barr (who signed Mike Mussina).

Also honored at the recent dinner for Outstanding Achievement in Pro Baseball was the Twins’ versatile infielder-outfielder Michael Cuddyer who attended the dinner with his wife. He spoke briefly and effectively about the family-like atmosphere in the Twins' organization and its determination to succeed.

A Career Recognition award was given to Larry Haney, the former Orioles catcher who retired four years ago after many years of service in scouting and player development for the Milwaukee Brewers. A promising Philadelphia Phillies pitching prospect Jesse Biddle was given the Amateur Player of the Year citation, named the Adenhart Award in memory of the promising Angels pitcher killed in an auto accident early in the 2009 season.

Tyler Tumminia, the indefatigable vice-president for marketing and development for the Goldklang Group of minor league franchises, was awarded a richly deserved citation for Contribution to Pro Baseball. The Goldklang group will shortly announce the names of the scouts who will grace the Wall of Fame at each of their four minor league franchises. Another round of Topps baseball cards for selected scouts will also soon be disclosed.

**I recently saw the new documentary Peter Miller’s “Jews and Baseball: A Love Story.” A onetime associate of Ken Burns, Miller’s method is similar to Burns’s with many talking heads, probably too many though they all have something of value to say. Among them were Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, the late sportswriter Maury Allen, Jewish baseball cards maven Marty Abramowitz, slugger and onetime owner Hank Greenberg, historian Peter Levine, and last and least talk show host Larry King.

Unlike Burns, happily, Miller has also filmed people who actually played the game and they are a highlight of the film. Southpaw Marv Rotblatt, who pitched briefly for his hometown Chicago White Sox in the late 1940s, tells how he lied about his size – he was only 5’ 6” – but he made it to The Show in time to have Ted Williams clear the bases against him. Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling had moved to third base when Rotblatt made his debut and he told Rotblatt to pitch the lefty Williams inside to insure that he wouldn’t be in the line of fire from the lefty offerings off the Splendid Splinter’s wicked bat.

In the last section of the film Peter Miller was able to get soft-spoken reclusive Sandy Koufax to talk about his career in more detail than ever before. Norm Sherry, one of his battery mates, contributes a vivid detail about how Koufax emerged as a future Hall of Famer once he learned to throw with less effort and allow his stuff to flourish, esp. a curve ball that broke “nose to toes.”

Players Association founder Marvin Miller shares a rare warm memory of meeting Sandy Koufax after he pitched in the 1966 All-Star Game and being stunned at the swelling on Koufax’s arthritic elbow that would force his retirement after the season. Koufax’s last year was the first for Marvin Miller who went on to lead the players to unparalleled riches, something in his interview he remains ponderously proud of.

There is a much too short clip of onetime Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman who rues that the players and owners never reached a working accommodation during his time in baseball. Al Rosen, a very thoughtful former player and management official, is not utilized enough in the film. Too much is made of his contract dispute with his fellow Jew Hank Greenberg.

My capsule review of “Jews and Baseball”: A coherent narrative is lacking and so the parts exceed the whole but the special moments are indeed special.

**Also in November I attended a meeting for prospective volunteers for the Harlem RBI organization (Restoring Baseball in the InnerCity). Its softball-baseball coordinator is Vince Coleman who likes to quip that he is “The” Vince Coleman not “That” Vince Coleman, the former baseball stealing threat for the Cardinals in the 1980s whose free agent years with the Mets did not live up to expectations.

Harlem RBI is a remarkable success story, employing 77 salaried people, almost half working for a charter school that has turned around an area with the highest school dropout rate in New York City into one with a nearly 100% graduation rate.

** During a Thanksgiving visit to my nephew who just moved with his family from northern California to New Hampshire, I was thrilled to discover a mural of Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella painted on the outside wall of the Maynard and Lesieur auto parts office in Nashua, NH. It commemorates the historic 1946 season in the Class C New England League when Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers assigned the 20-year-old Newcombe and the veteran Negro League catcher Roy Campanella to integrate that team in the same season Jackie Robinson broke in with Montreal in the International League. Thanks to the efforts of Roland Lesieur, nearby Rivier College and the city of Nashua, an important not well-known moment in baseball and American history has been preserved.


***LOW ’N’ FISH N’ CHIPS: Final Thoughts on the Eve of the Winter Meetings
The Tigers are making the early splash by signing Tampa Rays setup reliever Joaquin Benoit to a three year contract worth reportedly $16.5 million and the Red Sox catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez for four years at a reported $52 mil. If you can believe what is printed in the press and circulated on the blogs – and that is always a big IF – the Orioles offered four years and $50 mil but the Tigers added the extra millions and Martinez’s Venezuelan countryman Miguel Cabrera urged V Mart to join him in the middle of the order.

Supposedly the Tigers, aided by the deep pockets of pizza magnate-owner Mike Ilitch (who reportedly will soon buy the Detroit Pistons), are still in the hunt for the Rays fleet left fielder Carl Crawford. I have to admit I long for the days when there were limits to the number of professional free agents a team could sign.

In the initial years of free agency after the 1976 season, no team could sign more than three free agents. That number was based on the number of free agents in the pool divided by the number of teams. If the will were there on both sides, that could stop the richest or the most reckless teams from loading on free agents at sometimes ridiculous salaries.

The will is not there, of course, because everybody seems to be making money.
I still prefer to root for a team that develops its own players and uses free agency only to fill a specific need.

More on this subject and others before the end of the year. Remember Woody Guthrie’s great adage: Take it easy but take it!
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