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"Collecting Lottery Tickets" - What Oriole Baseball Has Come To - Plus A Shout-Out to "Toni Stone"

 

I guess the trade this past weekend of the Orioles' most reliable pitcher Andrew Cashner to division rival Red Sox was not surprising. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and conventional wisdom says that the Orioles couldn't expect much in value for him.

 
Baltimore got two 17-year-old Venezuelans playing in the Dominican summer leagues, outfielder Elio Prado and infielder Noelwarth Romero. Both are undoubtedly years away from making The Show if they ever come close to the majors.   

 

According to Dan Connolly, the diligent Oriole correspondent for "The Athletic" online subscription website, the Orioles are "collecting lottery tickets" as they go through the complete "rebuild" of their largely unproductive organization. 

 
My response to that explanation is:  Who is going to pitch for the rest of this season?

The once-heralded Dylan Bundy went on the injured list after he gave up seven runs in the first inning of his first post-All Star Game start.  His knee was hurting during his warmup, but he didn't tell anybody until after he got shelled. 

 
Rookie southpaw John Means, the Orioles' lone All-Star this season, got rocked by Tampa Bay in his first post-ASG start.  He can't be expected to carry a full load.

 
Couldn't the Orioles have gotten more for Cashner, 32, who is having a career year - 9-3 for a team that has only 28 wins?  I would hate to think that the hasty trade was made because they feared that he - like Bundy - could get injured before the July 31 trade deadline.

 
What pains me about the Cashner trade is that he wanted to stay in Baltimore. He was committed to the rebuild. The Orioles were his fifth major league organization and he was looking for a home, especially now with his wife expecting. 

 

He was a Cubs first round draft pick in 2008, signed out of TCU, the same program that produced former Oriole hurler now with Phllies Jake Arrieta and Cardinals corner infielder Matt Carpenter.  Ultimately Cashner was traded to the Padres in the Anthony Rizzo deal and later spent time with the Marlins and Rangers. 

 
Signed to a two-year contract before the 2018 season, Cashner became a leader of the Orioles, not just the pitchers. I think I'm a pretty good judge watching on TV of who is faking intensity and who isn't.  You could see that the bearded 6' 6" hurler cared about competing and winning. 

 
His passion reminded me a little of Pete Vuckovich, the Brewers right-hander who I vividly remember once competed so hard during a playoff game against the Yankees in the 1981 strike-marred season that he refused to leave the mound despite throwing up, evidently battling some kind of ailment.

 
There was another admirable aspect in Cashner's background.  Understanding his son's passion for baseball, Andrew's father built a diamond in the back yard of the family home in Texas for Andrew to practice on. 

 
Oriole manager Brandon Hyde was effusive in his praise of Cashner, wishing him well in Boston except when he pitched against the Orioles.  I enthusiastically second that sentiment as he makes his debut tonight (Tues July 16) at Fenway against the Blue Jays, another "rebuilding" team.

 
Oriole fans are now fearful that first baseman/right fielder Trey Mancini may be the next to go.  He is currently in the worst slump of his career, but he continues to play hard and welcomes the role of young veteran leader on an unproven team. The converted infielder Mychal Givens will probably be dealt to teams looking for bullpen help.

 
We lived through a wave of trades last year at this time: Manny Machado to the Dodgers (now doing fine with the Padres on his $300 million plus contract); Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers (now a regular contributor on the AL Central first-place Twins); Kevin Gausman and Brad Brach to the Braves (where Gausman has been injured and ineffective and Brach, now with the Cubs, is also struggling).   

 
There are glimmers of hope in improved Oriole minor league play at the Double A Bowie level and the lower minors at Delmarva (Low Class A) and Aberdeen (Short Season). But it will be maddening if the Orioles unload Mancini and Givens and other players and get so little in return as what they received for Cashner. 

 
The new regime can't be thinking that Hawaiian shirt and straw hat fedora giveaways will substitute for a real plan for the future, can they?  Don't want to answer that question!

 
At least, for fans of other teams, there is plenty of excitement and weeks of hope, however illusory, ahead.  By its very nature, baseball always surprises.  

 

For example, nothing was more astonishing than former Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud's three-homer game against the Yankees last night Monday July 15. His third dinger, a 9th inning blast off Aroldis Chapman, led the spunky Tampa Bay Rays to a 5-4 victory. It kept alive the Rays' flickering hopes of catching the Yankees in the AL East divisional race.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT! 
Before I close this latest post, I want to urge you in the New York City area to see "Toni Stone," playing through Sunday August 11 at the Laura Pels Theatre (115 W 46th Street just west of Fifth Avenue). The comfy Pels is one of the theaters that is part of the Roundabout Theater group.

  

Rarely does a solid piece of historical research, Martha Ackmann's "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone" (Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, 2010), get transformed into exciting theatre. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation, "Toni Stone" succeeds in viscerally bringing to life the remarkable story of the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. 

 
There is a bravura performance by longtime Off-Broadway luminary April Matthis in the title role. She is aided by a supporting cast of eight talented male actors playing a variety of roles. Kudos must also be given to the crisp direction of Pam McKinnon and the brilliant choreography by Camille A. Brown.

 
I was enthralled from the opening of the first act when Toni Stone delivers a monologue in praise of the wonder and drama of baseball. (The writing reminded me of Roger Angell's elegiac essay, "On The Ball," from a 1976 New Yorker magazine, anthologized in "Five Seasons"). 

 
As a black tomboy in segregated America, Toni Stone had a hard time gaining acceptance.  "People weren't ready for me," she told Martha Ackmann when belatedly - she died in 1996 - she was rediscovered in the last years of her life, living for decades as a nurse in the SF Bay area.  "I wasn't classified. I was a menace to society."

 
But what an exciting achieving life she led - good enough to replace Hank Aaron as second baseman on the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 when he went into the Braves organization. A versatile woman athlete better than the legendary Babe Didrikson.  Good enough to play semi-pro baseball into her 60s in the Bay area. (Many thanks to Minnesota's great baseball historian Stew Thornley for his help in providing some additional details.)

 
It is a credit to Lydia Diamond's script that she has streamlined a lot of the stories in Toni Stone's life. She establishes a good dramatic flow without overburdening us with facts that could overwhelm the non-sports fan. Blessedly, the script rarely gets preachy.

 
My only quibble is in the misleading treatment of Gabby Street, the former major league catcher and World Series-winning manager, who befriended teenaged Toni when she enrolled in 1935 in his St. Paul, Minnesota baseball school.

 
A baseball traditionalist from the Deep South, best known as a member of the Washington Senators who once caught a baseball thrown from the Washington Monument, Street at first wanted nothing to do with Toni's desire for baseball instruction. 

 
She wouldn't accept no for an answer and ultimately Street realized that Toni's passion and talent were genuine.  For her 15th birthday he even gave her a pair of baseball spikes, a gift she always treasured.  So I felt it was a rare cheap shot for Toni in the play to say that Street was a member of the Klan. 


Despite this one jarring note, I still heartily recommend seeing "Toni Stone" at the Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 11. The play moves to the Arena Theatre in DC in the fall and early next year in San Francisco.

 
That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

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"Amazing Grace," Mackenzie Melemed, and MLB Musings: Thoughts on Music and Movies and Baseball On The Cusp of May

Spring has come to the Big Apple with flowers blooming and increased daylight. The bummer is that temperatures are below normal - there have been more clouds and dampness than sun. Though I yearn to pack away my warm sweaters and mufflers. can't do it yet.  

 

I know you can't always get what you want.  But aha! the phrase is a nice lead-in to the wonderful church concert film "Amazing Grace" I saw the other day. You see, Mick Jagger is shown a couple of times looking awed at the renditions of Aretha Franklin who is backed by a gospel choir in the Rev. James Cleveland's LA Baptist church.

 

At 29 in January 1972, Aretha was at the peak of her powers. "Amazing Grace" was supposed to be released along with Aretha's album of the same name but technical problems prevented it.  Young director Sydney Pollack - years before his success with "Tootsie" - did not yet know how to coordinate spoken words with the sound of music.  

 

Thanks to 21st century technology we now can see as well as hear the precocious Queen of Soul. She is fascinating to watch, a picture of deep intensity and quiet confidence. One touching moment shows her father the famed Detroit Reverend C. L. Franklin wiping his daughter's brow after he delivers an impromptu sermon. 

 

I also enjoyed recently a sublime classical music experience. Young pianist Mackenzie Melemed gave a memorable recital at the Juilliard School in Lincoln Center where he has studied for the last six years. 

 

I first heard the 24-year-old from Worcester Mass. last fall in the Greene Space in Soho. He knocked me out with a rendition of one of my favorite pieces of classical music, Sergei Rachmaninoff's  haunting "Moments Musicaux." I was impressed when he told the WQXR audience that it took him eight years before he felt ready to perform that piece.

 

Last week at Juilliard he played the Rachmaninoff B-minor prelude Op. 32 #10 and an encore of "Moment Musicaux #5".  But the bulk of his ambitious program was devoted to brilliant and well-thought-out interpretations of varied masters of the classical repertoire. 

 

I was impressed by Melemed's choice of his opening piece, Beethoven's powerful and unusual two-movement Sonata in F major, op 54. It was followed by Scriabin's short but delicate Five Preludes. The Rachmaninoff prelude followed and the first half of program ended with the dissonant difficult Sonata #2 by the contemporary Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman. Though the piece was not as jazzy as Melemed claimed, the technical challenges were handled adroitly. 

 

After intermission Melemed performed the rarely heard "Trois Pieces" by Francis Poulenc (he said that maestro Vladimir Horowitz never played he last two). He concluded with Schumann's early masterpiece "Symphonic Etudes, Op 13. 

 

Do remember the mellifluous name of Mackenzie Melemed.  After performances in Finland and China, he'll appear again in Our Town on Thursday August 1 at the DiMenna Arts Center on West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenue).  He'll make his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Recital Hall on Fri night December 13.   

 

Before I end this blog, I must put in my two cents of evaluation of MLB a month into the 2019 season. There are no surprises that woeful teams are woeful and will never glimpse the good side of .500 in 2019.  I mean the Orioles, Royals, Marlins, and the Giants. 

 

I hate to say "never" about the wonderfully capricious sport of baseball but I fear a permanent underclass is emerging in MLB.   The lack of productive farm systems with Baltimore and San Francisco could mean years in the wilderness.

 

The Royals and Marlins have better farm systems but it says here they lack the veteran core and the financial resources to compete. Kansas City is a good baseball town and fans will return if the team improves.  I really have doubts that Miami will ever support that team.

 

 

On the plus side in baseball, Tampa Bay is already 10 games over .500 and they could be for real. Sadly, they will play before sparse crowds in indoor Tropicana Field whose upper deck was just closed for lack of fan interest. 

 

The San Diego Padres are another surprise team so far.  They are fighting the loaded heavily favored Dodgers for first place in the AL West. 

 

I saw newcomer Manny Machado on TV Sunday afternoon make one of his patented astounding defensive plays to keep San Diego in a close game they ultimately did lose in extra innings.  With reportedly one of the best farm systems in baseball the Padres could stay up there for a while.  Again too early to say for sure. 

 

On the college front, Columbia and Harvard just completed a three-game series for the ages that Harvard won Sunday afternoon in a 9-8 14 inning classic in Cambridge.  The Crimson  are becoming masters of the comeback, winning this battle after falling behind 6-0 early and 8-3 entering bottom of the 7th.  

 

The two teams are tied for first place with Columbia at Penn this coming weekend and Harvard traveling to Brown in Providence.  Harvard owns the tie-breaker because of their series win.  The best-of-three championship series will take place on Sat May 18 with a doubleheader.  If split, there will be a championship winner-take-all game on Sun May 19.

 

Back in New York, St. Johns in the Big East and Rutgers in the Big Ten still harbor hopes for post-season play.  More on those developments in the next blog.

 

 

That's all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it. 

 

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