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The Joys of "Meaningful Games in September": Cyclones Win, Mets Come Up A Little Short, and A Final Farewell to Al Jackson

I can't recall a late summer in NYC that has been so warm and beautiful. With chances to see live baseball in this area fading like the summer light, I've been blessed to catch some great games in supremely lovely conditions.

 

Under a nearly full moon on Tuesday September 10, I saw the Brooklyn Cyclones win their first outright Short Season Class A New York-Penn League title. (They shared a league title in 2001 but because of the 9/11 attacks there was no conclusive game.)

 

With the Coney Island boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean visible beyond the outfield, over 3,000 fans at MCU Park cheered the home team as they won a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox farm club.  It brought a title to Cyclones manager Edgardo Alfonzo, the outstanding and truly beloved former Mets third and second baseman.

 

The winning 7th inning rally was fueled by hits by former SEC rivals, outfielders Jake Mangum (Miss. State) who led off with a single and raced home on a triple by Antoine Duplessis (LSU). Third baseman Yoel Romero, a 21-year-old from Venezuela in his fifth minor league season, then singled home the tie-breaking run. 32nd round draft pick lefty Andrew Edwards notched a two-inning save. 

 

Although it is only the low minor leagues, Brooklyn can now claim its pro baseball title since Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series. Cyclones starter Nate Jones, Matt Allan (the Mets 2019 number one draft pick), and eventual winner Mitch Ragan who preceded Edwards all pitched effectively.

 
Lowell used two top Boston prospects from New Jersey that were both drafted out of high school.  Recovering from Tommy John surgery, starter and top draft pick Jay Groome (Barnegat) worked only 2 2/3 innings but showed good mound presence and struck out three despite giving up two runs.  He left to a warm reception from his home town supporters.

 
Right fielder Nick Decker (Seneca HS, Tabernacle NJ) walked a couple of times and was pitched very carefully.  In his last AB, he was hit by a pitch which left him more than a little peeved. He was removed from the game as a precaution against injury and perhaps to cool him down a little.  To me he showed the spunk that makes him someone to watch.

 
Who knows what the future will hold for any of these players?  It is one of the charms of watching baseball on the lower levels.  Pat O'Conner, the head of the minor league ruling body the National Association, likes to say that he guarantees you'll see at least one future major leaguer at every MiLB game. The challenge, of course, is to identify who that will be.

 
Here's a special tip of the cap to Jada Bennett, a member of the Cyclones dance squad who sang the National Anthem beautifully both at the final game and before the semi-final victory over the Hudson Valley Renegades.  She brought the song home in tune in not much over one minute and thirty seconds without unnecessary flourishes that far too often make the performance about the singer and not the song. 

 
The parent Mets were not as fortunate as the Cyclones in their Sunday September 15 rubber game against the Dodgers. It was unfortunate that ESPN forced the Mets to move the Sunday Family Day to a 7p start.  So there were far fewer fans in attendance than the announced 31,000+

 

On a warm low-humidity evening, I saw a very well-played game dominated by the starting pitchers, the Mets Zack Wheeler and the Dodgers Walker Buehler who went only five innings but five relievers held the Mets to three hits, only one after the second inning.

 

(Buehler is another product of the Vanderbilt University pitching factory that has also produced David Price and Sonny Gray who has flourished in Cincinnati with his college pitching coach and away from the bright lights and 24/7/365 intensity of NYC). 

 
As all good teams do, the Dodgers rallied in the late innings once Wheeler left the game after seven strong innings.  He had only thrown 97 pitches but had worked out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings, getting his last five outs by strikeout. 

 
I hope I live to see the day when starting pitchers are encouraged to throw more than 100 pitches.   Maybe baseball life would have been different if 120 had become the magic number not 100.  But generations of pitchers have grown up feeling that seven innings is the outer limit for their efforts. 

 
Kudos to Wheeler and his starting mates Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz who have done their job, along with a revived offense, in fueling the Mets' surprise comeback from 11 games under .500  in July. 

 

Losing a series to the Dodgers, a World Series favorite, is no embarrassment.   Too bad they dug such an early season hole. I sure hope the tearful young fan wearing a Pete Alonso jersey who I saw crying in the elevator after the game realizes it hasn't been a lost season for the Mets.  I just hope the Mets keep that core of pitchers together in the off-season.

 
In closing this entry, I want to say a few more words about the loss of Al Jackson, their longtime organizational pitching coach who died in late August at the age of 83.

(There is a tape of a WFAN interview I did about Al on the home page of this website.)

 
Despite coming up the hard way in the years of segregation and partial integration, Jackson was such a positive presence.  You couldn't help learn valuable baseball and life lessons by being about "the little lefty from Waco". 

 

Among my favorite of his aphorisms:  "Shower away the day" - leave the last game in the shower whether you've won or lost. When you are toweling off, think of the next game.

 

"Know the difference between hitter's strikes and pitcher's strikes." 

 

"Don't get beat with your third or fourth best pitch."  

 

The youngest of thirteen children and the last survivor, Al Jackson was buried in his home town on September 7.  As Mets former PR chief and current team historian put it so well, he was "our national treasure" and should never be forgotten.

 
That's all for now.  Next time some more thoughts from my pal Teny Ymota who loved the Linda Ronstadt documentary and will be hearing Kelli O'Hara sing this Wednesday Sept 18 with the New York Philharmonic one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard, Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer 1915" inspired by the prologue to James Agee's memoir, "A Death in The Family".

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

 

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More Adventures In Grass Roots Baseball + Homage to Don Baylor and Gene Bennett

With the Orioles seemingly headed for a mediocre finish to a disappointing season,
I have found several other ways to stoke my baseball passion.

Yesterday - a blissfully warm but not too humid Sunday afternoon August 20th - I made my second trip to the Staten Island Yankees this season.

With a five game lead over the second place Aberdeen Ironbirds the Oriole New York-Penn League farm club, the Yankees are headed for the post-Labor Day playoffs. But yesterday the Lowell Spinners, a Red Sox farm, tamed them 3-1.

The first home runs of the year by Spinners catcher Nick Sciortino from Barrington, New Jersey were more than enough for Denyi Reyes to improve his record to 7-0 with six strong innings of relief. Reyes also set a franchise record with 24-plus scoreless frames. Staten Island righty Daniel Alvarez took the loss despite striking out 10 Spinners.

The game lasted just an amazing two hours and thirteen minutes. Perhaps it was the crisp and efficient work of plate umpire Jennifer Pawol who really kept the game moving. The only woman umpire currently in pro baseball definitely bears watching as a comer.

What a difference from the regular three and a half hour marathons that are marring major league baseball games this season. THE MULTIPLE VISITS OF CATCHERS TO THE MOUND IN EVERY HALF-INNING MUST STOP. If Commissioner Rob Manfred really wants to speed up “the pace of play,” curbing the catchers’ mound journeys is the obvious place to start.

It’s a shame that attendance is so poor in Staten Island. It is rare when the customers total over a thousand in the impressive 7,000 seat stadium overlooking New York harbor and just a short walk from the Staten Island ferry (which by the way is free!).

There are multiple explanations for the lack of attendance: Ticket prices higher than most minor league stadiums; reduction in food services; massive construction going on in the area for future hotels and outlet stores; several ownership changes in recent years.

But the product on the field remains good - unlike the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets New York-Penn League team, that is having a historically bad season. Attendance in Coney Island is down by more than half but still far more than the Staten Island Yankees.

Earlier last week I enjoyed the final days of the PONY League championships in Washington, Penna. just 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. The 14-and-under tournament has been going on since the early 1950s and the ballpark dedicated to PONY's first commissioner Lew Hays is a gem.

When PONY started locally in 1951 it stood for Protect Our Neighborhood Youth. But the idea caught on nationally and internationally of having a league for players who were too old for Little League but not ready for Babe Ruth League on adult diamonds.

PONY soon changed its acronym to mean Protect Our Nation's Youth. Its first president was baseball-loving comedian Joe E. Brown who served effectively from 1953 to 1964.

Brown, whose baseball films from the 1930s especially his favorite "Elmer the Great" are now available on DVD, provided a motto for PONY when he said, "Teach them to play by the rules and they will live by the rules."

Future major leaguers who played in the PONY tournament range from Jim Abbott to Robin Yount, the Alomar family to Mookie and Willie Wilson, the Bonds family to Darrell Strawberry and Jim Thome, and on and on.

The 2017 champions came from Covina, California - located just a few miles east of Los Angeles. They won the title with a thrilling 3-1 extra-inning victory over Seoul, Korea.

The heroes for Covina were pitcher James Jimenez who threw seven strong innings and blasted a two-run homer in the top of the 8th off a light pole to provide the margin of victory. Catcher and leadoff hitter Hector Bautista forced the game into extras by a two-strike two-out seeing-eye single in the top of the seventh.

The game was televised on local cable which meant the half-inning delays were almost as long as the tiresome hiatuses that afflict MLB. Seoul’s manager was also thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes causing a delay of more than five minutes.

Nothing could spoil the beauty of the event, however. A real slice of late summer Americana nestled in so-called “Little” Washington, Pa. Lew Hays Stadium is only a few miles from PONY League headquarters in Washington, that adjoins the home park of the Washington Wild Things in the independent Frontier League.

And for those who can't get enough of baseball, next to the independent ballpark is the college home park of the Washington and Jefferson Presidents. There was no independent game going on last week and college ball is restricted to the spring. It was still a thrill to be surrounded by actual baseball and imagined baseball of the future.

I must conclude though on a sad note. More vital baseball people were lost to the great beyond recently. I am referring to the departure of eminent player-manager-coach Don Baylor, 68, and renowned scout Gene Bennett, 89.

Baylor fought quietly and valiantly a long battle against multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He was the 1979 American League MVP for the California Angels AL West champions that lost the ALCS to Baylor's first team the Orioles. He never wanted to leave Baltimore and wept when told of the trade that saw Reggie Jackson leave Oakland for Baltimore before the start of the 1976 season.

Like his teammate in Baltimore Lee May, who I eulogized in the last blog, Baylor was far more than his impressive numbers: 18-year-career, .267 BA, .436 SA, 2135 H, 338 HR, 1236R 1286 RBI.

He served as a DH in three consecutive World Series, losing with 1986 Red Sox and 1988 Athletics and winning with the Twins in 1987, going 5 for 13 in that seven-game thriller. He was also the first manager of the expansion Colorado Rockies and served many teams as a valuable batting coach.

A native of Austin, Texas, Baylor integrated his elementary school and thought about playing football for the local Texas Longhorns before wisely choosing baseball. He was an active member of the Players Association and a key contributor to many charities including the Cystic Fibrosis Association. He will be missed very much.

So will the longtime Cincinnati Reds scout Gene Bennett who was a bulwark of the only organization he ever worked for. Raised in Branch Rickey's Scioto County in southern Ohio on the Kentucky border, Bennett's minor league career as an outfielder was curtailed by injury.

Offered a chance to manage or scout for the Reds, he took the advice of his mentor
Rickey: "Choose scouting over managing!" Baseball's wise man stressed to Bennett that as a scout you can find almost every season someone to help the organization, but if you are a manager and are given a bad team, you can be fired.

Among the prizes Bennett found for the Reds were southpaw Don Gullett, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, right fielder Paul O'Neill, and third baseman Chris Sabo. Bennett was very active in the Wheelersburg Little League which now bears his name.

He will never be forgotten in Scioto County. I am pretty certain that the annual January Portsmouth Murals banquet will be dedicated to him this coming year.

That's all this time - but always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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