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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.

The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.

The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.

In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.

Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.

A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.

When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.

The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.

Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.

I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.

I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.

I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.

Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.

Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.

The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.

Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.

Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.

After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)

Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.

But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”

Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.

From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.

It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.

Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.

It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.

Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?

So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.

That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
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Picking Up The Pieces As The Oriole Rebuild Starts

Don’t ever say there is no crying in baseball. When shortly before the trade deadline of July 31 the Orioles traded both pitcher Kevin Gausman (to Atlanta along with veteran reliever Darren O'Day) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (to Milwaukee), many tears were shed by both young players.

The first time you are traded is always an emotional experience because you are literally being kicked out of the only baseball family you have known.

Baltimore infield instructor Bobby Dickerson, a baseball lifer, shed the normally stoic demeanor of a Buck Showalter staff member. As he tearfully explained to Roch Kubatko on the masnsports.com website, he had known Curacao native Schoop from the age of 16 - he had watched close hand the growing pains and emergence of the former Little League champion into a major league second baseman with a great arm and formidable power.

It wasn’t that Gausman and Schoop could walk as free agents after this season. (Which was why All-Stars Manny Machado, Zach Britton, and Brad Brach were all traded.) Their possibly big free agent bonanza won’t come until after 2019 for Schoop and after 2020 for Gausman.

Yet Gausman had never lived up to his billing as the number 4 player picked in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft. His stuff can be electric - a fastball clocked in mid-to-upper 90s and a considerably lower velocity for his split-finger sinking pitch.

But he never could develop a curve or slider to complement his two plus pitches. His pitch count invariably rose early in games and when he needed to make a big pitch, he often did not execute it.

Gausman has remained healthy and durable so he might become an innings eater for the Braves. He did lose his first start to Zack Wheeler and the Mets, 3-0 on Saturday night August 3, not getting out of the sixth inning. (As someone who roots for the Mets to be competitive in the NY market, I'm glad they held on to Wheeler at the trade deadline. He seems to be emerging as a very effective starting pitcher.)

Schoop has gotten off to a slow start with the Brewers, going 0 for 13 before he got his first hit on Saturday night. He will help them I am sure once he gets settled. He even has started one game at shortstop, his original position as little and minor leaguer.

I for one will miss one of the most genuine smiles that I have ever seen in an athlete.
It was a dream of Orioles fans that Schoop and his BFF Manny Machado might comprise a Baltimore double play combination for years and years. Now both are gone and no replacements are on the horizon.

(Interestingly, Machado, who only wanted to play short for the Orioles once JJ Hardy departed after last season, is now playing both third base and shortstop as LAD tries to win a 6th consecutive NL West title.)

So what does an Orioles fan do when his parent team is in disarray and there is no clear evidence yet that any of the minor leaguers received for our stars will really emerge? Try to find hope in the farm clubs, right?

I love the atmosphere and affordability of minor league baseball so I checked in on the Aberdeen Iron Birds' visit to the Brooklyn Cyclones this past Thursday August 2. It started off as a dream day with late breakfast on the boardwalk followed by nearly an hour floating around in the refreshingly mild and surprisingly clean Atlantic at Coney Island.

Alas, the New York-Penn League Short Season A game at MCU (formerly Keyspan) Park quickly spoiled a beautiful day. After taking a quick 1-0 lead on a single by center fielder Austin Hays (last year's Orioles Minor League Player of the Year) and a triple by first baseman JC Escarra, the Iron Birds quickly fell apart.

Southpaw Willie Rios never looked comfortable on the mound, kicking at the ground trying to find a good landing spot I guess. There has been a lot of rain around here lately and the pitching area must have been a little muddy. But nobody on the Iron Bird coaching staff talked to Rios about the problem.

After getting the first out, he walked two and then the defense fell apart. At-'em balls at infielders were misplayed and thanks to a bases clearing double by Cyclones DH Walter Rasquin it was soon 6-1. Then 9-1 after 2, and 12-1 after 3.

Four errors of commission in the first three innings and many more of omission, eg. not covering bases or throwing to wrong bases. Final score of 13-6 was deceptive - it was not a competitive game.

But it was fun to see Austin Hays collect a couple of hits and display his Pete Rose-style enthusiasm for the game. He was halfway to second on a foul ball he hit that the first baseman corralled near the stands.

It was Irish Night and thank God I wasn't raised a Brooklyn Dodger fan because the
entertainment of the evening was provided by a group of dancers called the O'Malleys!
I know that perfidy of moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA by Walter O'Malley happened 61 years ago but it remains a wound deep in the heart of old Brooklyn and those in the diaspora.

Well, that's all for now. Plenty of baseball left to muse and moan about. So in the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it.  Read More 
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