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Three Cheers for Christian Yelich, RIP Bobby Winkles, & More

I hope everyone who reads this post is coping somehow with the coronavirus crisis that likely will not subside any time soon. 

 

I ache for those of you who have lost loved ones and have not been able to mourn and grieve adequately because of the failure of our public health system. That problem starts at the very top of our government where there is no leadership and no sense of responsibility.

 
Let me begin the baseball part of this post with a shoutout to the caring gesture of Christian Yelich, the star Milwaukee Brewers' right fielder.  Earlier this month he wrote an empathetic letter to the seniors at his alma mater, Harvard-Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, California outside of Los Angeles - the same area where Kobe Bryant perished with his daughter and others in the helicopter crash.

 
"This is just a small chapter of your life that's just beginning," Yelich wrote.  
There will be better days ahead, Yelich assured them, once games resume and the best of them move on to higher competition. "Most importantly," he advised, "play for all your teammates that no longer get to do so, and never forget to realize how lucky you are!" 

 

(Three top pitchers in MLB today graduated from Harvard-Westlake - the Cardinals' Jack Flaherty, the White Sox's Lucas Giolito, and the Braves' Max Fried.) 

 
Pretty heady stuff from Yelich, the 28-year-old former NL MVP whose injury late last season likely cost the Brewers a chance to advance to the World Series for only the second time in franchise history and the first since 1982.   

 
Speaking of that 1982 World Series, I caught Game 7 on MLBTV last week. If the Cardinals hadn't scored insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th, I think that game would be considered an all-time classic. 

 
It was fascinating to see future MLB pitching coaches Pete Vuckovich and Bob McClure hurling for the Brew Crew.  Vuckovich was a gamer to end gamers and got out of many jams to pitch Milwaukee into the bottom of the 6th with a two-run lead.


Showing championship mettle, the Cardinals answered immediately with four runs, two charged to Vuckovich and the others to McClure. Keith Hernandez delivered the two-run tying single off his former high school teammate in the SF Bay area.  

 

St. Louis left fielder Lonnie Smith, who nine years later would be the base-running goat in the 1-0 10 inning Braves loss to the Twins, was a big part of the Cardinals' rally in this game.  It was nice to see Smith in one of his better games - we shouldn't forget he was also a big part of the 1980 Phillies championship season.

 

Future Tampa Rays batting coach George Hendrick made a key throw in this game nabbing future Hall of Famer Robin Yount aggressively trying to go from first to third in the fourth inning on a two-out single to right field by another future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. 

 

Hendrick is widely considered to be the first player to wear his uniform pants low, starting a trend that remains the fashion in today's baseball. (Not to me but that's another story for another time.)

 

Hendrick was never comfortable talking to the press and so became controversial.

But as Joe Garagiola sagely noted on the broadcast, all Hendrick wanted is to be judged by what he did on the field.

 

I hadn't heard Garagiola and partner Tony Kubek announce a game in a long while and they were good.  So was Tom Seaver, commenting from downstairs near the field.  

 

Garagiola certainly had a gift for colorful description. When Ted Simmons clearly would have been out at home on a grounder to third base, Joe quipped, "He would have needed a subpoena" to get there. Fortunately for Ted, the ball rolled foul. Oh, those little things that make up every baseball game and maybe that's what we miss most of all right now.  

 

An interesting sidelight to this game was that future Hall of Famer Simmons was catching for Milwaukee, and the former Brewer Darrell Porter was catching for St. Louis.  

 

(Note:  Simmons' induction into Cooperstown on the last Sunday in July is still scheduled, but a final decision from the Hall of Fame on whether the ceremonies wil go on as planned is still awaited.)  

 

I haven't watched many of the All-Time Game broadcasts on MLBTV but they are nice to have to pass time until the real thing returns.  Certainly we cannot expect live baseball in a normal setting until next season at the earliest.

 

I did watch ESPN's broadcast of Ali-Frazier I on Saturday night April 18.  What a brutal battle that was, with Frazier the deserved winner.

 

I didn't realize that Burt Lancaster had done the TV color commentary with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore and venerable Don Dunphy doing blow-by-blow.  

 

Lancaster was very enthusiastic but not particularly insightful.  He was one of our more athletic actors, a star in track and field and I think gymastics too at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School.

 

On a concluding sad note, here's a farewell to Bobby Winkles who passed away at

the age of 90 earlier this week.  Winkles put Arizona State University on the map as a baseball power.  He amassed a record of 524-173 from 1958-1971, and won three College World Series, 1965-1967-1969.

 

He coached such future MLB stars as Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday (the first pick in baseball's first amateur free agent draft in 1965), Gary Gentry a key part of the 1969 Mets, and Sal Bando, the glue on the Oakland A's 1972-74 champions.

 

He had an under .500 record managing in the majors for the Angels and A's but he was a memorable baseball lifer who later worked in player development with the White Sox and Expos and also broadcast games for Expos from 1989-93.

 

Winkles hailed from Swifton, Arkansas where he grew up with future Hall of Famer George Kell.  His home town was so small, Winkles liked to say, the city limits sign was placed on the same telephone pole.

 

After starring at Illinois Wesleyan U. in Bloomington, Illinois, he signed with the White Sox.  Alas, the middle infielder was stuck behind future Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nelson Fox and never reached the majors.

 

He found his calling in coaching, and in 2006 he was elected in the first class of inductees into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.  Somewhere in the great beyond, one of the best Walter Brennan imitators is rehearsing for his first celestial gig.

 

(For younger readers, Walter Brennan was one of the great Hollywood character actors.  I remember him warmly as Gary Cooper's sidekick in "Meet John Doe" and Lou Gehrig's sportswriter-confidant in "Pride of the Yankees".) 

 

Well, that's all for now, and more than ever in these uncertain times, always rememeber:  Take it easy but take it!

 

 

 

 

 

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On The Intensity/Integrity of Late September Baseball (corrected version) + "Porgy and Bess" at Met Opera + Kelli O'Hara Triumphs With NY Philharmonic

I knew as an Orioles fan that this first year of full-scale rebuilding was going to be difficult.  Leave it to my Birds, though, and especially rookie utility man Stevie Wilkerson, to end the season in Boston with a vivid example of how baseball can turn ecstasy into agony with shocking suddenness.

 

Their 162nd and last game of the season against the Red Sox in Fenway was tied 4-4 with two out in the bottom of the eighth.  Stevie Wilkerson, playing right field for only the tenth time, made a sensational leaping twisting catch, robbing Jackie Bradley Jr. of a two-run home run though barely missing landing in the right field stands.  (Turnabout was fair play because Bradley had robbed Orioles MVP Trey Mancini earlier in season at Camden Yards of a game-winning HR.)

 

Yet one inning later, Wilkerson was slow returning to the infield a single by Xander Bogaerts.  Running on the pitch from first base, Mookie Betts circled the bases to end the Red Sox's disappointing season on a high note.

 

(It won't appear in any of the often indecipherable analytic charts, but it seems to me that the Red Sox season was doomed early when the team split between black and Hispanic players and manager Alex Cora who didn't go to the White House to celebrate their 2018 championship with Donald Trump, and the white players who did go.)   

 
I have a lot of respect for teams long out of the race that play hard in late September. The Bosox and Birds have a history of that kind of intense play that make "the integrity of the game" not just an empty phrase. 

 
I recall back in 1976 when both teams had been eliminated by the resurgent Yankees.  Yet on the last day in the proverbial "meaningless game," they played 15 innings at Fenway before the Bosox won 4-3.     

 
To those teams who last week played genuine spoiler in the pennant races, I tip my cap. 

**The White Sox who started the Indians on their slide out of the playoffs by two victories in Chicago.  It was a sad ending for Cleveland who had played very well until the last week despite injuries to both the pitching staff and key regulars. The Tribe continues to own the longest World Series-victory drought of any historic team - no title since 1948.

 

**The Colorado Rockies salvaged some respect in the last two games of a very disappointing season.  They beat the Milwaukee Brewers in two dramatic extra-inning victories.  They prevented the Brew Crew from forcing a tie or even winning the NL Central over the Cardinals who had swept the Cubs in Chicago knocking them out of contention (and manager Joe Maddon into the unemployment line though not likely for long.) 

 

**The Diamondbacks get an honorable mention for playing hard in beating the Cardinals two in a row in Phoenix. It started St. Louis on a four-game losing streak. The Brewers' losses and Cardinals' young ace Jack Flaherty shutout effort during the 162nd game finally clinched the NL Central for the Redbirds. 

  

Now the Brewers must face the Washington Nationals on the road in the NL Wild Card

game on Tuesday October 1.  The Brew Crew deserves great credit for playing so well in much of September without Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP whose kneecap was broken by a foul ball off his bat. (The injury reminded me of the broken leg suffered by Oakland A's outfielder Jermaine Dye in the 2001 playoff against the Yankees that sadly shortened his career.)

 
I don't bet and I rarely make predictions.  But I have a feeling that the clock has struck midnight for the Brewers and the Nats will finally come up with a victory in a big post-season game, even if it is just a Wild Card game.  How they will fare as underdog against the defending league champion LA Dodgers is another question to be dealt with later this month.

 
As to the American League Wild Card game on Wednesday October 2, the Tampa Bay Rays will visit the antiquated and sanitarily challenged Oakland Coliseum to take on the A's.  Both teams are resourceful and talented with limited payrolls. They rarely play before big crowds.

 

I sure hope Oakland has reason to open their upper deck for what could be an exciting game.  The A's have a youthful group of largely farm-grown players, many of them from California including three star infielders, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson at the corners and emerging Marcus Simien at shortstop.

 

Whether with the Rays or A's can deal with the Astros and their home field advantage in the best-of-five Division Series is doubtful. Though the A's played the Astros very tough in regular season. 

 

The Yankees will be favored in their ALDS against their perennial patsy the Minnesota Twins. The matchup between the Atlanta Braves and Cardinals looks like a tossup with Braves having home field advantage.  No one really knows. Sl as the late great broadcaster Red Barber used to say, "That's why they play the games." To find out who is best.

 
It's tough for me to deal with the absence of daily regular season baseball now until late March 2020. But I am fortunate to live in NYC.  Vernon Duke asked in his great song, "Autumn In New York/ Why is it so inviting? Autumn in New York, it brings the thrill of first nighting."

 
Well, I didn't attend the first performance of the new production of "Porgy and Bess" at the Met Opera, but I do go on the last night of September.  It was a thrilling evening of opera with kudos deserved for everyone.

 

From the new production by James Robinson with its revolving stage that recreates the fictional fishing community Catfish Row; to choreographer Camille A. Brown in her Met debut; to the powerful all-black "Porgy and Bess" chorus; to the fabulous orchestra conducted by David Robertson (not the oft-injured relief pitcher); to all the singers led by Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles. With special mention of Leah Hawkins' brief turn as the Strawberry Woman.

 
I had not realized until this production how organically the famous songs in the opera are connected to the story and plot development.  Beginning with Clara's opening rendition of "Summertime" to Serena's mournful "My Man Gone Now" to Porgy's "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'" to Sportin' Life's "It Ain't Necessarily So" to the repetitions of "Bess You Is My Woman Now" to the achingly beautiful trio of Porgy, Serena, and Maria near the end of the opera that rivals anything that Verdi or Mozart ever wrote in that form. 

 

I couldn't help thinking how much more Gershwin could have contributed to opera if he hadn't been taken from us at the age of 38.  "Porgy and Bess" runs a few more times through Oct 13.  Check out metopera.org

 
At a time when there are more and more disturbing discoveries of blackface and brown face incidents in both the US and Canada, "Porgy and Bess" deserves our attention because it was a genuine effort by George Gershwin and the librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward to delve into the lives of this unique Gullah black community outside of Charleston, South Carolina.    

 
One final music note:  In mid-September I was blessed to hear Kelli O'Hara sing Samuel Barber's beautifully succinct 16-minute tone poem, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" with the New York Philharmonic under Jaap Van Zweden.  

 

The lyrical piece, based on the prologue to James Agee's "A Death in the Family," is ideal for O'Hara's lilting and compelling mezzo-soprano. She is branching out successfully from her heralded work in musical theatre.  I heard her as Despina in Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" last season and she owned that saucy crucial role of the maid who is a co-conspirator in the plot to prove that men are not loyal to their women and women are not loyal to their men.

 
That's all for now about my ardent loves of baseball and music. Until later this month as the playoffs take shape, always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

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