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Lucking Out in Arizona + Farewells to Joe Delucca and Kelly Rodman

Here is my first blog post since the cancellation of the rest of spring training and MLB's decision to delay the opening of the regular season until no earlier than April 9. 

 

As someone who grew to love baseball when opening day was around April 15, this decision is welcome. Here's hoping for a return to a 154 game season or less. 

Of course, we don't know when the season will really start. It could be very late.  

 

I feel heartsick for the college seniors who will not play any college baseball this spring.  Omaha will host no College World Series in mid-June. (Most likely, MLB's amateur free agent draft, which would have been held for the first time in Omaha on the eve of the CWS, will now be back in MLBTV studios in Secaucus, NJ, in the NY metro area.


I also feel the pain of all the college basketball seniors, men and women, whose careers have ended abruptly.  A shout-out to Wisconsin's only senior, swingman Brevin Pritzl whose sharp-shooting and clutch rebounding meant so much to the Badgers' eght-game winning streak that propelled them to their unexpected Big Ten title. 

 
We will survive this current scare just like we survived the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the polio scare of the early 1950s, and the divisiveness over the Vietnam War.  

 

If there is a blessing in disguise during all this unease, I hope we can regain the sense once again of what a real "nation" is - populated by people who may not agree on everything but who share an acceptance of basic decencies and belief in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


So here folks is the blog I nearly finished before all the shutdowns began. 

 

My annual trip to Phoenix for the 28th annual NINE baseball magazine conference 

was blessed with perfect weather in the first week of March. Temps in low 80s, sunny but breezy and comfortable even if a tad chilly at night and early morning.  

 

As always, the DoubleTree Hilton on the Tempe-Phoenix border on S. Priest Rd. provided a comfortable setting. The conference attended by nearly 100 scholars/writers/teachers/informed fans was very stimulating. 

 
Too many highlights to list them all but here are a few.  

As keynoter and opening night panelist, Ron Rapoport, veteran sportswriter now based in LA after many years as Chicago Sun-Times columnist, talked movingly about his Ernie Banks biography LET'S PLAY TWO, now in paperback from Hachette Books.  

 
It is not only a wonderful baseball book that will enthrall if bring back painful memories for Cubs fans who watched their chronic losing franchise let their 1969 lead slip away to the onrushing Mets. 

 
It is also a profound look at an essentially lonely man who was at his best, as Rapoport says, "being Ernie Banks," a person whose bubbling personality on the surface masked a crippling depression. 

 

Like any good biography, the book is peopled with incisive portraits of people who intersected with the Hall of Famer. Among them the innovative but baseball-blind Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, belittling manager Leo Durocher, and admiring teammates like Billy Williams who was as happy in his family life as Banks was unhappy. 

 
Another revelation at the NINE conference came in the screening of Larry Foley's documentary, "The First Boys of Spring." It is about Hot Springs, Arkansas where starting in 1886 the first spring training was held.  

 

Foley, a film professor at the University of Arkansas, has unearthed footage of Babe Ruth, working off his wintertime paunch, and Rogers Hornsby delivering hitting instruction to students at Ray Doan's baseball school that operated from the mid-1930s until shortly after World War II. 

 
"The First Boys of Spring" also features interviews with baseball historians Charles Alexander and Marty Appel.  The latter was appropriately filmed at Foley's bar a block south of the Empire State Building. (But I doubt Larry is related to the late NY Daily News sportswriter Red Foley for whom the tavern is named.) 

 

NINE offers the chance for authors to deliver brief papers about their books.  Mithcell Nathanson, previously a biographer of Richie/Dick Allen who did not consent to be interviewed, delivered a brisk talk about the late Jim Bouton, who did cooperate on Mitchell's upcoming biography from University of Nebraska Press.  

 

Anne Raugh Keene's discussion of her book "THE CLOUDBUSTER NINE: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II" also whetted the appetite. It will be out in paperback on April 21.

 

In the kind of find that historians dream about, Anne discovered after her father's death a trunk with clippings and photos about his time as a batboy for that navy team preparing for combat in the Pacific. Jim Raugh Jr. was inspired to become a great college pitcher at UNC-Chapel Hill and later a minor leaguer who never quite made the show. 

 

The NINE conference always features two afternoons of "field research," which of course means seeing Cactus League games.   The idea was insisted upon by conference founder the late Bill Kirwin, a social work professor at the University of Edmonton in Alberta who was an all-around athlete who played hardball until his early 60s. 

 
The first game we saw was especially sharp for so early in spring training as the visiting Dodgers flashed a lot of leather at the home team Oakland Athletics at Ho-Ho-Kam Stadium in Mesa, the former home of the Cubs. 

 

Yet another Santana in pro ball, Cristian Santana, whose number #94 likely indicates he will be back in the minors for the Dodgers, made three outstanding plays in a row at third base. He is only 23 but the native of San Cristobal in the Domincan Republic is entering his seventh year as a pro.   


Our second game was at the joint Diamondbacks-Rockies facility, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in the outer reaches of Scottsdale. What the game lacked in artistry was made up for by the welcoming aspects of the park, its fine concessions, and the excellent design that offered  both sunshine and shade, the latter very welcomed by this aging fan. 

 

For information on next year's NINE conference (and yes, despite the anxiety of the moment, there wil be a next year), contact david.pegram@paradisevalley.edu 

 
I must now conclude this post with some sad notes.

Near the end of February, Joe Delucca, longtime baseball scout and high school coach and teacher in the western area of Long Island's Suffolk County, died at the age of 91.

 

The funeral was held at the ornate red brick St. Joseph's Cathedral just opposite Babylon High School and the baseball field named in Delucca's honor. 

His daughter Joyce captured the essence of her father's life-affirming nature. 

 

A veteran of the Korean War, Joe Delucca had a love of all kinds of popular music.  He liked the Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin.  One day he whispered to his daughter, "Have you heard the Grateful Dead?"  

 
A year ago, Delucca's scouting mentor and best friend Tom "T-Bone" Giordano passed away at the age of 93. T-Bone had been scouting director for both the Orioles and Indians with Joe as his right hand man.  It was Joe who did the leg work to get Manny Ramirez to sign his first Cleveland contract.  

 

The presiding priest at Joe's funeral must have known this connection because he told a joke about two lovers of baseball who made a pact that when one died the other would let the survivor know if there were baseball in heaven. 

 

So not long after one dies, the curtains start shaking in the other's bedroom and a voice is heard bringing good news and bad news.  The good news? There is baseball in heaven and whatta team - Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Robin Roberts, Don Larsen just signed on.

 
So what's the bad news?  "I'm sorry but you're starting next week."       

 
Joe Delucca lived a long fruitful life. It was achingly tragic to learn that early this month Yankee scout Kelly Rodman left us before her 45th birthday, losing her battle to ovarian cancer.  Her friends, many young athletes, and the scouting community came out in force to remember her on Monday March 9th at the Bailey Funeral Home in Wallingford, Connecticut. 

 
Kelly exuded a love of life and love of baseball in every pore.  She was a star softball player in high school and at Eastern Connecticut State University. She then played hardball in New England, other areas of the U.S. and internationally until she found her niche in scouting.

 
She graduated from MLB's now-unfortunately-defunct scouting school in 2013, and had been a full time area scout for the Yankees since 2017.

 

Yankee scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and northeastern scouting supervisor Matt Hyde spoke movingly about how Kelly accepted without complaint the incessant travel and the hard work of evaluation that comes with the territory of the job.  She only regretted that she couldn't fulfill the terms of her contract, Oppenheimer said.

 

I have a vivid memory from a couple of winters ago of Kelly working with joy and energy at a Baseball Miracles clinic in Newburgh New York. Her ablity to connect with baseball people of any age or nationality or gender will be sorely missed. (There are only two other women scouts in MLB at the present time.)

  

She asked that contributions in her memory to the organization that brings equipment and instruction to under-served communities all over the world.  The address is www.baseballmiracles.org 

 
That's all for now.  I'll be back soon with more thoughts on coping with baseball without actual games for a while.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On The Trail of Hot Stove League Baseball: From Las Vegas to Hazelton, Pa. (updated and corrected)

I had never been to Las Vegas until I journeyed to baseball’s winter meetings earlier this December. I am not eager to go back but at least I can say that I walked some of The Strip - which I’d call Coney Island on steroids. I saw facsimiles of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building as well as a huge modern office building now called the Waldorf-Astoria.

As for the baseball meetings themselves, there were none of the major trades and free agent signings that used to be regular events at these gatherings. Historically, the focus of these meetings used to be on the minor leagues - the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, to be exact.

Hardly any press coverage was given minor league events but I've always been attracted to grass roots baseball. The most rewarding event for me occurred on the final night of the meetings.

It was The Scout of the Year presentations that honored four very worthy scouts who had paid their dues over the decades.
The Colorado Rockies’ Danny Montgomery, East Coast winner;
The Red Sox’s Brad Sloan, Midwest winner;
The Yankees’ Damon Oppenheimer, West Coast winner;
The Phillies’ Sal Agostinelli, International Scout winner.

Danny Montgomery has scouted in various capacities for the Colorado Rockies since 1992. He was instrumental in signing future major league outfielders Dexter Fowler and current Rockies stalwart Charlie Blackmon.

Montgomery has also been active in keeping alive the memory of legendary AfAm scout and coach Buck O’Neil. He is Vice-President of the Professional Baseball Scouts and Coaches Association, a group affiliated with Resilience Partners NFP in Chicago.

Montgomery is an inspiring speaker. Among his nuggets were: "It doesn't cost anything to be personable and to listen to people." Drawing perhaps on Dr. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, he noted that he has found out that "the ones who truly want to change the world and those who cannot wait to get into it."

Brad Sloan finally won a World Series winner’s ring this season while scouting for the 2018 Red Sox (he had been with the 1998 San Diego Padres swept by the Yankees). I’ve always loved his simple explanation of a scout’s job - to bring “good players and good people” into the game.

Damon Oppenheimer also has a Padres connection, starting out as a 16-year-old peanut vendor at Jack Murphy Stadium (a park incidentally named for the sportswriter and brother of Mets’ legendary broadcaster Bob Murphy). Proudly watching the ceremony was Damon’s mother Priscilla, who served many years as director of the Padres’ minor league operations department.

Yankee gm Brian Cashman introduced Oppenheimer, lauding the scout's work since he joined the franchise in 2003. Cashman also gave homage to prior Yankee talent hunters and developers Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean (who went on to great success as San Francisco gm). He said they never got the credit they deserved for building the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s/early 2000s.

(Oppenheimer will also be one of the honorees on Saturday January 12 at Dennis Gilbert’s Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation “In The Spirit of the Game” dinner in Beverly Hills.)

Last but not least among the winners on Wed. Dec. 12 was irrepressible Bronx-born Sal Agostinelli. Originally signed by the Cardinals by former 1950s catcher-turned-scout Tim Thompson in a late 20s round of the draft, Sal was traded to Philadelphia in a minor league deal and has worked for the Phillies ever since.

Sal’s acceptance speech combined great mirth and genuine emotion. Away from his family more than half the year scouting, Sal quipped that after he was home for a while, his family asked, “When are you leaving?” He also made reference to a batting academy he runs with the slogan, “Even you can hit .222.”

Turning serious, Agostinelli gave heartfelt thanks to the Latin American community for making him feel so welcome. He expressed scouting’s collegial spirit at its best when he said, “There’s enough to go around - if I can’t get a player I hope you do.”

He added that it was “so rewarding to see Carlos Ruiz catch the last pitch” of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory over the Tampa Rays (on a strikeout from Brad Lidge). Agostinelli had signed Ruiz out of Davi, Panama for $8000.

The Scout of the Year organization is a longtime labor of love of Roberta Mazur. Born outside Pittsburgh, Roberta was an avid Pirates fan in the Roberto Clemente years. She continued her love for baseball when she went to work as secretary for California Angels executive Larry Himes. In the early 1990s she moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and worked for the Expos and has remained there since the Expos' 2004 demise.

She was on the ground floor of the Scout of the Year organization when it was founded in 1984 by scouting legends Hugh Alexander, Tony Pacheco, and Jim Russo. Kudos to Roberta Mazur for keeping this tradition alive for 35 years. Here’s to many many more.

ANOTHER LAS VEGAS HIGHLIGHT
I was fortunate earlier in the winter meetings to sit in on sessions sponsored by the on-line scouting school run by Sports Management World Wide. Rick White, successor to the late Joe Klein as president of the independent Atlantic League, spelled out in great detail the kind of 24/7 life an aspiring baseball executive can look forward to.

He gave some fascinating advice to job-seekers. Groundskeepers, scouts, and concession employees are the least consulted people at the ballparks. Contact them and pick their minds, he advised, and build your networks immediately and efficiently.


My adventures last week ended at the annual dinner benefit for Joe Maddon’s hometown Hazelton Integration Project (HIP). Joe Namath flew in for the occasion from Florida. Though he didn’t stay too long, he signed autographs and mingled with some of the attendees.

In an interview with the local Standard-Speaker newspaper, Namath expressed his love of baseball. He paid tribute to the late Tim Thompson, another Pennsylvania native and his roommate at the University of Alabama. Thompson pitched for the Crimson Tide and in the minor leagues before a career in coaching and scouting. (Namath’s Tim Thompson was no relation to the scout of the same name that inked Sal Agostinelli.)

On the Saturday after the benefit dinner, I was able to see HIP in operation at the abandoned Catholic school that has been turned into a vibrant community center.
It was State Police Day and the officers came in with pizzas to share with the largely Dominican community.

In the six years since HIP’s center opened, it has done remarkable work providing language classes, arts and music education as well as many athletic activities. HIP recently won a Renewal award from the Atlantic Monthly magazine, beating out many larger cities in a national competition.

Kudos to Joe Maddon, his first cousin Elaine Maddon Curry and longtime friends John Stahura and Bob Curry and HIP athletic director Daniel Jorge for the outstanding work they are doing. For more information check out hazeltonintegrationproject.com

One last item to mention in my rewarding last weeks of 2018. On a Sunday in late November I took part in a New York Sports Tour. It is a new project that takes participants on a luxury van tour past sports landmarks in midtown Manhattan.

I was able to tell stories of my life as a midtown Manhattanite born a block from Carnegie Hall and barely a half mile from Madison Square Garden and St. Nicholas Arena. The group also watched videotaped tales of sports in the city narrated by tennis great/commentator Mary Carrillo and baseball scorer Jordan Sprechman.

The adventure ended with a scrumptious meal at Keen’s Steak House, established in 1885 and still standing on W 36th Street just east of 6th Avenue. Not coincidentally, Keen’s is located two blocks north of the McAlpin Hotel where Jackie Robinson lived during the first months of his historic rookie of the year 1947 season.

For more information, check out newyorksports.tours

That’s all for 2018. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Back to you early in 2019. In the meantime always remember:
Take it easy but take it!
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