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New York City Pays Homage To Willie Mays & More on Dear Departed Baseball Scouts

Friday September 29 was the 63rd anniversary of Willie Mays’ great catch off Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. Along with a timely Dusty Rhodes home run over the Polo Grounds short right field fence, Mays’ defensive gem sparked the New York Giants to a sweep over the favored Cleveland Indians.

To commemorate this anniversary, New York City's Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed Sept 29 Willie Mays Day. In a noontime ceremony, the sign Willie Mays Drive was unveiled at the northeast corner of 155th Street and the Harlem River Driveway.

Down below stood the Polo Grounds where I saw my first baseball game at the age of 6 in the summer of 1948. Now a school and housing project occupy the space.

One of the prime movers in this celebration was City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez who represents the 10th city council district that includes the Polo Grounds on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. Normally the City of New York does not permit streets to be named for living people but Rodriguez lobbied successfully to make an exception in the case of Mays.

Councilman Rodriguez is a native of the Dominican Republic who came to NYC as a eighteen-year old. He thrust himself into community affairs as a student at City College and has been a longtime advocate for making his constituents aware of the rich athletic history of his neighborhood.

Another honored invitee was fellow Dominican Rico Pena, the coach of the Luperon High School baseball team that in its brief history has already become a contender for the city championship. Pena brought several of his players to the ceremony.

Mays is now 86 — Willie Mays is 86 years old! - and makes his primary home just south of San Francisco (though he has long kept an apartment in the western Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale). He didn’t make the trip for this honor but his adopted son Michael Mays was on hand. So was Mario Alioto, the executive VP of Business Operations for the SF Giants.

“I don’t make history, I just catch fly balls,” Mays once said. He was being modest because he was the epitome of the five-tool player who could run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit with power. In one of his pithiest phrases, Branch Rickey once said of Mays, “The secret to his success is the frivolity in his bloodstream.”

At a reception after the ceremony at the Rio III gallery on the SE corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, a portrait was unveiled of Mays playing stickball
with neighborhood Harlem kids.

The lower floors of this handsome new building on 898 St. Nicholas Ave. house The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Arts and Storytelling. This new facility was designed by famed architect David Adjaye who created the acclaimed African-American cultural museum in DC and just was selected to build the new Studio Museum in Harlem.

The Sugar Hill Children's Museum should be a must-visit for parents who want to educate their children about the rich cultural history of their neighborhood and urban and rural life in general.

Before I conclude this first October blog, I want to say a few more words about the achievements of three great baseball people who passed on in recent weeks.

Gene Michael, 79, may have been the classic "good field, no hit" player. But he learned from his failures to become a top-notch player evaluator who somehow survived the George Steinbrenner firing machine to be a key part of the Yankees resurgence in the 1990s.

Gene Bennett, 91, spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Branch Rickey country of Scioto County in southern Ohio, Bennett was advised by Rickey to take a job as scout instead of minor league manager.

"You can get fired if one season you are given a bad team," Rickey sagely advised. A good scout, though, can perform a service to the team if he finds prospects year after year. "TALENT SETS THE STAGE, CHARACTER SETS THE CEILING," was one of Bennett's most memorable adages.

Last but not least, Mel Didier, 91, left a remarkable legacy in baseball. He was the only man to work on the ground floor of three expansion franchises - the Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Didier signed future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for Montreal. He tried valiantly to sign Kirk Gibson for Seattle but team owners weren't supportive and Gibson insisted on finishing his athletic career at Michigan State.

Ten years later when working for the LA Dodgers, Didier was instrumental in getting Gibson to sign with LA as a free agent. It was his scouting report on Dennis Eckersley's penchant for throwing sliders on 3-2 counts that Gibson remembered when he hit his walkoff homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series that propelled LA's sweep of the Oakland A's.

Didier wrote often on baseball and its techniques. His memoir with sportswriter T.R. Sullivan, PODNUH LET ME TELL YOU A STORY is one of the best of its kind.

That's all for now. Next time we'll have a better sense of how October baseball is shaping up. I still sentimentally like Cleveland to win the World Series, perhaps over Washington (but another injury to hurler Max Scherzer puts that outcome in doubt.)

In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Playoff Spots Still In Doubt As Late September Baseball Drama Builds + Homage to Three Departed Scouts

If you didn’t believe there was such a thing as baseball gods, think again. All summer long the building story was that the LA Dodgers might shatter the major league record of 116 for most wins in a season. Not so fast.

Though they have built up a huge cushion in the NL West over the playoff-bound Arizona Diamondbacks and playoff-contending Colorado Rockies, the Dodgers recently endured a 11-game losing streak.

The slide brought back comparisons to the World War II 1944 Brooklyn Dodgers (Branch Rickey’s second Brooklyn team was a ragtag outfit, waiting for the arrival of Boys of Summer Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, among others.)

LA’s ship has been somewhat righted recently. They won two of three over possible playoff opponent Washington Nats. But then improbably oft-injured ace Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam home run to Aaron Altherr in a loss to the last-place Phillies.

Washington like LA has run away with the far weaker NL East division. If their starting pitching remains healthy, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez could be formidable in the post-season. But the Nats and their fans have their demons to deal with because they have endured many recent tough playoff losses without making the World Series.

Don’t count out the defending WS champions Chicago Cubs. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend and have a three-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Brewers are only one game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot. They host the Cubs in a four-game series starting Thursday Sept 21. Talk about Midwestern baseball drama!

In the American League, the Houston Astros have run away with the AL West, but like the Dodgers they have endured some rough patches. Last-place Oakland recently swept them in four games. Astoundingly, the Astros gave up 9 or more runs in each game.

Yet the late August pickup of Tigers ace Justin Verlander has definitely boosted the Astros’ chances for a good playoff run. But they need a healthy 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to augment Verlander and that remains to be seen

Las Vegas odds-makers and occasional sentimentalists like yours truly are making the Cleveland Indians favorites to win it all. After coming so close last year losing an extra-inning game seven to the Cubs.

The Indians just broke Oakland’s American League record 20-game winning streak by running off 22 wins in a row. Even more impressively, once Kansas City eked out a 4-3 win over the Tribe, Cleveland won the next two games and now are on a 3-game roll.

Another fascinating aspect of baseball's long long season is that winning streaks in baseball are often followed by losing streaks. It was a lesson ingrained in me when I was 11 years old in 1953 and the Yankees won 18 in a row only to lose the next nine. They still won their fifth World Series in a row under Casey Stengel.

A rewarding aspect of the 2017 schedule is that Cleveland and Houston will have a lot to say about the American League playoff participants. Cleveland visits the LA Angels this week and a week later they host the Minnesota Twins. The Astros visit the Red Sox for the final four games of the regular season.

As of this blog posting before games of September 20, the Twins lead the Angels by one game in the lost column. Kudos to Twins skipper Paul Molitor and Angels manager Mike Scioscia for keeping their unheralded teams in contention. The same shout-out goes to Brewers manager Craig Counsell.

There is a school of thought that says playing teams already in the playoffs is a break for the team trying to get in. I’m skeptical of that argument because no team wants to go into the playoffs on a losing streak (I know the Yankees limped into the 2000 post-season, but they were fortunate in playing an underwhelming though gritty Mets team in the World Series.)

Methinks that Boston wants to wrap the AL East before those final games against Houston. Three of the Red Sox’s last four victories on the road have been dramatic extra-inning wins, the last two in Baltimore. They need them all because the Yankees are only three games behind them and are also playing well.

Boston needs to win the AL East division outright to avoid the wild card single elimination game. If they tie, Yankees win the division because they won season series against Boston.

Friday night September it took 14 innings but Boston beat Tampa Bay on the road. Last night they rallied twice from five-run deficits to beat the Orioles 10-8 in the 11th. A clutch two-run single by the remarkable rookie Andrew Benintendi was the difference.

In the Tampa Friday win, the Bosox scored three in the 9th to tie the game. Only a sensational diving catch by the Rays gold glove centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier prevented them from winning in regulation.

Kiermaier made another leaping grab in extra innings and homered to avert a Tampa Bay loss in the 13th inning before Boston salted away the game with 7 in the 14th.

Kiermaier is a great testament to the importance of grass roots baseball scouting. The 2010 31st round draft choice from tiny Parkland College in Champaign Illinois, the Fort Wayne Indiana native has put himself on every team's and fan’s radar.

Speaking of scouting, I want to note with sadness the passing of three great baseball talent evaluators who recently left us within 10 days of each other: Cincinnati's Gene Bennett, Toronto's Mel Didier, and the Yankees' Gene Michael.

More on these irreplaceable men in the next post. They were so much more than the prizes they brought to their teams:
Bennett signed Don Gullett, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and Paul O'Neill.

Didier, who remarkably helped to lay the groundwork for three expansion teams Montreal, Seattle and Arizona, signed Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for the Expos.

Gene Michael, who traded for Paul O'Neill and as general manager in the early 1990s during George Steinbrenner's suspension held on to the Yankees' core players Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams.

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