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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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