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Three Cheers for Dusty Baker & Patrick Mahomes + Farewell Phil Rizzo & A Don't Miss "La Traviata" (with corrections)

At a tumultuous time in American history, when such phrases as "the rule of law" seem so antiquated to men in power, it is nice to see that every now and then in the world of sports, good things happen to good people.  Dusty Baker's return to the managerial fold as Houston Astros manager and QB Patrick Mahomes's MVP performance in Kansas City's Super Bowl victory qualify for me as unquestionable good news items.

 
It will be most interesting to see how Baker leads the Astros after their off-season of disgrace. Both Houston GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended by commissioner Rob Manfred for a year for their roles in tolerating the sign-stealing scandal that evidently was concocted by players, led by Carlos Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora (both of whom lost their 2020 managerial jobs - Beltran with Mets, Cora with the Red Sox).

 
Astros owner Jim Crane felt that suspension was not severe enough punishment so he promptly fired both Luhnow and Hinch.  In hiring Baker as Hinch's successor, he has chosen a man who is old school in the best sense. In his 19-year MLB career as a hard-hitting solid left fielder - .278 BA, .432 .SA, 1981 H, 242 HR, 1013 RBI, and for the modern age an impressive BB-K ratio of 762-926 - Baker was never on the disabled list.

 
After establishing himself in 1972 as a four-year regular with the Atlanta Braves, Baker was traded to the Dodgers where he became a key contributor on the Dodgers 1977-78 NL champions and 1981 World Series winners.

 
Dusty has belied the old saw that good-to-great players don't make good managers.  His previous teams - Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nats - all made the playoffs, and he now  gets a chance to earn that elusive first World Series ring.  (His 2002 Giants lost in seven games to the Angels.)

 
At 70, Baker will be the oldest manager in the big leagues, but he certainly is young at heart. Houston's new GM, James Click, was just plucked from the Tampa Bay Rays front office where he had worked not long after his graduation from Yale in 2006.

 
The Click hiring shows that the craze for "analytic" information will not diminish in Houston. Tampa Bay has been in the forefront of the movement to bring so-called "better ball" information into baseball operations. 

 

Except for adding his longtime aide former major league infielder Chris Speier, Dusty will be keeping Hinch's coaching staff including bench coach Joe Espada, who was on Joe Girardi's Yankees staff, and veteran pitching coach Brent Strom who at 71 is a year older than Dusty. 

 
Mets fans may remember that Strom broke in with them in 1972, but he never won a game for them. He was 9-15 for other MLB teams before he started on his long trek to become one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game.  

 
I don't like making predictions, but it says here that Baker will keep the Astros in contention during what should be a spirited AL West race among the refurbished California Angels under Joe Maddon - himself a very lively 66 - and the perennial bridesmaid Oakland Athletics.

 

 

As for Patrick Mahomes leading the Kansas City Chiefs to a stirring come-from-behind Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco Forty-Niners, I was delighted that this son of former major league pitcher Pat Mahomes has reached the pinnacle of the gridiron sport.  

 

Who couldn't smile at the picture of 5-year-old Patrick shagging flies with his father before the Mets' home World Series games in 2000?  Papa Pat was actually ineligible for the Series, but he had been a big part of the 1999 Mets playoff team.

 

So from an early age, young Pat knew what it was like to be around pressure-filled games. He understood early on that "pressure is a privilege" (to quote the title of one of tennis great Billie Jean King's books - BTW, Billie Jean Moffitt King's older brother Randy was a standout relief pitcher primarily for the Giants.) 

 
Throughout his high school years young Mahomes used to call himself "a baseball player playing football."  Things changed when he excelled at Texas Tech and now he is atop the football world.  Here's hoping he has a good chance at repeating in 2021.

 
But N. B. (Note Well)! In this age of free agency and unremitting celebrity, it is harder than ever to repeat as champion.

 
Before I close, I want to salute the memory of the hard-working baseball scout Phil Rizzo, who passed away late last month at the age of 90.  A Korean War veteran, Phil never made the majors as a player, but he devoted himself afterwards to finding talent for many professional teams. 

 
He was working for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 where Mike Rizzo was scouting director when the Dbacks won the World Series over the Yankees. In what I think was as a blessing from the baseball gods, Phil Rizzo lived to see his son Mike Rizzo, GM of the Washington Nationals, win the World Series last October.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:
The current Metropolitan Opera production of Guiseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" is a memorable experience.  I saw the production, directed by stage veteran Michael Mayer, on Monday night Feb. 3 with an emergency Alfredo sung by Korean tenor Won Whi Choi. 

 
After an understandably tentative first act, he grew into the role in the final two acts. The rest of the cast was superb - soprano Aleksandra Kurzak from Poland and bassist Quinn Kelsey from Hawaii. The Met Orchestra, this night led by Londoner Karel Mark Chichon, and its chorus comprise one of the great ensembles in the world.   

 
I never appreciated until last night's performance the profundity of the gripping second act. The confrontation between Alfredo's father Germont who insists that courtesan Violetta give up Alfredo to save the Germont family name brought me to tears.

 
There are six more chances to see "La Traviata" ("The Fallen Woman"):

Wed Feb 26, Sat Feb 29, Th Mar 5, W Mar 9, F Mar 13, and Th Mar 19, all at 730p except for Sat Feb 29 at 830p.   

 
Rush seats at affordable prices are sometimes available on day of performances.   The casts may change but this is an evening not to be missed. Check out metopera.org

 

That's all for now as pitchers and catchers are poised to report before Valentine's Day.

Always remember:  Take it easy but take it. 

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Could Something Good Arise From Baseball's Sign-Stealing Scandal? + A Report on the 55th Annual NY Baseball Scouts Dinner

I try to be an optimist or at least a glass half-full kinda guy when trying to cope with life's inevitable problems. It may be hard to find any silver lining in the revelation of the Houston Astros's high-tech sign stealing operation that places in doubt the legitimacy of their 2017 World Series triumph and deep runs in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs. 

 

Acting firmly, Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended both Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch for a year without pay, took away the first two Houston draft picks for the next two seasons, and fined the team the maximum allowed under his contract with the owners, $5 million.  Going one step further, Astro owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch and will soon name replacements. 

 

Two more casualties have been Red Sox manager Alex Cora who was the Houston bench coach in 2017 and was named 11 times in Manfred's nine page single-spaced decision. Incoming Mets manager Carlos Beltran also walked the plank.

 

Beltran had been hailed as a veteran presence on the 2017 Astros but he was intimately involved in the sign-stealing shenanigans - one of those coordinating center field camera footage with replay equipment closer to the dugout so that batters knew what pitches were coming at key moments of the game. 

 

Many people have wondered why the players who were active participants in the scheme

have not been disciplined.  The reason is that their Players Association had never been informed of Manfred's directive late in the 2017 season warning teams to cease using technology illegally. 

 

Luhnow and Hinch had received the warning and ignored it. Interestingly, Manfred reported that Hinch was annoyed at the use of electronic equipment in the dugout and twice even broke the instruments.  But he never reported his dissatisfaction to his superiors.

 

Maybe, just maybe, the harsh punishments will lead to a realization throughout MLB that unbridled technology is dangerous without practicing common sense and simple sporting ethics. The dream of winning a World Series, former MLB outfielder Doug Glanville wrote eloquently after the scandal broke, drives "every professional player, [but it] loses meaning when champions cut corners." 

 

"Small enhancements lead to big advantages in the realm of the elite," Glanville added in two similar articles in newyorktimes.com and theathletic.com .  He concluded with a stirring observation:  "In times like these, I hope we all recognize that the case full of trophies brimming with records broken, blinding us with statistical opulence, may sometimes be the one that is actually empty." 

 

Old-fashioned sign-stealing has been going on forever in baseball.  It remains the only sport I know of where a "stolen base" is built into the rules.  But it is one thing to use eyes and ears methods - tipping of caps from bullpens, hand signals, uniform tugs, and the like - and quite another to take advantage of ballyhooed technology to gain an advantage. 

 

There will be more shoes to drop soon. Alex Cora has not yet been disciplined by MLB because an investigation of possible Red Sox chicanery during their 2018 championship season is still ongoing.

 

With all the headlines going to the sign-stealing scandal, there has hardly been a word written recently about MLB's plan to cut 42 minor league teams including some entire low-level leagues.  It is a plan, not coincidentally, pushed by the Houston analytic genuises. 

 

Let's hope some more thoughtful and empathetic people arise in the MLB hierarchy to keep the worst aspects of that proposal from happening. Perceptive scouting and patient player development remain the key to baseball success (although as more and more wealthy owners come into the game, these basic truths can easily get obscured). 

 

At the 55th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League banquet this past Friday night January 24, guest speaker Bobby Valentine reminded us that analytics is not really new but there has always been room in baseball for good thinking.  As long as one didn't forget the element of luck and being in the right place at the right time.

 

The former Mets manager's own story is illustrative of good fortune.  A great all-around athlete from Stamford, CT Valentine had the rare opportunity for a high school junior to play in the summer Cape Cod Baseball League.  His manager was none other than Lou Lamoriello who went on to great success as a Stanley Cup-winning National Hockey League general manager for the Jersey Devils (and now trying to do the same for the New York islanders).

 

Valentine gave tribute to another awardee Edgardo Alfonzo who he called "the best all-around player he ever managed".  The ever-humble Alfonzo expressed gratitude for all the plaudits he received this evening. 

 

The former Mets second-third baseman led the Brooklyn Cyclones to their first-ever New York Penn League championship in 2019.  He always told his players:  "Don't ever let anyone take your dreams away."  (Inexplicably, the Mets did not rehire Alfonzo for 2020 - his replacement will be former Seton Hall player/St. Johns coach Ed Blankmeyer.)    

 

Another highlight of the dinner was Billy Blitzer's reading the names of 13 northeastern players who broke into the majors in 2019. All but three came from the seventh round of the draft or later, a sign of the talent in this area that diligent hard-working scouts have discovered. 

 

Among the 13 are Mike Ford from Princeton, undrafted but who shone at 1B/DH for Yankees.

*Justin Dunn RHP from Boston College traded to Seattle in the Cano/Edwin Diaz deal

*Anthony Kay LHP from UConn, Mariners

*Mike King RHP from Boston College, Yankees 

*Nick Margevicus, LHP from Rider, Padres

*Aaron Civale, RHP from Northeastern, Indians (Civale was honored as Future Star awardee)

*Frank Schwindel 1B and Cody Stashak RHP, both from St. Johns, signed by John Wilson for the Twins. 

 

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

 

  

 

 

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