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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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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.

The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.

The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.

In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.

Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.

A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.

When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.

The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.

Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.

I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.

I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.

I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.

Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.

Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.

The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.

Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.

Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.

After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)

Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.

But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”

Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.

From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.

It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.

Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.

It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.

Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?

So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.

That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
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