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April May Be The Cruelest Month But Don't Tell That To The Mariners, Rays, and Plucky Ivy League Nines

There is an old Russian proverb about illusions that heal and illusions that kill.  We have seen too many of the latter in our public life these days from the top down.

 

For baseball fans, there is nothing like a good start to a season to bring hope, however illusory. When I started this post, the Orioles - unanimously picked for last place in 2019 - had won two series on the road, in Toronto and New York. 

 
Improbable dreams of flirting with .500 at least through the spring danced through my head. The Yankees, who have lately treated the cozy confines of Camden Yards like batting practice, quickly dispelled that illusion with a three-game sweep.   

 
Two games were winnable by the O's but there is no reliable arm on the pitching staff, either starter or reliever.  "Without pitching you have nuttin'!" Sparky Anderson once wisely said.

 
Not that the Oriole offense is potent with the media now swooping down on the record-breaking futility of first baseman Chris Davis. He hasn't had a hit since last September but is still bound to the club with four more years left on his seven-year $161 million contract. 

 

He occasionally lines the ball hard to the outfield but they are only outs.  Then he relapses into his alarming pattern of striking out, both looking and swinging. 


Enough of these somber tones. Let me praise for now the surprise team of 2019 so far, the Seattle Mariners off to a 12-2 start including its opening two victories in Japan over the Oakland A's.   

 
They are scoring runs in bunches with uber-streaky shortstop Tim Beckham blasting homers and outfielder Mitch Haniger determined to prove that his excellent 2018 season was not a mirage.  I do wonder if they will have the pitching and defense - are you listening Tim Beckham? - to hold off the defending AL West champion Houston Astros who just swept the Yankees at home and are riding a six-game winning streak.  


The rise of the Tampa Bay Rays to the early AL East lead is not really a surprise. They won 90 games last year and their home-grown players are beginning to mature.  They made a great trade with Pittsburgh to obtain outfielder Austin Meadows and starter Tyler Glasnow - both have contributed mightily to the Rays' fast start. 

 

Alas, no one expects the exciting product on the field to improve home attendance. Rays management is so resigned to the lack of support at Tropicana Field, its indoor mausoleum in St. Petersburg, that the upper deck will be closed.

 

The Rays are following in the footsteps of the Oakland A's, a 97-game winner in 2018 that also sealed off the upper deck because of weak attendance.  New stadiums are nowhere in sight for either franchise, and I wonder if even new facilities will boost attendance.

 
Speaking of lack of fan support, college baseball in the Northeast is usually played in front of friends and family.  That doesn't mean the competition isn't high quality and fiercely contested. 

 
Last weekend, the Penn Quakers and Dartmouth Big Green played a historic 21-inning game in Hanover that set NCAA records for ABs and plate appearances.  Penn won 21-15 and went on to become the first team in 2019 to sweep a three-game series.

 
The Ivy League pennant race is building to a roaring climax in the next four weekends.  Defending champion Columbia, Harvard, and Penn are tied at 6-3 with Yale just a game behind.

 
Hard to beat the drama of the Yale-Harvard series in Cambridge last week.  Harvard pulled off a dramatic comeback by rallying with 9 runs in bottom of the 9th to stun the Bulldogs 10-8 in the first game. Senior slugger Patrick McColl capped the rally with a grand slam.

 

The comeback was so reminiscent of the Crimson's amazing late inning rally last May against Dartmouth that erased a 8-run deficit and enabled Columbia to make the post-season playoff against Yale. (In the 8-team league, the first two finishers qualify for a best-of-three championship series.)

 
Facing a sweep this past Sunday, Yale rallied with 3 in the 9th to salvage one game in the weekend series. Columbia also got stunned by a Princeton 6-run bottom of 8th rally but the Lions rebounded by winning a rubber match 2-1 squeaker between southpaw Ben Wereski with Jim Smiley getting the save. 

 

This weekend Yale hosts Columbia in a big three-game series - a rematch of last year's championship series swept by the Lions. Lots of scouts will attend the likely first game matchup of aces Josh Simpson (Columbia) and Scott Politz (Yale).  

 
More on this and other sizzling events on many levels of baseball next time. Finally weather seems to be getting as warm as the competition.

 
For now always remember: Take it easy but take it.

 

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When Robert Mueller Is More Ray Mueller Than Don Mueller and Other Thoughts On Cusp Of New Baseball Season (corrected version)

I wasn't expecting too much from former FBI director Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's influence on the 2016 Presidential campaign.  But wasn't expecting so little either. And it looks like there will be a real and necessary battle for the public to see the full report. 

 
So Robert Mueller is no Mandrake the Magician after all.  That was sweet-swinging right fielder Don Mueller's nickname - one of my early New York Giant heroes with a career .296 BA and .390 SA and an astonishing low number of walks and strikeouts. 

 

He put the ball in play did my man Don Mueller. I recall his winning a game by singling to left field when they were trying to walk him intentionally.  It was mid-1950s, the year when they allowed the catcher to step outside the batter's box to receive an intentional walk.

 

Who knows how the 1951 World Series would have turned out if Mueller could have played?  Alas, he broke his ankle sliding into third just before Bobby Thomson's momentous playoff home run. Mueller was 7 for 18 when the Giants swept the Indians in 1954.

 

Ray Mueller, a little older than Don, actually had a better career than I remembered - 14 years mainly as a backup catcher, hitting .252 slugging .368. But pretty much a nondescript career which over time might be where Robert Mueller's role in history winds up.

 
An electoral repudiation in 2020 of our current pre-fascist Presidency will serve our society best.  I try to buoy myself by the inspirational quote I saw on the Illinois Wesleyan University website:  "The past is immutable, but history is up to us."    

 
Meanwhile. more sad news hit the New York area baseball community when veteran baseball writer Marty Noble, 70, collapsed and died at the Mets spring training base in Port St. Lucie this past weekend. 

 
His long-form baseball writing was always incisive and leavened with humor. For many seasons he covered the Mets for "Newsday" and later mlb.com. I noted in my last blog his recent penetrating piece on Tom Seaver that appeared on the blog "Murray Chass On Baseball". 

 
He deeply appreciated baseball scouts. I once told me how the legendary Cardinals scout George Kissell walked speedster Vince Coleman  - the Cardinal star who became a so-so Met - to an outfield wall to demonstrate the many bounces a ball took. Marty also wrote a gem about the life and times of the great scout Al LaMacchia.

 

HERE'S ANOTHER SHOUT-OUT FOR COLLEGE BASEBALL:

As the Orioles face a likely 100-loss season or worse, I'm taking solace in the good Ivy League start of my Columbia Lions. On this excruciatingly windy past Saturday, senior southpaw Josh Simpson (Stafford, CT)  hurled a complete game 3-0 shutout.

 

Simpson struck out seven and got stronger as the game went on.  Imagine that, analytic Kool-aid guzzlers. He even faced the same lineup three times and threw 110 pitches.  

 
Columbia fell 4-3 in the first game of the Sunday double header as the Big Red scored all four runs in the 5th inning off junior southpaw Ben Wereski (Orchard Park, NY Buffalo suburb). Ben was brilliant for the first four innings, striking out 8 of the first 11 batters. Cornell junior reliever John Natoli (Fairfield, CT) blew away the Lions in the late innings, striking out the last six batters. 

 

Columbia rebounded in the second game to win 13-8 and thereby capture the series. They came from behind three times with the big blow being Fresno Calif.'s senior first baseman Chandler Bengtson's grand slam. 

 

Senior righthander Ethan Abrams (Encinitas, Calif.) pitched four solid relief innings. Always nice to see pitchers like Abrams and Simpson regain form after serious arm surgery. Here's an abiding hope that the TJ epidemic declines as parents and coaches don't let youngsters throw too hard too soon. 

 
Another big weekend looms this Sat and Sun as perennial contender Dartmouth comes to town. It will be strange to see former standout Lions third baseman David Vandercook in a Dartmouth uniform as assistant coach. But glad he's moving up in his chosen career.

 

Weather should be warmer but there is always a potent breeze off the Hudson River so football attire is never out of place at Satow Stadium just north of the football stadium at the Baker Field complex. First game on Sat. is 1130, single game on Sunday starts at noon.

 
IMO the college baseball season is too short, but academic schedules and the existence of pro minor leagues make change very hard. However, once you get used to the sound of the metal bat - hard for baseball purists I know -, the game is the same and often played with more fundamentals than you see these days on the major league level.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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