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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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Winter Has Come But Only About 100 Days to Spring Training! (updated with corrections)

I had a premonition that Game 7 of this gripping World Series might be anti-climactic. But thought it might go the other way in favor of the home team Dodgers.

After all, they had beaten future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in Game 6, not that they pummeled him. A game-tying bloop 6th inning double down the right field line by center fielder Chris Taylor had been the big hit followed by a sacrifice fly by shortstop Corey Seager.

Behind two solid 8th and 9th innings by closer Kenley Jansen, Dodgers won 3-1. Jansen blew the Game 2 save and lost the Game 5 classic on Alex Bregman’s single, but confidently bounced back in Game 6.

“Little ball” decided that game and as it turned out, so it did Game 7. Deserved World Series MVP George Springer led off the game with a ringing double. Then two ground balls to the right side helped by a throwing error by first baseman Cody Bellinger led to two quick runs.

In the next inning, another ground ball to right side by pitcher Lance McCullers plated the third run. Before manager Dave Roberts could move to replace Yu Darvish, ineffective for second time in this WS, Springer homered to give Astros a 5-0 lead.

After leaving the bases loaded in the first inning and Logan Forsythe unforgivably getting doubled off second on a line drive to shortstop to end 2nd inning, Dodgers hardly threatened again.

I say “unforgivably” because baseball savant Paul Richards always said that the only time a runner is blameless for being doubled up is when he is on first base and the ball is hit directly to first baseman.

So in the end the World Series was decided by Baseball 101 - hitting behind runners and protecting your position while on base. It will, of course, be remembered for the
unexpected momentum swings in every other game, especially the classic Game 2 & Game 5.

I’m happy for the city of Houston after the trauma of Hurricane Harvey and its past failures on the national baseball stage. I’m not happy that the Astros organization let go of eight veteran baseball scouts two weeks before the end of the season.

The reliance on statistical/analytical studies instead of scouts with two eyes and two ears on the field is an industry-wide trend that is unfortunate. But life is always more complicated than I’d like it to be.

The bottom line is that 2017 Houston Astros rose to the occasion in every way.
All hail to them!

[Update on George Springer III: He is a wonderful story that the New York Times has covered with distinction. Sportswriter James Wagner informed us on Nov 3 that Springer has made great progress dealing with a stuttering issue and has become a spokesman and fund-raiser for The Stuttering Association for the Young.

Vivian Lee informed us in the main A section of the Nov 2 Times that Springer hails from New Britain CT, the home town of "The Father of College Football" Walter Camp and Paul Manafort. There is even a Paul Manafort Drive that curves around the Central Connecticut State Univ. campus, named after Manafort's father who was a New Britain Republican Mayor.

Isn't America an amazing bundle of contradictions?!
A few years ago I heard Springer's father George Springer Jr. deliver an inspirational speech at the annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner. He is a lawyer who played in the Little League World Series and football at the U. of Connecticut.

Springer Jr. spoke like a preacher that night accepting the Herb Stein Future Star award from the scouts. I normally don't like the term "giving 110 per cent" but he made me a believer when he accepted the award for his son who was unable to attend.]

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:
The absence of daily baseball is never easy to endure, but I do have my college football and basketball teams to follow. Columbia tasted defeat for the first time in 2017 when Yale thoroughly outplayed them in New Haven last Saturday Oct 24 on their way to a 23-6 victory.

Five bus loads of Columbia alumni and students enjoyed a wonderful pre-game tailgate but the vibrancy of our gathering was dimmed by the performance of the impressive Bulldog eleven.

If you’ve never been to the Yale Bowl, it should be on your bucket list. Football tradition exudes all over place. After all, it was Walter Camp in the 1880s who created the line of scrimmage and the concept of four downs to separate American football from rugby. The Walter Camp "fence," where players have posed for decades, is just outside the stadium.

Football history at Yale even predates Camp. There is the number 145 painted on the sidelines at the Yale Bowl. It stands for 145 years football has been played at the storied Ivy institution and counting.

I don’t know if there is a changing of the guard in the Ivy League but upstarts Columbia and Cornell are tied for first with Yale at 3-1 with three games left to play.
Perennial contender Harvard at 2-2 visits Columbia this Saturday Nov 4 and we’ll
see if the Lions can get back on the winning path.

In closing, I want to pay homage to a great Columbia man, writer-author-editor Ray Robinson who died on November 1st. He would have been 97 on Dec 4.
In his later years Ray became an acclaimed biographer of Columbia man Lou Gehrig and Bucknell’s Christy Mathewson.

Ray grew up near the Columbia campus and remembered Columbia’s infrequent gridiron triumphs very well. In our last conversation he reminded me that Columbia had not only beaten Stanford 7-0 in the 1934 Rose Bowl but had been undefeated in two other games against the Pacific Coast powerhouse.

Until next time, always remember: Take it easy but take it
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