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The O's Offer A Glimmer of Hope + Assorted Miscellany at All-Star Break

The Orioles wound up the first half of the season - actually their first 88 games - with two wins on the road at Minnesota. It brought their record to 42-46, four under .500.

Hardly cause for hand-stands but it did provide a much needed boost after losing five in a row - three straight at Milwaukee to the improving Brewers and the first two in Minneapolis.

Manny Machado’s bat finally came alive this weekend - his batting average has languished in the low .200s for most of the season. For him to finish above .250 will be a quite achievement in 2017.

Adam Jones contributed two home runs in the Sunday finale, getting him out of a HR-RBI rut that seemed stuck forever at 14-35. I know modern analytics pooh-poohs batting average and RBI but it does reveal something about how a player's season has unfolded.

Oriole starting pitching remains historically bad. It was wishful thinking to expect young Dylan Bundy in his first full season as a starter to emerge as the ace. But as long as he is healthy, he looks like a keeper. Hard to say the same about any of the other starters.

Kevin Gausman, first-round pick and fourth in the country in 2011, continues to be the the biggest mystery. He looked like he had turned the corner in the last half of 2016. Even when he didn’t win - and he does have a sub W-L record for his career - he seemed to get out of jams and keep his team close.

Not in 2017 and the big leads he has blown boggle the imagination. It makes Oriole fans welcome the All-Star break. Anxiety will ramp up when he starts the second half against the Cubs at home on Friday July 14 - Bastille Day I hope for the home team not the visitors.

Let’s turn to the positive news. Zach Britton is back in the bullpen and he looked like himself finishing off Sunday’s game with a 1-2-3 inning - two ground balls and a strikeout. It helped that he had a six-run lead but it is hard to overestimate what his loss for most of this season has meant to the Orioles.

I have always believed that a standout closer as well as a peerless ace can be a league MVP. He not only brings confidence to his team when he is out there. Equally important his specter at the end of a game added pressure on the opposition to score early and often.

The bullpen may be the only area of strength the Orioles can use for trading chips before the July 31 deadline. That and Manny Machado who might not re-sign when he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season.

It occurred to me that Darren O’Day, one of my favorite O’s (who by the way is of Polish descent not Irish - the family name is Odajowski), almost signed with the Washington Nats when he was a free agent. With the bullpen so obviously in need of upgrade down the turnpike, that might be a fit.

It says here, though, that the Orioles shouldn’t make hasty moves this month just to secure a wild card playoff spot. They need a major overhaul of the pitching staff and more speed in the lineup. That will take time and better scouting and player development.

And Now For Something (Almost) Completely Different:
**Have you noticed that the tarp at Wrigley Field now promotes Reynolds Wrap? I hope the fabric is not made of tin foil.

**Kudos to the Milwaukee Brewers for using again their Mb cap logo that is designed to look like a baseball glove. I rank it up there with the late lamented Montreal Expo cap.

The Brewers are doing quite well in the standings, leading the Cubs by four games in the lost column. Their pitching and defense need upgrades but what team doesn’t except maybe Houston and LA Dodgers.

**Three cheers to Zach Granite who made it into the big leagues with the Twins in Saturday’s game against the Orioles. A 2013 14th round draft pick from Seton Hall U in S Orange NJ, the Staten Island native is still looking for his first hit though his at-bats have been impressive. He made a great highlight-reel catch on Manny Machado's drive to deep center during Sunday’s game.

**R.I.P. David Vincent, 67, a renowned SABR member who compiled an exhaustive log of home runs throughout baseball history. He was dubbed The Sultan of Swat Stats.

Among Vincent's delicious details were his discovery that Tigers 2011 teammates in Juan Encarnacion and Frank Catalanotto were the longest-named players ever to hit back-to-back home runs.

I only lament that too bad Jarrod Saltamacchia and Billy Grabarkewitz were not also in the lineup that day. And wouldn't it have been great if William Vanlandingham threw the gopher balls?

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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How To Cope When Your Team Goes Belly-Up

For those who follow the Baltimore Orioles, things have gone south in a hurry. On May 10 we were 22-10 and it looked like a year of contention again. Since then the Birds have gone 9-20 and sunk to fourth place with improving Toronto ready to switch places with us in the cellar.

What we hope is the nadir happened this past weekend at Yankee Stadium. I went to the Friday night game with our best pitcher in 2017 on the mound, Dylan Bundy. He pitched creditably and left with the O’s trailing 3-2 after 6 innings.

Once oft-traveled Edwin Jackson came in, I expected the worst and wasn't disappointed. He immediately gave up two runs and I headed for the exits - something I don't like to do, but I did have to get up early to play tennis for the first time in 2017.

Sat. and Sun.games could have used mercy rules a la amateur baseball. Chris Tillman, whose aching shoulder may ultimately need surgery, gave up six in the first and 3 in the second before he was yanked.

The next day Kevin Gausman, the first number one draft pick of the Dan Duquette regime in 2012, was only slightly better, giving up 5 in the first before being knocked out in the 4th. He is presumably healthy physically, but mentally he must be hurting.

The jury is still out as to what Gausman's future competence might be. He must stay in the rotation because he still has great stuff and there are few other starting options. And Oriole brass must fear the specter of another Jake Arrieta being dealt away too hastily.

The absence of Manny Machado for the whole series - due to a freak wrist injury caused by Andrew McCutchen’s awkward slide earlier in the week - didn’t help matters. But Manny’s not having a good year and he needs to pick it up a lot for the Orioles to dream of contending in 2017.

I love JJ Hardy as one of the most underrated Orioles in my lifetime. But his home run power is gone and his assortment of injuries has slowed him in the field.

Though the Birds don’t have a replacement for Machado at third, maybe it is time to move him to his desired position at shortstop. And see how he likes being paired with his pal at second Jonathan Schoop who has really blossomed this year as a rare Oriole clutch hitter.

Some feel that Schoop with his great arm could be a successor to Hardy at short. Seemingly the Orioles have more options in-house at second than third.

The big problem remains starting pitching. And now that Darren O’Day has his own shoulder injury to deal with on the DL and closer Zach Britton is out until probably the All-Star Game, the relief corps is hurting, too.

So how does one cope when his team goes belly-up? If you love the game, there is consolation everywhere - watching high school and college ball and other major league teams without emotional involvement. (Dispassion can only go so far, I hasten to add.)

And reading and talking about the game always brings me pleasure. On Fri June 2, the last day of the 28th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, I gave a talk at the Hall of Fame based on my trip to Cuba over New Year’s in 2016.

I called it: “If We Had Known He Wanted To Be A Dictator, We Would Have Made Him An Umpire: Reflections on Castro and Cuba’s Ardent Love of Baseball.” The great quotation comes from either Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, the first great post-World War II Cuban star in MLB, or pitcher Conrado “Connie” Marrero who pitched in MLB for five year in the 1950s before living the rest of his 100-plus years in Cuba.

There is no doubt that Fidel Castro genuinely loved the game though it is only a myth that he was really a pro prospect. He probably had more talent as a basketball player though again not of pro quality.

Fidel was a canny enough politician to realize that most Cubans of his generation shared his passion for baseball. After all, the game took off in Cuba as an act of rebellion against the Spanish colonialists during the 10 Years War in the 1870s. It has continued its popularity though the defections of Cuban stars since the early 1990s has gravely weakened Cuba’s impressive amateur baseball organization.

As always at these chock-filled-with-papers conferences, there was no way to hear everything. But many presentations left a lasting impact with me. I'll mention one in closing, the BasebALZ Reminiscence Program of Austin, Texas.

Scotland took the lead in 2009 by creating a program to use sports memories to help
Alzheimer's patients connect with the past and discuss their stories in the present.
There are now over 200 programs in Scotland dealing mainly with memories of soccer and cricket.

There are only three projects started so far in the U.S. but the one in central Texas has had some very rewarding success. Jim Kenton talked about one Alzheimer's patient in a wheelchair who had barely spoken for three months.

When prodded about his baseball memories, he suddenly remembered a game when Jack Kramer on the 1946 Browns, threw a ball out of Fenway Park after a bad call by the first base umpire. He also remembered that it was on an anniversary of D-Day and George Metkovich led off that day. SABR researchers later confirmed the accuracy of the reminiscence.

More on the Symposium next blog - That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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