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Introducing Hyperb O'Lee and His YIBF Journal (Yours In Baseball Forever)

It is the first morning of June and time to recount some of the highlights of my May baseball travels. I’ve been to so many games - from Minneapolis to Miami - that I’ve coined a new nom de plume Hyberb O’Lee and a new acronym YIBF – Yours In Baseball Forever.

Before I begin, I do want to give a shout-out to Dallas' Sports Angel Robin Valetutto whose Saturday noon show on KVCE 1160 radio I guested on yesterday. It was the morning after MLB's annual Civil Rights game in Houston. In a moving touch, Robin played a tape of Maya Angelou's reading "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" as an intro to our interview.

Angelou was scheduled to be honored along with football great Jim Brown and Motown founder Berry Gordy in Houston but she died at age 86 earlier in the week. It was thrilling to have poetry and civil rights (which really should be called human rights) as a lead-in to a discussion of baseball.

And now! the first entry of HYBERB O'LEE'S YIBF BASEBALL JOURNAL!
My May journeys began on Kentucky Derby Saturday with a trip to Target Field new home of the Minnesota Twins. For many years my Baltimore buddies and I rented a van to travel for long weekends to the new ballparks in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh as well as older major and minor league ballparks.

Now with age and family obligations piling up, our trips have been shorter and fewer. But the Minny trip was a huge success despite the Orioles – showing their unfortunate tendency towards .500-team status – losing both day games to the Twins and their hardly Hall of Fame-quality righties Kevin Correia and Phil Hughes. (Hughes, freed from the pressures of Yankeedom, has actually become Minnesota’s ace . . . so far.)

Target Field is a must-see on any baseball bucket list. It is in downtown Minneapolis not far from the Mary Tyler Moore statue in front of Macy’s. It is easily accessible by public transit. In fact, a Metro train station stop leaves you within a few feet of a statue of Tony Oliva at one of the entrances to the ballpark.

Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek, and former owner Calvin Griffith who moved the team from Washington DC are also immortalized around other ballpark entrances. In front of Hrbek’s statue is a plaque that reads: “I don’t want to win the World Series for me, but for all of the fans of Twins baseball.”

(It's a nice sentiment though the purist in me feels the raging Minnesota crowds inside the Metrodome provided an excessive home field advantage for their World Series-winning teams of 1987 and 1991.)

Sight lines inside Target Field are good. Despite the inevitable advertisements in the facility, a fan’s focus on the playing field can be maintained. Concessions are generally tasty but there are delays at the grills that made this impatient New Yorker somewhat irritated. (Somewhat? Ha!)

In a sign of the times, this sign was posted at several entrances to the ballpark:
“The Minnesota Twins ban weapons on these premises.” Terrorists and sociopaths reading this blog, Take notice!

And now . . . A TRIBUTE TO MY COLUMBIA LIONS!
Their record-setting 29-win season ended on the last day of May with a tough 6-5 loss to the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats in the Miami regional of the NCAA Division I college baseball playoffs. The culmination will be in Omaha and the 8-team College World Series starting on June 14.

Lion fans will never know if the outcome would have been different if ace lefty/tri-captain David Speer had been able to pitch. Alas, the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year underwent an emergency appendectomy a few days before the regional. He dressed, participated in light drills before the game, but could not toe the bump (a lovely phrase I picked up from baseball people about straddling the rubber and going to work on the mound).

His replacement, sophomore George Thanopoulos, held the Texas Tech Red Raiders scoreless in the opening game but after getting out of two bases-loaded jams he was removed after four innings.

Texas Tech wound up winning a taut thriller, 3-2. The winning run came in the bottom of the 9th on a double by first baseman Eric Gutierrez. If any team beat Columbia, I’m glad it was Tech from Lubbock, Texas where the College Baseball Hall of Fame is located and where the next inductions will be held on June 28.

Columbia’s season ended the next day with another tough one-run loss, this time to Bethune-Cookman, the historical black college from Daytona Beach, Florida. The Lions spotted the Wildcats a 6-0 lead but roared back into the game with a 4-run seventh inning.

Dreams of their dramatic comeback against New Mexico in last year’s Fullerton, CA regional were dancing in the heads of fans and players. But Bethune-Cookman reliever John Sever (pronounced Seaver) stifled the rally by getting Columbia’s star senior shortstop Aaron Silbar to pop out to short right field after a dramatic long at-bat.

Columbia narrowed the gap to 6-5 with a two-out 9th inning single by right fielder Gus Craig. But the season ended with cleanup hitter Robb Paller’s lineout to center field.

If coach Brett Boretti’s team had to lose, you couldn’t have had a more fitting last inning where the three outs were all hard-hit liners to the outfield. Though disappointed by the loss, I was consoled that Bethune-Cookman had earned its first regional victory after 16 prior appearances of two-and-out. (In 2013 Columbia won its first NCAA tourney ever with the win over New Mexico.)

Looking ahead, though the Lions have recruited well during Boretti’s nine seasons, Columbia’s three starting seniors and tri-captains will be hard to replace: Speer, Silbar, and iron man catcher Mike Fischer who caught virtually every inning.

Fischer, whose older brother David is a pitcher in the Washington Nationals system, is definitely on the radar of pro teams as a “catch and throw” receiver. After Speer’s last two superior seasons, he certainly could be drafted. Even if he doesn’t break 90 on the radar gun.

Silbar’s career on Wall Street will start shortly but he left a legacy as a timely hitter and as a defensive shortstop/veritable “coach on the field” the likes of which we may not see in Columbia Light Blue and White for a long time.

His parents shared a wonderful memory of 3-year-old Aaron watching intently behind the home plate screen his older brother’s practices. Even then he was a student of the game.

The annual Major League Draft of amateur talent begins next week. More on that and the upcoming inductions into Lubbock’s College Baseball Hall of Fame in the next installments of HYBERB O’LEE’S YIBF BASEBALL JOURNAL.

In the meantime, always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Cheers for Columbia and Wisconsin Basketball on The Eve of Spring Training 2014

I have long believed that bad winters create good baseball fans. If so, 2014 should be a banner season because we are enduring in New York City and much of the country the worst winter in recent memory. There is no relief in sight as March is coming in as a lion with more snow predicted for next week.

At least my Columbia Lions are providing thrills and hopes for the future on the basketball court. Picked for the basement by the pre-season "experts," Columbia has established itself as a first-division team with four games to play in the Ivy League season. With no seniors on the team, the prospects are seemingly bright for the future.

Under fourth-year head coach Kyle Smith, Columbia has an aggressive team with two possible All-Ivy players in forward Alex Rosenberg and guard Maado Lo providing consistent double-digit scoring. The roster is versatile and talented and Smith is using almost all of them. They provide "deep depth," to use Earl Weaver's wonderful phrase
to describe a winning team.

Columbia baseball won the Ivy League last year and beat New Mexico in a NCAA tournament game, a first-time achievement for a Lions nine. Those dreaded "experts" now pick us to repeat but it will depend of course on merit on the field beginning at U of South Florida in Tampa Feb 28 through Mar 2.

Coach Brett Boretti enters his 9th year as head coach with a balanced squad led by tri-captains, catcher Mike Fischer, shortstop Aaron Silbar and southpaw ace David Speer. It is very pleasant to be talking about successful Lions teams and not hearing the tired jokes about moribund Columbia football that has nowhere to go but up in 2014.

The cagers at my graduate alma mater the University of Wisconsin-Madison started the year with 16 straight W's, then lost five out of six in the tough Big Ten. They now have righted the ship with seven straight wins and look poised to give a good showing in March Madness.

Spunky 66-year-old Badger coach Bo Ryan has gone to the tourney every year since he became head man in Madison in 2001. I'm rooting hard for this year's edition to go all the way into April. The emergence of 7' foot center Frank Kaminsky as an offensive threat has given Wisconsin a very potent lineup.

I spent five winters in graduate school in Wisconsin in the 1960s and bigtime sports were mediocre until Cleveland-born Donna Shalala, the former president of Hunter College of the City of New York, arrived in the 1980s. Her hiring of Barry Alvarez as football coach brought the pigskin boys to national attention and Bo Ryan has done the same for basketball. On Wisconsin!

It's been a long time since my alma maters have done so well in college basketball and I'm savoring every moment. With the opening of the baseball exhibition season I am experiencing additional pleasure..

I'm sorry, marketers, they will always be exhibition and not pre-season games for yours truly. I still cherish memories from the 1950s of listening to games from Florida on the radio. Oh, how the sounds of bat on ball and softly buzzing crowds warmed me in my eighth floor apartment in midtown Manhattan.

The Orioles have suddenly been active on the free agent front, signing RHP Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year contract and former Texas Ranger slugger Nelson Cruz to a one-year contract. I love the latter - I wish most players in baseball were on one-year deals because the desire to get another deal next year by playing hard this year would never be doubted. Wishful thinking I know. More on spring training and how the season looks in the next post.

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