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Three Cheers for Christian Yelich, RIP Bobby Winkles, & More

I hope everyone who reads this post is coping somehow with the coronavirus crisis that likely will not subside any time soon. 

 

I ache for those of you who have lost loved ones and have not been able to mourn and grieve adequately because of the failure of our public health system. That problem starts at the very top of our government where there is no leadership and no sense of responsibility.

 
Let me begin the baseball part of this post with a shoutout to the caring gesture of Christian Yelich, the star Milwaukee Brewers' right fielder.  Earlier this month he wrote an empathetic letter to the seniors at his alma mater, Harvard-Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, California outside of Los Angeles - the same area where Kobe Bryant perished with his daughter and others in the helicopter crash.

 
"This is just a small chapter of your life that's just beginning," Yelich wrote.  
There will be better days ahead, Yelich assured them, once games resume and the best of them move on to higher competition. "Most importantly," he advised, "play for all your teammates that no longer get to do so, and never forget to realize how lucky you are!" 

 

(Three top pitchers in MLB today graduated from Harvard-Westlake - the Cardinals' Jack Flaherty, the White Sox's Lucas Giolito, and the Braves' Max Fried.) 

 
Pretty heady stuff from Yelich, the 28-year-old former NL MVP whose injury late last season likely cost the Brewers a chance to advance to the World Series for only the second time in franchise history and the first since 1982.   

 
Speaking of that 1982 World Series, I caught Game 7 on MLBTV last week. If the Cardinals hadn't scored insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th, I think that game would be considered an all-time classic. 

 
It was fascinating to see future MLB pitching coaches Pete Vuckovich and Bob McClure hurling for the Brew Crew.  Vuckovich was a gamer to end gamers and got out of many jams to pitch Milwaukee into the bottom of the 6th with a two-run lead.


Showing championship mettle, the Cardinals answered immediately with four runs, two charged to Vuckovich and the others to McClure. Keith Hernandez delivered the two-run tying single off his former high school teammate in the SF Bay area.  

 

St. Louis left fielder Lonnie Smith, who nine years later would be the base-running goat in the 1-0 10 inning Braves loss to the Twins, was a big part of the Cardinals' rally in this game.  It was nice to see Smith in one of his better games - we shouldn't forget he was also a big part of the 1980 Phillies championship season.

 

Future Tampa Rays batting coach George Hendrick made a key throw in this game nabbing future Hall of Famer Robin Yount aggressively trying to go from first to third in the fourth inning on a two-out single to right field by another future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. 

 

Hendrick is widely considered to be the first player to wear his uniform pants low, starting a trend that remains the fashion in today's baseball. (Not to me but that's another story for another time.)

 

Hendrick was never comfortable talking to the press and so became controversial.

But as Joe Garagiola sagely noted on the broadcast, all Hendrick wanted is to be judged by what he did on the field.

 

I hadn't heard Garagiola and partner Tony Kubek announce a game in a long while and they were good.  So was Tom Seaver, commenting from downstairs near the field.  

 

Garagiola certainly had a gift for colorful description. When Ted Simmons clearly would have been out at home on a grounder to third base, Joe quipped, "He would have needed a subpoena" to get there. Fortunately for Ted, the ball rolled foul. Oh, those little things that make up every baseball game and maybe that's what we miss most of all right now.  

 

An interesting sidelight to this game was that future Hall of Famer Simmons was catching for Milwaukee, and the former Brewer Darrell Porter was catching for St. Louis.  

 

(Note:  Simmons' induction into Cooperstown on the last Sunday in July is still scheduled, but a final decision from the Hall of Fame on whether the ceremonies wil go on as planned is still awaited.)  

 

I haven't watched many of the All-Time Game broadcasts on MLBTV but they are nice to have to pass time until the real thing returns.  Certainly we cannot expect live baseball in a normal setting until next season at the earliest.

 

I did watch ESPN's broadcast of Ali-Frazier I on Saturday night April 18.  What a brutal battle that was, with Frazier the deserved winner.

 

I didn't realize that Burt Lancaster had done the TV color commentary with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore and venerable Don Dunphy doing blow-by-blow.  

 

Lancaster was very enthusiastic but not particularly insightful.  He was one of our more athletic actors, a star in track and field and I think gymastics too at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School.

 

On a concluding sad note, here's a farewell to Bobby Winkles who passed away at

the age of 90 earlier this week.  Winkles put Arizona State University on the map as a baseball power.  He amassed a record of 524-173 from 1958-1971, and won three College World Series, 1965-1967-1969.

 

He coached such future MLB stars as Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday (the first pick in baseball's first amateur free agent draft in 1965), Gary Gentry a key part of the 1969 Mets, and Sal Bando, the glue on the Oakland A's 1972-74 champions.

 

He had an under .500 record managing in the majors for the Angels and A's but he was a memorable baseball lifer who later worked in player development with the White Sox and Expos and also broadcast games for Expos from 1989-93.

 

Winkles hailed from Swifton, Arkansas where he grew up with future Hall of Famer George Kell.  His home town was so small, Winkles liked to say, the city limits sign was placed on the same telephone pole.

 

After starring at Illinois Wesleyan U. in Bloomington, Illinois, he signed with the White Sox.  Alas, the middle infielder was stuck behind future Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nelson Fox and never reached the majors.

 

He found his calling in coaching, and in 2006 he was elected in the first class of inductees into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.  Somewhere in the great beyond, one of the best Walter Brennan imitators is rehearsing for his first celestial gig.

 

(For younger readers, Walter Brennan was one of the great Hollywood character actors.  I remember him warmly as Gary Cooper's sidekick in "Meet John Doe" and Lou Gehrig's sportswriter-confidant in "Pride of the Yankees".) 

 

Well, that's all for now, and more than ever in these uncertain times, always rememeber:  Take it easy but take it!

 

 

 

 

 

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Good Things Happen To Those Who Wait: Ted Simmons Makes The Hall of Fame + David Lamb's "Stolen Season" Sheds Light on Importance of Minor League Baseball

I never get deeply involved in arguments about the Hall of Fame because the voting always comes down to a popularity contest.  Ted Simmons even admitted as much when he spoke publicly on Monday Dec 9 after his somewhat surprising election to baseball's Cooperstown shrine.

 
"I knew everybody on the [14-man veterans] committee and they knew me so I thought

I had a chance," he said on MLB TV.  It is actually more surprising that Simmons got less than 5% when he was first eligible on the regular ballot in the 1990s.  Because his vote total was so low, he was removed from the ballot until some veterans committees gave him extra chances.

 
Certainly Simmons's numbers are impressive:  21 seasons, 13 with Cardinals, 5 with Brewers (where he made his only World Series appearance in 1982), and 3 with Braves.

Lifetime stats:  248 HR, 483 doubles (indicating that he had significant power in the gaps), 1,389 RBI.

 

And for someone at times maligned for his defense, he threw out 34% of runners attempting to steal. On ESPN.com's list of best catchers in MLB history, he is tied for 10th place with Hall of Famer Gary Carter.  And everyone above them is enshrined in Cooperstown except for still-active Buster Posey of the Giants.

 
Ted Simmons will be one of the most original and intelligent members of the Hall of Fame. I had some memorable encounters with him in the 1980s.   


He liked my first book, co-authored with former major leaguer Tony Lupien,  "The Imperfect Diamond: The Story of Baseball's Reserve System and The Men Who Fought To Change It."  I was flattered when I learned that Simmons had told his Brewers teammate Paul Molitor to read it.

 
Simmons is part of my book because in 1972 he almost became Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally three years before impartial arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled they were free agents because they had not signed their contracts in 1975 and thus the reserve or renewal clause was no longer valid.   

 
Simmons did sign a rare two-year contract in the middle of the 1972 season, becoming probably the first player in MLB history to start a season without signing a contract. 

The dispute was about money, not a principle, Simmons refreshingly told future Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Broeg in an incisive June 1973 "Baseball Digest" article.


The piece was called "Losing Drives Me Crazy" and Ted declared, "Everyone strives to win, but it's 10,000 times easier to lose."  He also cited the wisdom of one of the great Cardinal minor league instructors George Kissell: "When things go wrong, check your own closet first."

 
Congrats again to Ted Simmons, the onetime University of Michigan speech major who never played for the Wolverines because he started his MLB career as a teenager. Not surprisingly, Simmons said that he is honored to go into Cooperstown with players union leader Marvin Miller who he served vigorously and effectively as a player rep.

 
A CLOSING NOTE ON THE MLB-MILB IMPASSE

As of this post goes up at the winter solstice of Dec. 21, the dispute continues between MLB and the officials of Minor League Baseball.  The majors are proposing the elimination of 42 minor league teams including some entire rookie leagues.

 

If the snafu is not straightened out, there will likely be law suits from some of the municipalities who have invested millions in improved facilities. As J. J. Cooper suggested in the Dec. 14 "Baseball America" post on line, MLB's master plan may well be that by the 2021 season, a whole new landscape will be in place with MLB controlling the teams in almost every lower league. 

 
Compromise has never been MLB's strong suit, but as someone who loves baseball on the lower levels, I sure hope some reconcilation happens early in the new year. For a body that endlessly intones the phrase "growing the game," cutting forty-plus teams seems very odd.

 

Coincidentally, I recently re-read a wonderful 1991 book, David Lamb, "STOLEN SEASON: A Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues." It is a lovely paean to the importance of a special American institution.  The book may be technically out of print, but I think an internet search can find a copy or I sure hope public libraries have it.


The late David Lamb was a foreign correspondent for the "LA Times" who needed a break from covering the wars in the Middle East.  The opening sentence of the book drew me in immediately:  "This baseball journey was born in the rubble of Beirut while some maniacs were blowing away my hotel with tanks, chunk by chunk."

 
So at the age of 49 Lamb decided to re-connect with his baseball-loving youth when he was such an ardent Boston and Milwaukee Braves fan that he wrote for their fan publications.  The Wisconsin team liked his work so much that he was invited to spend a week covering the team as a fully-credentialed teenager. 

 
Lamb's wife endorsed his mid-life crisis trip as long as he didn't come home chewing tobacco.  Hilarious and prescient insights like this one fill the book. He captures the joy of seeing baseball in small towns and meeting the local characters that make the game so unique.

 
Names of future major leaguers dot the pages of the book such as infielder Ron Washington who wound up managing the Texas Rangers to a World Series and told Lamb that every AB is an opportunity. We discover that the double play combination in Stockton California was Charlie Montoyo (now Blue Jays manager) and Pat Listach, who made The Show with the Brewers.

 
Lamb's visits to the Milwaukee heroes of his youth are revealing - among them: frank Eddie Mathews, thoughtful Warren Spahn, analytical Del Crandall, utility man Chuck Tanner who found far greater success as a MLB manager, and Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, the unheralded minor leaguer who rallied the Braves to their 1957 pennant but only received a 2/3 World Series-winners' share.  Now just "a backwoods whiskey salesman," he's more philosophical than embittered about life. 

 

I wish the prestigious Random House publisher had included an index and that Bill Bruton's and minor league flame-thrower Steve Dalkowski's name had been spelled correctly. But STOLEN SEASON is a most worthy read.  

 
Keep the faith, dear readers, in both baseball and the USA though both are certainly going through difficult times these days.  And always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

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