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NINE Magazine Baseball Conference Scores A Ten In Phoenix

The 25th annual conference of NINE Baseball Magazine was a rousing success in Phoenix last week. I find it hard to believe that it has been ten years since I delivered the keynote address, “Whatever Happened To The Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?”

I still like the title and the idea - that baseball should be entertaining and fun, not a matter of life and death, not a vehicle for obtaining and showing off great wealth and celebrity. I’m a realist, though. In an increasingly violent and insecure world, baseball and almost all sports remain a high-growth industry.

One of the charms of the NINE conference has been there are no simultaneous panels, everyone can hear each other’s presentations without missing any one paper. Too many highlights to mention them all but here are a few:

**The opening night talk by Felipe Alou, the first Dominican star in major league baseball history. He talked about his new book from U of Nebraska Press, “Alou: A Baseball Journey,” with an introduction by Pedro Martinez. Collaborator/sportswriter Peter Kerasotis has captured well the rags-to-riches story of a man who is known to speak in parables.

**California Whittier College professor Charles S. Adams’s wry look filled with gallows humor at Seattle Mariners’ history and their lack of “an adequate myth”.

**Larry Baldassaro’s probing and good-natured look at Italian-American baseball players since the 1930s.

**Ed Edmonds and Frank Houdek's take on the California state law that actress Olivia deHavilland utilized to get out of her long-term movie studio contract and how it might apply to baseball players, perhaps especially Mike Trout of the Angels.
(Still feisty at 101, DeHavilland - who made her screen debut at age 19 opposite Joe E Brown in "Alibi Ike" (1935) - recently sued to prevent unauthorized use of her personage in a current movie.)

There was no keynote at NINE this year because Jane Leavy begged out for a variety of reasons. It turned out that the closing panel “Baseball and the West” sufficed very nicely as an alternative.

It featured three winners of the SABR Seymour medal for the best book of the given year - latest winner Jerald Podair for “City of Light” about the building of Dodger Stadium, Andy McCue for his monumental bio of Walter O’Malley “Mover and Shaker” and yours truly for my “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman”.

The fourth member of the panel was Rob Garratt, emeritus professor of Irish-American literature at the University of Puget Sound outside Seattle, whose history of the SF Giants “Home Team” was runner-up to Podair. Rob made the good point that Horace Stoneham doesn’t get enough credit for actually making up his mind to leave NY long before O’Malley did.

If I had grown up in Brooklyn, I doubt I could have had the dispassion to be part of this panel. When Branch Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn by Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, the road was clear for an ultimate relocation. Banished to Pittsburgh, Rickey said many times until his death in 1965 he never would have moved the team.

I was a New York Giants fan but their players didn’t live in Harlem where the Polo Grounds was located. So the loss of the Jints of Willie Mays and company wasn’t felt as acutely as the departure from Flatbush of the Dodgers, many of whom made their homes in Brooklyn.

I was pleased that the evening was filled with reason and passion on all sides including very informed questions from the audience of around 80 people.
Baseball certainly needed to open up to the west coast by the 1950s. I still feel it was tragic that the cost of progress was the loss to New York of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

So I’m glad I was able to recite the lyrics from folk singer/social activist Dan Bern’s 2002 classic, “If The Dodgers Had Stayed In Brooklyn.” It opens:
“If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe things would be different today/
Maybe John F. Kennedy would have been president til 1968 . . .”

Another verse begins:
"If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe Watergate would be some obscure hotel/Tienamen [sic] square would be a square & Vietnam a vacation spot that travel agencies would try to sell . . . " (Of course those agencies are selling trips to Vietnam these days but that as they say is another story.)

Before I leave, I must mention that one of the long-time benefits of NINE attendance is “field research” as conference founder Bill Kirwin used to call going to spring training games. The must-see spot in Arizona spring training is the Talking Stick Salt River Fields complex not far from Scottsdale.

We saw the Milwaukee Brewers visit the Colorado Rockies (Colorado shares the complex with the Arizona Diamondbacks). Former Oriole farmhand Zach Davies looked sharp for the Brew Crew in his two innings though he did give up a solo home run. (Don’t get me started on how my team has been foolhardy in trading promising arms with little in return.)

What separates Salt River from other Arizona facilities is the quality of the concessions and the wide open spaces. They even provide free sun screen behind the center field scoreboard. Didn’t need much because it was somewhat chilly during my stay.

At a sparsely attended game at Mesa's HoHoKam field, where the A's now play, Willie Calhoun caught my eye when he roped a home run over the right field fence. He reminds me of a left-handed Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn former Astros star. Where the key player in the Yu Darvish trade plays is still a question. That's what spring training is for.

The only bummer of my trip was being unable to see the Arizona State Sun Devils play the opening game of their three-game series against Oklahoma State. The Friday Night Game is the big event in college baseball and ten NINE attendees looked forward to the evening.

However, we ran afoul of the rules at Phoenix Municipal Stadium where ASU now plays off-campus. Some of the bags and purses of a few members of our group were ruled too large. It became a perfect storm of frustration.
**We came by hotel van so no cars were available to store the offending items.
**There were no lockers available.
**We were told that clear bags were possible but we weren't season ticket holders.
Adding insult to injury, we paid for tickets but they were not refunded.

Written complaints have been filed but so far no response has been received.
I hope I have some news in the next blog. The ASU Ten of NINE will not be denied!

That's all for now as the regular season nears. So, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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Reflections on the Just-Passed Trade Deadline + Remembering Buzz Bowers

The overhyped July 31st Major League Trade Deadline has come and gone. It could very well happen that the old adage will come true again: “The best trades are the ones you don’t make.” But in this age of incessant TV and internet coverage, you would think that Armageddon was near if your team didn’t make a trade.

The games on the field remain the best barometer for how your team is doing.
Toronto has been struggling to get over .500 all season. Yet many pundits are proclaiming they “won” the deadline deal process by nabbing shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies and southpaw David Price from the Tigers.

‘Taint so easy, McGee (boy, am I showing my age referring to Fibber McGee and Molly the Golden Age of Radio couple.) Toronto still has bullpen issues that obtaining 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins in the Tulowitzki trade is not necessarily going to solve. Adding Mark Lowe from Seattle may help.

The Jays are also not deep in starters even adding Price. And amazing how short memories are in baseball. The financially-strapped Tampa Rays traded Price a year ago and many pundits again declared the Tigers winners of Deadline Day.

What happened? The Orioles swept Detroit in three games, neutralizing their top ace Max Scherzer (now with the Nats), knocking out fading Justin Verlander, and beating Price 2-0 in the clinching game.

Yet I understand Toronto’s acquisitions – the Jays haven’t made the post-season since 1993 when they won the second of back-to-back World Series.

What a difference a year makes! Bud Norris won that clincher for the Orioles over Detroit but was designated for assignment on Trade Deadline Day. After winning 15 games in 2014, he fell to 2-7 in 2015 and was demoted to the bullpen.

My Orioles have been underachieving from spring training on. I saw it coming – that they were basically a .500 team - but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Watch I still do because I love their defense, especially now that shortstop JJ Hardy has returned to anchor it.

A prime example was the great 8-4-2 relay – Adam Jones-Jonathan Schoop-Matt Wieters – that saved the Friday night July 31 8-7 victory over the Tigers. The good news was that the O’s made up an early 6-0 deficit. The bad news was that pending free agent southpaw Wei-Yin Chen put the Birds in such an early hole.

Hardy’s power bat may be on permanent hiatus, but he remains a pleasure to watch on the defensive side of the ball. With Manny Machado at third and Schoop at second, both healthy again after serious knee injuries, the Oriole infield should be in very capable hands for a few years.

Free agent-to-be Chris Davis is more than adequate at first base but recent addition Minnesota castoff Chris Parmelee was truly excellent at first – if only he could find his batting stroke. Davis played a surprisingly good right field, filling in for a while the huge hole left when Nick Markakis departed to Atlanta as a free agent.

However, Parmelee was designated for assignment on Trade Deadline Day when the Orioles received left fielder Gerardo Parra from the Brewers in exchange for promising minor league righthander Zach Davies.

Now that the hoopla is over for July 31st it is time to take careful note of how your teams are playing in the dog days of August. As humidity increases and the sun keeps beating down, staying in condition and keeping firm one's readiness to win are more important than ever.

GOOD AND SAD NEWS ON THE SCOUTING FRONT
A well-deserved kudo is in order to the Goldklang Group of minor league franchises for continuing their project of honoring baseball scouts at their different ballparks.
On August 7, the Charleston (South Carolina) River Dogs will erect a plaque in
honor of current Giants scout Ed Creech.

Later in the summer the St. Paul Saints will honor Mike Arbuckle, long with the Phillies and now with the Royals, and the Hudson Valley Renegades will honor longtime Astros scout John Kosciak.

The sad news is the passing on Cape Cod on July 31st of Charles “Buzz” Bowers, a renowned New England scout. Buzz was one of the first scouts inducted into the Goldklang group’s Scouts Wall of Fame. He was joined by Lenny Merullo, who also passed away earlier this year.

Bowers was a contemporary and friend of a fellow pitcher Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. Like Roberts, Bowers attended Michigan State and both also played in the Vermont college summer league. Buzz considered former Reds hurler Ray Fisher, the legendary U. of Michigan and Vermont summer coach, his greatest mentor.

Buzz never made it out of Triple-A for the Phillies but began his scouting career with Philadelphia and later worked for the Dodgers.

In 1992 he went to work full time for the Red Sox. The legendary scout Bill Enos, who died in January 2015, named Bowers as his replacement.

Among the future major leaguers Bowers signed were infielder Lou Merloni, now a Boston sports commentator, and pitcher Carl Pavano, who after some success in Boston was traded to Montreal with fellow righthander Tony Armas Jr. for Pedro Martinez.

A scout is not only judged by the future big leaguers he signed, but by his commitment to evaluation of all players and devotion to the game. Buzz Bowers got high marks in all these areas.

A long-time high school teacher and coach, Buzz liked being around young people. He was not one of those nay-sayers he thought the "good old days" were better.

He was a firm believer that the measurement of talent had improved immensely since he was a player. He also was impressed by how many young pitchers starting in high school realized the importance of the changeup.

I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with Buzz Bowers on my first visit to the Cape Cod summer league five years ago. I will never forget his insight that he picked up from Bill Enos: “You don’t have to be drafted to play in the big leagues.”

Well, that’s all for now. I will be making my second trip to Cape Cod baseball next week and will be back to you with more stories from that legendary league next time.
In the meantime Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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