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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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"Collecting Lottery Tickets" - What Oriole Baseball Has Come To - Plus A Shout-Out to "Toni Stone"

 

I guess the trade this past weekend of the Orioles' most reliable pitcher Andrew Cashner to division rival Red Sox was not surprising. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and conventional wisdom says that the Orioles couldn't expect much in value for him.

 
Baltimore got two 17-year-old Venezuelans playing in the Dominican summer leagues, outfielder Elio Prado and infielder Noelwarth Romero. Both are undoubtedly years away from making The Show if they ever come close to the majors.   

 

According to Dan Connolly, the diligent Oriole correspondent for "The Athletic" online subscription website, the Orioles are "collecting lottery tickets" as they go through the complete "rebuild" of their largely unproductive organization. 

 
My response to that explanation is:  Who is going to pitch for the rest of this season?

The once-heralded Dylan Bundy went on the injured list after he gave up seven runs in the first inning of his first post-All Star Game start.  His knee was hurting during his warmup, but he didn't tell anybody until after he got shelled. 

 
Rookie southpaw John Means, the Orioles' lone All-Star this season, got rocked by Tampa Bay in his first post-ASG start.  He can't be expected to carry a full load.

 
Couldn't the Orioles have gotten more for Cashner, 32, who is having a career year - 9-3 for a team that has only 28 wins?  I would hate to think that the hasty trade was made because they feared that he - like Bundy - could get injured before the July 31 trade deadline.

 
What pains me about the Cashner trade is that he wanted to stay in Baltimore. He was committed to the rebuild. The Orioles were his fifth major league organization and he was looking for a home, especially now with his wife expecting. 

 

He was a Cubs first round draft pick in 2008, signed out of TCU, the same program that produced former Oriole hurler now with Phllies Jake Arrieta and Cardinals corner infielder Matt Carpenter.  Ultimately Cashner was traded to the Padres in the Anthony Rizzo deal and later spent time with the Marlins and Rangers. 

 
Signed to a two-year contract before the 2018 season, Cashner became a leader of the Orioles, not just the pitchers. I think I'm a pretty good judge watching on TV of who is faking intensity and who isn't.  You could see that the bearded 6' 6" hurler cared about competing and winning. 

 
His passion reminded me a little of Pete Vuckovich, the Brewers right-hander who I vividly remember once competed so hard during a playoff game against the Yankees in the 1981 strike-marred season that he refused to leave the mound despite throwing up, evidently battling some kind of ailment.

 
There was another admirable aspect in Cashner's background.  Understanding his son's passion for baseball, Andrew's father built a diamond in the back yard of the family home in Texas for Andrew to practice on. 

 
Oriole manager Brandon Hyde was effusive in his praise of Cashner, wishing him well in Boston except when he pitched against the Orioles.  I enthusiastically second that sentiment as he makes his debut tonight (Tues July 16) at Fenway against the Blue Jays, another "rebuilding" team.

 
Oriole fans are now fearful that first baseman/right fielder Trey Mancini may be the next to go.  He is currently in the worst slump of his career, but he continues to play hard and welcomes the role of young veteran leader on an unproven team. The converted infielder Mychal Givens will probably be dealt to teams looking for bullpen help.

 
We lived through a wave of trades last year at this time: Manny Machado to the Dodgers (now doing fine with the Padres on his $300 million plus contract); Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers (now a regular contributor on the AL Central first-place Twins); Kevin Gausman and Brad Brach to the Braves (where Gausman has been injured and ineffective and Brach, now with the Cubs, is also struggling).   

 
There are glimmers of hope in improved Oriole minor league play at the Double A Bowie level and the lower minors at Delmarva (Low Class A) and Aberdeen (Short Season). But it will be maddening if the Orioles unload Mancini and Givens and other players and get so little in return as what they received for Cashner. 

 
The new regime can't be thinking that Hawaiian shirt and straw hat fedora giveaways will substitute for a real plan for the future, can they?  Don't want to answer that question!

 
At least, for fans of other teams, there is plenty of excitement and weeks of hope, however illusory, ahead.  By its very nature, baseball always surprises.  

 

For example, nothing was more astonishing than former Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud's three-homer game against the Yankees last night Monday July 15. His third dinger, a 9th inning blast off Aroldis Chapman, led the spunky Tampa Bay Rays to a 5-4 victory. It kept alive the Rays' flickering hopes of catching the Yankees in the AL East divisional race.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT! 
Before I close this latest post, I want to urge you in the New York City area to see "Toni Stone," playing through Sunday August 11 at the Laura Pels Theatre (115 W 46th Street just west of Fifth Avenue). The comfy Pels is one of the theaters that is part of the Roundabout Theater group.

  

Rarely does a solid piece of historical research, Martha Ackmann's "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone" (Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, 2010), get transformed into exciting theatre. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation, "Toni Stone" succeeds in viscerally bringing to life the remarkable story of the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. 

 
There is a bravura performance by longtime Off-Broadway luminary April Matthis in the title role. She is aided by a supporting cast of eight talented male actors playing a variety of roles. Kudos must also be given to the crisp direction of Pam McKinnon and the brilliant choreography by Camille A. Brown.

 
I was enthralled from the opening of the first act when Toni Stone delivers a monologue in praise of the wonder and drama of baseball. (The writing reminded me of Roger Angell's elegiac essay, "On The Ball," from a 1976 New Yorker magazine, anthologized in "Five Seasons"). 

 
As a black tomboy in segregated America, Toni Stone had a hard time gaining acceptance.  "People weren't ready for me," she told Martha Ackmann when belatedly - she died in 1996 - she was rediscovered in the last years of her life, living for decades as a nurse in the SF Bay area.  "I wasn't classified. I was a menace to society."

 
But what an exciting achieving life she led - good enough to replace Hank Aaron as second baseman on the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 when he went into the Braves organization. A versatile woman athlete better than the legendary Babe Didrikson.  Good enough to play semi-pro baseball into her 60s in the Bay area. (Many thanks to Minnesota's great baseball historian Stew Thornley for his help in providing some additional details.)

 
It is a credit to Lydia Diamond's script that she has streamlined a lot of the stories in Toni Stone's life. She establishes a good dramatic flow without overburdening us with facts that could overwhelm the non-sports fan. Blessedly, the script rarely gets preachy.

 
My only quibble is in the misleading treatment of Gabby Street, the former major league catcher and World Series-winning manager, who befriended teenaged Toni when she enrolled in 1935 in his St. Paul, Minnesota baseball school.

 
A baseball traditionalist from the Deep South, best known as a member of the Washington Senators who once caught a baseball thrown from the Washington Monument, Street at first wanted nothing to do with Toni's desire for baseball instruction. 

 
She wouldn't accept no for an answer and ultimately Street realized that Toni's passion and talent were genuine.  For her 15th birthday he even gave her a pair of baseball spikes, a gift she always treasured.  So I felt it was a rare cheap shot for Toni in the play to say that Street was a member of the Klan. 


Despite this one jarring note, I still heartily recommend seeing "Toni Stone" at the Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 11. The play moves to the Arena Theatre in DC in the fall and early next year in San Francisco.

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

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