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The Nearing of Spring Training Will Mean A Lot In A Time of Loss

The new year has not started well for me personally.  On the first Sunday in January, my ex-wife died after a courageous two-year bout with cancer. Willie Nelson's lyric about not getting "over" deep losses but getting "through" them is so true.

 

It's also true that grief comes in waves. Tears flowed again yesterday morning when reading Robert Semple's tribute on the Sunday NY Times editorial page to his former colleague the great columnist Russell Baker who died on January 21 at the age of 93. 

 

Baker loved to drive Buicks, a sensible middle-class car, Semple recounted. When he 

asked Baker's neighbor if he still drove a Buick, he was told yes - it was still in front of his house waiting for his return. Boy, was that ever a poignant description for the loss survivors feel. 

 

Baker's legacy is huge.  His memoir "Growing Up," about his transition from rural Virginia to Baltimore, is a classic. His occasional commentary on sports was always humorous and trenchant. 

 

One particular column I remember was his deft put-down of George Steinbrenner when the volatile Yankee owner apologized to the city of New York after the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers.  Baker noted that he had lived in NYC for many years and no one had ever apologized to him for anything. 

 

I learned of another passing this weekend when Peter Magowan died at the age of 76, my age (gulp!)  The former owner of the SF Giants saved the team from transfer to another city in the early 1990s and supervised the building of the sparkling new ballpark on SF Bay.

 

I remember Magowan speaking some years ago at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Greenwich Village. (The clubhouse, alas, closed last year.) Magowan was born in New York City and like yours truly was a New York Giants fan.

 

He posed a great trivia question:  Can you name the six future MLB managers who were in uniform as players for the momentous Bobby Thomson game on October 3, 1951? (The day incidentally lthat future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was born.) 

 

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I have no objection to any of the four newest members who will be inducted into the shrine at Cooperstown on Sunday afternoon July 21.  The late Roy Halladay got in on his first try as did Mariano Rivera who is the first unanimous entrant.  (Derek Jeter, the only likely slam-dunk electee in the upcoming 2020 class, should be the second.) 

 

Mike Mussina's 270 wins with only 153 losses and a great walk-strikeout ratio of 785:2813 earned him my hypothetical vote.  Like Catfish Hunter and Greg Maddux, Mussina will go in with a blank cap on his plaque.

 

He didn't want to choose between his first team the Orioles, where he toiled his first 10 years, or the Yankees where he spent his final 8 years, winning 20 games for the first and only time in his last season. 

 

Halladay will wear a Blue Jays cap though he threw a perfect game and a playoff no-hitter for his last team the Phillies.  His stats of 203-105 W-L, 3.38 ERA, and 592:2117 BB-K ratio jump off the page. 

 

His willingness to demote himself to the lowest minor leagues early in his MLB career to retool his mechanics is a testimony to his desire to excel. So sad and even maddening that his desire to compete led him to fly his private plane to an early death at the age of 40, leaving a wife and two small children behind. 

 

No need to explain why closer extraordinaire and no-nonsense compeitor Mariano Rivera got elected unanimously. 

 

Edgar Martinez, the one hitter going in on the writers ballot, was a rare career .300 hitter in this age of the what-me-worry? whiff. Lifetime BA .312, slugging AV: 515, 2247 hits, and also extremely rare these days:  a positive BB:K ratio of 1253:1202. 

 

He is the first primarily designated hitter going into the Hall but that shouldn't have been used against him.  He was a feared hitter whenever he played, and like Halladay he demonstrated an exceptional devotion to his craft. 

 

He used to do eye exercises for at least a half hour before every game.  Hand/eye coordination is not just a God-given gift, it must be practiced and honed. 

 

Glad I could end this blog on an up note.  Back to you again on the eve of spring training that opens the earliest on Feb 11 and Feb 12 for the A's and Mariners who will be opening the season in Tokyo the next-to-last week in March. 

 

Before I sign off, let me heartily recommend Robert Caro's mini-memoir in the Sept. 28, 2019 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  It is filled with wisdom about the practice of journalism and writing and the search for truth. 

 

As always, take it easy but take it!  And oh yes on the trivia question here's a hint:  There was one Dodger and five Giants in player uniform on 10/3/1951 that became MLB skippers.

Answer next time.

 

 

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On The Eve of the All-Star Break: Celebrating College Baseball & John Brush Steps Rededication While Putting Oriole Woes On Back Burner

The MLB season is more than half over and the first half-plus is ending with a thud for my Baltimore Orioles. After finally spurting 7 games over .500, they have lost three series in a row including a sweep on the road by the very improved Minnesota Twins.

Though they have four deserved AllStars – Manny Machado playing with abandon after knee operations, Adam Jones recovering from a rare shoulder injury, shutdown closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O’Day – the rest of their lineup and the starting pitching has been inconsistent. They trail the Yankee$$$ by three games as of Friday morning July 10.

Deserved kudos to new Twins manager Paul Molitor, the St. Paul MN-native and Hall of Famer in his first year as skipper, whose Twins thoroughly spanked the Birds. Molitor so far is belying that myth that great players cannot make good managers.

He presents a fascinating calm presence in the dugout. No Joe Girardi-Captain Queeg-like-squeezing-baseballs-like-ball bearings for him. Or Buck Showalter-grimaces-a la Earl Weaver. It is hard to know what he is thinking (except I did catch him looking down when his starter Kyle Gibson was temporarily losing sight of the strike zone with a eight-run lead).

So far Molitor’s hirings look good. He has brought aboard former Twins slugger Tom Brunansky as hitting coach. He also hired as rookie pitching coach Neil Allen, the former Met and Yankee hurler who served many years at Triple A-Durham NC helping develop the Tampa Bay Rays’ arsenal of fine pitchers.

After four miserable years, the Twins have taken advantage of their high draft picks and they remain a solid player development organization. They are fielding virtually a home-grown team with such promising talent as center fielder Aaron Hicks and third baseman/dh Miguel Sano, the highly touted Dominican Republic native whose first games in the big leagues have been a rousing success.

The Twins are getting a solid year from two veterans and definite leaders: quiet Joe Mauer, no longer catching but playing first base, and ebullient right fielder Torii Hunter who is proving you can go home again.

There is no assurance, of course, that the young Twins can challenge the Royals or even hold off the Tigers in the AL Central – where the White Sox and Indians are also showing signs of life though under .500. However as July advances, the Twins are a top feel-good story of 2015.

ON THE COLLEGE BASEBALL/HISTORICAL BASEBALL TRAIL
On June 29 the annual “Night of Champions,” sponsored by the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, provided as always an invigorating evening.

Player inductees into the CBHofF this year were Lance Berkman (Rice), Al Holland (North Carolina A & T), Rick Reichardt (University of Wisconsin), and Frank Viola (St. Johns of Queens, NY). All attended and were genuinely moved by the honor.

Berkman, who retired after a stellar major league career (366 HRs, .290 career BA) mainly with the Astros, looked trim, like he could still put on a MLB uniform.

He said that Rice coach Wayne Graham, briefly a Mets third baseman and already inducted in the Lubbock shrine, was a demanding taskmaster who made you feel “a sense of desperation.”

(Little-known fact about Berkman’s trade to the Yankees late in his career: The Astros received two minor leaguers now shining for other teams: Jimmy Paredes as the Orioles’ surprising if streaky DH, and Mark Melancon the Pirates closer and 2015 All-Star.)

Reichardt, whose record-setting bonus from the California Angels of over $200,000 in 1964 precipitated the creation of the amateur free agent draft the following year, was also a very heralded football running back and pass receiver. (He played in the famous 1963 Rose Bowl in which Wisconsin’s fourth-quarter comeback fell just short in a 42-37 loss to USC.)

Reichardt said that he loved his time in baseball though a loss of a kidney during his rookie season and his activities in the Players Association curtailed his career. He wished that today’s players would remember how past players’ actions led to the big salaries of today. He also regretted that most of today’s players don’t work harder on developing their skills.

Frank Viola flew in from his current job as the Mets’ pitching coach at Triple-A Las Vegas. His 26-2 record in three seasons at St. John’s was a remarkable career accomplishment. He gave great credit to his late pitching coach Howie Gershberg.

For a single game exploit, everyone still talks about Viola’s extra-inning victory over Ron Darling and Yale in a 1981 NCAA regional. Roger Angell immortalized the game in his “Web of the Game” essay in The New Yorker magazine (reprinted in the anthology “Late Innings”).

Viola said that the two things he most remembered about the game were: 1. The entire Yale dugout stood to applaud Darling when he gave up his first hit, a bloop, in the 11th inning. 2. The next day Darling also the Yale right fielder made a 310-foot throw on one hop to home plate. (Darling now is a member of Mets TV broadcasting team.)

Al Holland spoke forcefully and delightfully. Undrafted and rarely scouted at the historically black North Carolina A & T in Greensboro, Holland was signed at a tryout camp in Charlotte NC in 1975 by Branch Barrett Rickey, Branch Rickey’s grandson who was then an assistant farm director for the Pirates. (Today BB Rickey is the president of the Pacific Coast League.)

Holland received no bonus, just a dinner and a copy of an early illustrated book on visualization techniques. Holland made a bet with Rickey that he would arrive in Pittsburgh within two years and wanted a steak dinner. Sure enough Holland made the Pirates in 1977 and got his dinner.

He made his first mark in the big leagues with the San Francisco Giants under manager Frank Robinson. After compiling a long string of hitless innings, Robinson offered Holland a day off. “Did I tell you I was tired?” Holland remembered telling the intense skipper. “When I’m tired, I’ll tell you.

Holland finished his 10-year career with a 34-30 record, an ERA of 2.98, and 82 saves including 54 for the Phillies who he starred for in their 1983 pennant-winning season.

More good news from Lubbock was the ceremonial ground-breaking for the George HW Bush College Baseball Hall of Fame museum building. Bush, POTUS 41, played first base for Yale in the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948.

One final historical moment: On the 102nd anniversary of their original dedication, the John Brush Steps were formally re-opened on Thursday July 9. Giants owner John Brush died in 1912 and the steps from Edgecombe Avenue on Sugar Hill down toward the entrance to the bathtub-shaped Polo Grounds were a memorial to him.

Many dignitaries and abiding baseball fans gathered for the ceremony.
A huge tip of the cap goes to Staci Slaughter, SF Giants Communications Exec V-P, who flew in from San Francisco for the occasion. Beginning with former owner Peter Magowan, a New York native who loved the NY Giants, the SF franchise has been very cognizant of its roots.

The SF Giants, the Mets and the Yankees, the football Giants and Jets, MLB as a corporate entity, and NYC government all contributed to make possible the re-dedicated Brush steps.

Lee Mazzilli, a Brooklyn boy who played for both the Mets and Yankees, spoke very movingly about the Polo Grounds and what it meant in American history not just baseball history. He said he grew up a SF Giant fan of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey,
Juan Marichal, and Dick Dietz.

Longtime New York State assemblyman Herman D. "Denny" Farrell Jr. grew up in Sugar Hill above the Polo Grounds. He told the story of how one day the St. Louis Cardinals got lost on the subway to the ballpark.

Carrying bats and wearing Cardinal jackets, they trudged up the hill towards the Polo Grounds. Soon word spread among Farrell and his friends. "Look, there's a real baseball team here!" they exulted. Farrell still vividly remembers the white hair of Cards third baseman Whitey Kurowski trudging up the hill towards the ballpark.

NYC parks commissioner Mitchell J. Silver and city councilman Ydanis Rodriguez are confident that the Harlem River Driveway (north of 155th Street that leads to Harlem River Drive) will soon be named after Willie Mays.

Also on the agenda is naming a street for the Alou brothers, Felipe, Mateo and Jesus, who were signed and starred for the San Francisco Giants. "Thank you, San Francisco, for giving three brothers a chance," Councilman Rodriguez noted gratefully.

That’s all this time. This is Teny Ymota (The Earl Of NY, Your Man On The Aisle), reminding you: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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