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The Joys of "Meaningful Games in September": Cyclones Win, Mets Come Up A Little Short, and A Final Farewell to Al Jackson

I can't recall a late summer in NYC that has been so warm and beautiful. With chances to see live baseball in this area fading like the summer light, I've been blessed to catch some great games in supremely lovely conditions.

 

Under a nearly full moon on Tuesday September 10, I saw the Brooklyn Cyclones win their first outright Short Season Class A New York-Penn League title. (They shared a league title in 2001 but because of the 9/11 attacks there was no conclusive game.)

 

With the Coney Island boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean visible beyond the outfield, over 3,000 fans at MCU Park cheered the home team as they won a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox farm club.  It brought a title to Cyclones manager Edgardo Alfonzo, the outstanding and truly beloved former Mets third and second baseman.

 

The winning 7th inning rally was fueled by hits by former SEC rivals, outfielders Jake Mangum (Miss. State) who led off with a single and raced home on a triple by Antoine Duplessis (LSU). Third baseman Yoel Romero, a 21-year-old from Venezuela in his fifth minor league season, then singled home the tie-breaking run. 32nd round draft pick lefty Andrew Edwards notched a two-inning save. 

 

Although it is only the low minor leagues, Brooklyn can now claim its pro baseball title since Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series. Cyclones starter Nate Jones, Matt Allan (the Mets 2019 number one draft pick), and eventual winner Mitch Ragan who preceded Edwards all pitched effectively.

 
Lowell used two top Boston prospects from New Jersey that were both drafted out of high school.  Recovering from Tommy John surgery, starter and top draft pick Jay Groome (Barnegat) worked only 2 2/3 innings but showed good mound presence and struck out three despite giving up two runs.  He left to a warm reception from his home town supporters.

 
Right fielder Nick Decker (Seneca HS, Tabernacle NJ) walked a couple of times and was pitched very carefully.  In his last AB, he was hit by a pitch which left him more than a little peeved. He was removed from the game as a precaution against injury and perhaps to cool him down a little.  To me he showed the spunk that makes him someone to watch.

 
Who knows what the future will hold for any of these players?  It is one of the charms of watching baseball on the lower levels.  Pat O'Conner, the head of the minor league ruling body the National Association, likes to say that he guarantees you'll see at least one future major leaguer at every MiLB game. The challenge, of course, is to identify who that will be.

 
Here's a special tip of the cap to Jada Bennett, a member of the Cyclones dance squad who sang the National Anthem beautifully both at the final game and before the semi-final victory over the Hudson Valley Renegades.  She brought the song home in tune in not much over one minute and thirty seconds without unnecessary flourishes that far too often make the performance about the singer and not the song. 

 
The parent Mets were not as fortunate as the Cyclones in their Sunday September 15 rubber game against the Dodgers. It was unfortunate that ESPN forced the Mets to move the Sunday Family Day to a 7p start.  So there were far fewer fans in attendance than the announced 31,000+

 

On a warm low-humidity evening, I saw a very well-played game dominated by the starting pitchers, the Mets Zack Wheeler and the Dodgers Walker Buehler who went only five innings but five relievers held the Mets to three hits, only one after the second inning.

 

(Buehler is another product of the Vanderbilt University pitching factory that has also produced David Price and Sonny Gray who has flourished in Cincinnati with his college pitching coach and away from the bright lights and 24/7/365 intensity of NYC). 

 
As all good teams do, the Dodgers rallied in the late innings once Wheeler left the game after seven strong innings.  He had only thrown 97 pitches but had worked out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings, getting his last five outs by strikeout. 

 
I hope I live to see the day when starting pitchers are encouraged to throw more than 100 pitches.   Maybe baseball life would have been different if 120 had become the magic number not 100.  But generations of pitchers have grown up feeling that seven innings is the outer limit for their efforts. 

 
Kudos to Wheeler and his starting mates Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz who have done their job, along with a revived offense, in fueling the Mets' surprise comeback from 11 games under .500  in July. 

 

Losing a series to the Dodgers, a World Series favorite, is no embarrassment.   Too bad they dug such an early season hole. I sure hope the tearful young fan wearing a Pete Alonso jersey who I saw crying in the elevator after the game realizes it hasn't been a lost season for the Mets.  I just hope the Mets keep that core of pitchers together in the off-season.

 
In closing this entry, I want to say a few more words about the loss of Al Jackson, their longtime organizational pitching coach who died in late August at the age of 83.

(There is a tape of a WFAN interview I did about Al on the home page of this website.)

 
Despite coming up the hard way in the years of segregation and partial integration, Jackson was such a positive presence.  You couldn't help learn valuable baseball and life lessons by being about "the little lefty from Waco". 

 

Among my favorite of his aphorisms:  "Shower away the day" - leave the last game in the shower whether you've won or lost. When you are toweling off, think of the next game.

 

"Know the difference between hitter's strikes and pitcher's strikes." 

 

"Don't get beat with your third or fourth best pitch."  

 

The youngest of thirteen children and the last survivor, Al Jackson was buried in his home town on September 7.  As Mets former PR chief and current team historian put it so well, he was "our national treasure" and should never be forgotten.

 
That's all for now.  Next time some more thoughts from my pal Teny Ymota who loved the Linda Ronstadt documentary and will be hearing Kelli O'Hara sing this Wednesday Sept 18 with the New York Philharmonic one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard, Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer 1915" inspired by the prologue to James Agee's memoir, "A Death in The Family".

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

 

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Another Report From NYC Baseball Banquet Circuit + Preliminary Thoughts on Mets' New Acquisitions

I love the refreshing piney smell of Christmas trees that are now piling up on the sidewalks of Broadway in my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood. For a few moments, it makes me love the changing of seasons and forget that spring training is still several weeks away.

An even better antidote for the No-Baseball Blues is to attend a gathering of players, coaches, scouts, and fans as I did last week. For the first time I attended the Annual Raymond E. Church Service to Youth Baseball Awards Dinner at Russo’s On The Bay restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens not far from JFK Airport.

The function was sponsored by the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Association (GNYSAA). My appetite for this event was whetted when I learned that the GNYSAA grew out of the New York Journal American/Hearst newspapers high school all-star game that was an annual event in NYC from 1946 through 1965.

88 future major leaguers played in a game that was held most of the time at the Polo Grounds. Among the future MLB stars that played in this game were Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Bill Skowron, and Joe Torre. Kuenn played in it during its first years from 1946-1950 when it was billed as a New York versus The World competition. (Thanks to fellow SABR member Alan Cohen for this info.)

More storied names from the past were brought up by Frank Del George, one of the evening’s coaching excellence award winners. A product of the Brooklyn housing projects, Del George is currently head coach of St. Francis Prep and once was a star shortstop for St. Francis College of Brooklyn.

Del George remembered warmly that he had played for Frank Tepedino Sr. - father of future Yankee outfielder-first baseman Frank Tepedino - for the American Legion Cummings Brothers team. His double play partner? Future Yankee second baseman and Met manager Willie Randolph.

Guest speaker Nelson Figueroa, former Mets pitcher and current Mets cable TV commentator, also spoke very movingly about his roots of his career. He pointed out in the audience Anthony Iapoce, newly appointed Cubs batting coach, and noted that he and Iapoce had played for a USA Baseball 12-and-under team in Japan 32 years ago.

Nelson was under five feet and less than 100 pounds. But he made the team, one of 16 chosen out of 600 competing. He paid tribute to his Abraham Lincoln HS coach Joe Malone who believed in him despite his small stature. He thanked Malone for having him throw only fastballs and change-ups at that tender age.

Figueroa also saluted the longtime Youth Service coach Mel Zitter, mentor of Manny Ramirez and Shawon Dunston among others. Before “tough love” was a cliche, Zitter epitomized the no-nonsense coach who drove his charges very hard in early a.m. practices. He also made sure, Figueroa noted, that the Parade Grounds field was properly maintained so no one got hurt.

Zitter was in the audience, having made the long drive from his home in North Carolina to show his devotion to NYC grass roots baseball. Figueroa thanked Zitter for taking him to a youth tournament in Waltham, Mass where he made contacts with Brandeis University coaches.

He listed himself as 6 3 and over 150 pounds. but he was barely 6 feet and much lighter. Figueroa quipped that people often asked, “Where’s the rest of you?” Yet he went on to an outstanding college career, capped in 2015 by his election to the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame, a honor worthy of the school’s only major leaguer.

An elegiac moment near the end of the evening was provided by Brother Robert Kent who was honored for his 50 years of service at St. Francis Prep as baseball coach, athletic director, and history teacher. Bemoaning that on the site where Ebbets Field once stood there is now a sign, “No Ball Playing Allowed,” he urged that we work towards a time when “more Willies, Mickeys, and Dukes” are developed in our area.

Next up on the NYC baseball banquet circuit is the grand-daddy of them all, the 54th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s at Great Neck on Northern Boulevard.

It will be held Friday January 25 starting at 630p. No tickets will be sold at the door but information can be obtained by contacting longtime Chicago Cubs scout Billy Blitzer at BBSCOUT1@aol.com

I’m off to baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas from Dec. 9-13. I will be back here with tales from those days of wheeling and dealing. Am not exactly thrilled that Jeff McNeil, the surprise of late last season for the Mets, will now be reduced to utility status with the acquisition of aging Robinson Cano from Seattle.

Another new acquisition 24-year-old Edwin Diaz, who led all of baseball with 57 saves, should help. But one never knows what happens to players in a new environment, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like New York. (See under Gray, Sonny.)

It will really be hand-wringing time if the Mets trade Noah Syndergaard. Woe to any baseball organization that feels because the MLB TV network will be providing 24/7 coverage of the meetings you must do "something." But good advice is always not to get too distraught about things that haven’t happened yet and that we have no control over.

So the best advice always remains: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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