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April May Be The Cruelest Month But Don't Tell That To The Mariners, Rays, and Plucky Ivy League Nines

There is an old Russian proverb about illusions that heal and illusions that kill.  We have seen too many of the latter in our public life these days from the top down.

 

For baseball fans, there is nothing like a good start to a season to bring hope, however illusory. When I started this post, the Orioles - unanimously picked for last place in 2019 - had won two series on the road, in Toronto and New York. 

 
Improbable dreams of flirting with .500 at least through the spring danced through my head. The Yankees, who have lately treated the cozy confines of Camden Yards like batting practice, quickly dispelled that illusion with a three-game sweep.   

 
Two games were winnable by the O's but there is no reliable arm on the pitching staff, either starter or reliever.  "Without pitching you have nuttin'!" Sparky Anderson once wisely said.

 
Not that the Oriole offense is potent with the media now swooping down on the record-breaking futility of first baseman Chris Davis. He hasn't had a hit since last September but is still bound to the club with four more years left on his seven-year $161 million contract. 

 

He occasionally lines the ball hard to the outfield but they are only outs.  Then he relapses into his alarming pattern of striking out, both looking and swinging. 


Enough of these somber tones. Let me praise for now the surprise team of 2019 so far, the Seattle Mariners off to a 12-2 start including its opening two victories in Japan over the Oakland A's.   

 
They are scoring runs in bunches with uber-streaky shortstop Tim Beckham blasting homers and outfielder Mitch Haniger determined to prove that his excellent 2018 season was not a mirage.  I do wonder if they will have the pitching and defense - are you listening Tim Beckham? - to hold off the defending AL West champion Houston Astros who just swept the Yankees at home and are riding a six-game winning streak.  


The rise of the Tampa Bay Rays to the early AL East lead is not really a surprise. They won 90 games last year and their home-grown players are beginning to mature.  They made a great trade with Pittsburgh to obtain outfielder Austin Meadows and starter Tyler Glasnow - both have contributed mightily to the Rays' fast start. 

 

Alas, no one expects the exciting product on the field to improve home attendance. Rays management is so resigned to the lack of support at Tropicana Field, its indoor mausoleum in St. Petersburg, that the upper deck will be closed.

 

The Rays are following in the footsteps of the Oakland A's, a 97-game winner in 2018 that also sealed off the upper deck because of weak attendance.  New stadiums are nowhere in sight for either franchise, and I wonder if even new facilities will boost attendance.

 
Speaking of lack of fan support, college baseball in the Northeast is usually played in front of friends and family.  That doesn't mean the competition isn't high quality and fiercely contested. 

 
Last weekend, the Penn Quakers and Dartmouth Big Green played a historic 21-inning game in Hanover that set NCAA records for ABs and plate appearances.  Penn won 21-15 and went on to become the first team in 2019 to sweep a three-game series.

 
The Ivy League pennant race is building to a roaring climax in the next four weekends.  Defending champion Columbia, Harvard, and Penn are tied at 6-3 with Yale just a game behind.

 
Hard to beat the drama of the Yale-Harvard series in Cambridge last week.  Harvard pulled off a dramatic comeback by rallying with 9 runs in bottom of the 9th to stun the Bulldogs 10-8 in the first game. Senior slugger Patrick McColl capped the rally with a grand slam.

 

The comeback was so reminiscent of the Crimson's amazing late inning rally last May against Dartmouth that erased a 8-run deficit and enabled Columbia to make the post-season playoff against Yale. (In the 8-team league, the first two finishers qualify for a best-of-three championship series.)

 
Facing a sweep this past Sunday, Yale rallied with 3 in the 9th to salvage one game in the weekend series. Columbia also got stunned by a Princeton 6-run bottom of 8th rally but the Lions rebounded by winning a rubber match 2-1 squeaker between southpaw Ben Wereski with Jim Smiley getting the save. 

 

This weekend Yale hosts Columbia in a big three-game series - a rematch of last year's championship series swept by the Lions. Lots of scouts will attend the likely first game matchup of aces Josh Simpson (Columbia) and Scott Politz (Yale).  

 
More on this and other sizzling events on many levels of baseball next time. Finally weather seems to be getting as warm as the competition.

 
For now always remember: Take it easy but take it.

 

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l"Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn't Hustle": Highlights from My Phoenix Trip + Reflections on Ailing Tom Seaver

A week ago in Phoenix waiting for a return flight to NYC, I noticed a great saying on the back of a fellow's jacket: "Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn't Hustle."

 
I told the man I liked the sentiment.  Best I had seen since a Tampa Bay Rays athletic trainer working for their Hudson Valley Renegades farm team wore a T-shirt that said:  "Champions Are Made When Nobody Is Watching."

 
Turned out my new friend was from Green Bay, Wisconsin, now living in Phoenix area. We shared our mutual love of the UW Badgers. The cagers were blowing out Ohio State on the TV as we chatted eating some of the good food at Matt's Big Breakfast diner in Terminal B at Sky Harbor Airport.

 
The game turned out to be an overtime nail biter that Wisconsin won. Fortunately I missed the agony because was on the flight east. Badgers will limp into the NCAA tourney on Friday against a hot Oregon Ducks team eager for revenge on Wisconsin that knocked them out twice in recent years.

 
Back to my new friend with the nice jacket quote.  He has a son playing on an U-12 baseball team called the Scottsdale Dirt Dogs. They play travel ball more than grade school ball, but the dad assures me they have pitch limits enforced on pitchers. 

 

Sure hope they keep sticking with that policy because all those Tommy John operations have roots in overuse by young kids who should know better. But of course they don't because they are young and fired up to compete. It's up to parents and coaches to set the right guidelines of caution while their kids' bodies are still developing.

 
I was in Arizona for the 26th annual conference sponsored by "NINE: A Magazine of Baseball History and Culture".  Retired White Sox organist Nancy Faust got things off to a rollicking start opening night with tales of her career at the late lamented Comiskey Park.  She entertained us by bringing an organ keyboard to illustrate her stories.

 
Among the stimulating presentations were the NINE debut of Jim Gates, librarian and all-around vital honcho at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He delivered a fascinating paper on the origin of baseball cards.

 
Until the 1950s, we learned that baseball cards were only 10% of the market. They took off early in the 20th century to sell tobacco. They featured many kinds of subjects - food, inventors, gems, and especially actresses and goddesses, known quietly in the more discreet early 20th century as "girly" cards.

 
In my paper, I talked about the too-infrequent times of cooperation between college baseball and MLB.  Before I started my research, I knew how important Ohio Wesleyan U. was to the life and career of Branch Rickey, but didn't realize how big a role the Illinois Wesleyan Titans played in the college game.

 
In one dramatic instance, Bobby Winkles, the great coach that made Phoenix's Arizona State Sun Devils a late 1960s powerhouse, came to play for IWU when the Yankees relinquished their rights to him.

 
The Titans had just lost catcher Cal Neeman to the New Yorkers after his sophomore year. The amateur free agent draft was still 15 years away and IWU officials, led by the amazing man-of-many-sporting-hats Fred Young, insisted that Winkles was not ready for the pros. And that the Yankees had taken away one too many player.

 
I concluded my introduction to this meaty subject by telling the story of how veteran Red  Sox scout Bill Enos helped to administer MLB's cooperation with the Cape Cod Baseball League in the early 1980s.  Before his retirement, he had the rare privilege of naming Ray Fagnant as one of his successors.    

 

Closing night NINE speakers were Jane Leavy, author of the new biography of Babe Ruth "The Big Fella" (who accepted SABR's Seymour medal), and prolific author Curt Smith who has written many books on baseball broadcasting.

 
Turns out that Denny Matthews, who played second base for Illinois Wesleyan in the 1960s, is one of Smith's favorite broadcasters.  I like him too but because he covers the KC Royals, coastal Americans don't get to hear often enough the pipes of a man comparable to Vin Scully.

 
Before I close this post, I was saddened by the news of Tom Seaver's dementia and the announcement that he will no longer make public appearances. He contracted Lyme's disease while still living in Connecticut and picked up a second case, probably in his vineyard in the northern California wine country. 

 

Seaver will be absent in June when the Mets celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mets' 1969 World Series triumph.  I worked with Tom on THE ART OF PITCHING (that came out in 1984 and in paperback in 1994).

 

When I started taping his incisive thoughts on his craft, he urged me to visit him before the exhibition games started in St. Petersburg. Once, after a day's taping, he drove me past a building in Clearwater that he thought might be the biggest or widest in the world -  maybe two blocks long and two blocks wide.

 
He was very entranced and knowledgeable about architecture and art. He scoffed at teammates who made fun of his going to museums when on the road. Marty Noble, in a moving reminiscence posted early Sunday March 17 on the website "Murray Chass on Baseball," caught very well Seaver's scoffing as well as very thoughtful side.

 
I think he had a lot to live up to as the youngest in his accomplished family. He had an artist brother and a father Charles who was a great amateur golfer who beat his Stanford teammate the renowned Lawson Little in 1932 for the school title. Later that year Charles led the US to victory in the Walker Cup. (The Seavers were related to the Walkers and also President #41 George Herbert Walker Bush.)


I met Charles Seaver on the day that Tom won his 300th game, pitching for the White Sox at Yankee Stadium in late August 1983. It was Phil Rizzuto Day, when an actual "holy cow" was given the Scooter and it knocked Phil over.

 
After the game, Charles told me that competition in baseball was similar to that in golf. You want the opponent to do well but yourself to do better, he said. Tom certainly epitomized that ideal on the field.  I hope he continues to stay with us on this earth, however impaired, for as long as he can.

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

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