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Ready For Some Baseball Talk? Report from the Banquet Circuit

The last weekend of January has always marked for me the beginning of the baseball season. Because it usually means the annual Hot Stove League dinner of the New York-area baseball scouts.

I have been attending this friendly informative gathering for about 30 years. For the quality of the pithy speeches, this past Friday's gathering at Leonard's of Great Neck ranks as among the best ever.

The scouts have a sense of history, naming the awards after departed brethren.
Here are some of the highlights from the evening:

The Turk Karam Scout of the Year Dennis Sheehan, now with the Diamondbacks after a long career with the Braves and as a NY area coach, urged young scouts "to fight to the end for your kid." He also wryly predicted that his son Joseph Sheehan, now a VP for the Cleveland Browns, would win at least one game in the next NFL season.

Ralph DiLullo College Coach of the Year Dom Scala from Adelphi in Garden City LI said eloquently, "Only scouts can judge the pulse and heart of a player." The onetime 6th round choice of the Oakland A's, Scala was a Yankee bullpen coach for nine years earning a 1978 World Series ring. He then went into scouting and then college coaching.

"I'm proud to be a baseball lifer," he said. Like Sheehan he told the young scouts in attendance, "I hope you find your dream player."

When it was announced that the Marlins as well as the Mets and Yankees had bought tables for the dinner, Scala quipped, "Does Derek Jeter know [this]?" A reference, of course, to the onetime Yankee hero (and heartthrob) who has gotten off to a miserable start as the face of the Marlins' cost-cutting fire sale of star players.

The Herb Stein Future Star award winner Zack Granite was a pleasant surprise. Often young players don't come to the dinner, but the Staten Island Tottenville HS and Seton Hall college star Granite talked movingly about the thrill of his callup in midseason to the Twins - a team, incidentally, that Herb Stein served ably for decades, signing Hall of Famer Rod Carew, Frank Viola, Gene Larkin, and many others).

The biggest plus so far of being a major leaguer, outfielder Granite said, was wearing the single-flap helmet instead of the hockey-like double flap required in the minors.
He created laughter when he told the story of his uncle Tom who braved the wrath of the Yankee Stadium bleacher creatures by wearing a full Twins uniform during their wild card game loss last October.

Last but not least in the evening was Billy Altman's eloquent acceptance of the Jim Quigley Service to Baseball award (that I was thrilled to receive in 2010). Altman memorably covered the Mets for the "Village Voice" and now is one of the
official scorers for the Yankees and Mets. (This Renaissance man is also a pioneering rock 'n' critic who is serving in key capacities for the new St. Louis blues museum and the forthcoming African-American music museum in Nashville).

Altman remembered his first experience at a World Series in 1981 when he stood behind home plate alongside Howard Cosell and Jim Palmer and watched Sandy Koufax in full uniform pitch batting practice for the Dodgers.

Altman suggested that the beauty and democracy of baseball was exemplified last year when during the World Series 6' 7" Aaron Judge stood as a baserunner at second base next to Astros second sacker 5' 6" Jose Altuve.

I didn't go to the baseball writers dinner the following Sunday, but I read that the genuinely humble Judge paid a touching tribute to his parents seated in the audience: “I could never repay you guys for all the baseball tournaments you’ve driven to, the times I forgot my cleats at home and you had to go back and get them.”

I did attend another late January event that is becoming a fixture on the New York baseball, the annual meeting of the Casey Stengel chapter of SABR. Among the highlights were a friendly and refreshing hour with Tyler Kepner, the excellent national baseball reporter for the New York Times.

Tyler passed around the self-published baseball magazine that he created as a teenager in Philadelphia that led him to become one of the youngest credentialed sportswriters in the country. He has never lost his love for the game and the talented players - it surely shows in his writing.

Before I close, let me say that I have no real objections to the six new Hall of Famers players that will be inducted into Cooperstown in the last week of July. It is the largest number since the initial class voted in during the late 1930s. I don't want multiple inductions every year because the Hall of Fame should be for the truly great not just the very good.

But Atlanta’s Chipper Jones was clearly a no-brainer - a switch-hitter with power and a fine third base glove. He even showed some humor by naming a child Shea in honor of the Mets fans who booed him lustily out of grudging respect.

Second in the voting was Vladimir Guerrero who never played in a World Series but his lethal bat and astounding right field arm deserve immortality.

Closer Trevor Hoffman lost the one World Series he played in for the Padres, and on other big stages he always seemed to come up short. But his accumulation of regular season saves and the nice backstory of his conversion from weak-hitting infielder to the mound contributed to his selection.

Slugger Jim Thome’s career number of 612 HRs made him almost a lock for the Hall of Fame. He also was never tainted with suspicion of PED use, maybe because he was such a giant of a man from early on.

His back story is rather neat too. A 13th round pick of the Indians, he was signed as a shortstop out of Illinois Central college near his home town of Peoria. Scout Tom Couston had followed the power bat of Thome since high school and knew he couldn't let him get away. Charlie Manuel as Thome's hitting coach and later manager helped develop Thome's skills, and Jim gave him due credit when he learned of his selection.

Joining these four in Cooperstown in late July will be two Detroit Tiger stalwarts picked by a Veteran's Committee, pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell. They were teammates on the 1984 World Series champs that went wire-to-wire in the regular season and lost only one post-season game. They were also models of consistency throughout their careers.

That’s all for now. Always: remember - Take it easy but take it!
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Music and Basketball As Antidotes to the No-Baseball Blues

The darkest days of the calendar year are upon us. Daylight Saving Time is over and until December 21, days grow shorter and shorter. There are less than 100 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 2016. So we try to be strong.

Yet there is so much of the MLB network one can watch. It was nice to see streamlined versions of the best post-season games – cut into two-hour segments - but after a while that grows old, too. And I have never been big on watching award shows.

Hall of Fame eligibility is another topic that doesn’t thrill me to the marrow. It seems likely Ken Griffey Jr. gets elected when the results of the balloting is announced on January 7.

I think Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has a chance but I’d wait a while longer on him. He certainly didn’t excel in his World Series appearances in 1998 and that should be at least a temporary cautionary message.

Mike Piazza needs less than 10 per cent of what he garnered last year to break past the 75% representation on all ballots to enter Cooperstown. Though he never failed a drug test (neither did Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire), the stigma of the “steroid era” still hangs over Piazza.

Here are two antidotes to the No-Baseball Blues:
1. I do have my college basketball teams to root for. Columbia is actually picked to do well in the Ivy League with the return of potent forward Alex Rosenberg from injury and stellar guard Maado Lo, who is shortlisted for both the Bob Cousy and Lou Henson awards given for outstanding backcourt play.

Both Rosenberg and Lo are seniors so it is a do-or-die year for coach Kyle Smith's team that looks deep except at the important center position.

Out in Madison, the Wisconsin Badgers will always be interesting under coach Bo Ryan who is hedging on whether this will be his last year. I hope he stays as long as
he wants.

He turns 68 next month and is a true basketball lifer – son of Chester, Pennsylvania high school coaching legend Butch Ryan, Bo worked his way patient up from the small college Division III ranks, excelling at U. of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Since his arrival in Madison in 2001 his Badger teams have never finished below 4th in the Big Ten. They are coming off two back-to-back Final Four appearances.

They avenged a 2014 loss to Kentucky last season but lost a controversial final to Duke when the refs stopped calling fouls on Duke in the second half and blew the whistle constantly on the Badgers.

Adjusting to life won’t be easy without the versatile seven-foot Frank Kaminsky, now with the Charlotte Hornets, and forward Sam Dekker, who left a year early to join the Houston Rockets.

No one realistically expects the Badgers to return to the Final Four for the third year in a row. Yet why be a sports fan if you can’t dream a little (or a lot)?

Gotta love a coach like Ryan who picked up his nickname Bo on the Chester playgrounds because he used to play the game like middleweight boxing champion Bobo Olson – all knees and elbows.

Antidote #2
“Jazz should wipe away the dust of every day life,” Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers fame famously said. I thought of that insight after hearing Chucho Valdes and Irakere, his 9-piece band of young Cuban musicians, thrill a Town Hall audience in midtown Manhattan on Veterans Day eve.

At 74 pianist Valdes shows no signs of slowing down. A child prodigy and son of Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, who after the Castro revolution lived the rest of his 94 years in Europe, Chucho has stayed in Cuba but has built a deserved world-wide reputation.

In his one set of almost two hours on Tuesday night, Valdes and Irakere thrilled the audience. The young Cuban horn players were passionate and excellent and the sounds of Gnawan Moroccan percussion enthralling.

Valdes of course has technique to burn but tonight it was always in the cause of compelling music-making. His rendition of Victor Young's bebop chestnut "Stella By Starlight" was astonishing. He effortlessly quoted from Matt Dennis's "I Could Happen To You" and Michel LeGrand's "You Must Believe in Spring" while never losing his sense of form.

A concluding ballad dedicated to his father was beautiful and not completed without some strains of Rachmaninov.

Before Valdes and Irakere head to Europe, they play in Boston on Nov 12, suburban Washington - the Strathmore in Bethesda MD on Nov 15, and Durham NC on Nov 16. If you have a chance don't miss them.

That's all for now in my first installment of Coping With The No-Baseball Blues.
More on my upcoming adventure hearing live classical Rachmaninov in my next installment.

In every season always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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