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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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Only One Week Left of Misery for 2015 Orioles

They have been the epitome of inconsistency. Most recently they swept the Nationals in Washington but then went on to Boston and not only were swept but were shut out three times – the first time they endured such embarrassment in 58 years.

I never thought they would really contend in 2015 because they did not replace Nick Markakis’s consistency and Nelson Cruz’s power and presence in the lineup. I didn’t think their starting pitching was as good as team management thought.

I was sadly proven right in both cases. I would have loved to be wrong.

The specter of more free agent defections looms after the regular season ends mercifully on Sunday Oct. 4. And the farm system, though not as bad as some of the pundits claim, doesn’t look like it will provide quality replacements for the most likely Orioles to leave, slugger Chris Davis and southpaw starter Wei-Yin Chen.

Trades are possible and so are some less expensive free agent signings. However, the glitter has faded from Orioles gm Dan Duquette, last year’s MLB Executive of the Year.

In the last two years Duquette has traded three starting pitchers who are helping other teams considerably. The Orioles’ return was negligible though I have hopes that backup catcher/solid hitter/Baltimore native Steve Clevenger might stick for all of 2016.

Jake Arrieta is the most notable loss, starring for the Cubs who have made the playoffs in the first year under the helm of former Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.
I am not going to cry too much about this trade because Arrieta simply could not
put it together in Baltimore after being Opening Day starter in two seasons.

He’s not yet 30 and pitchers can bloom late. According to the New York Times excellent national baseball reporter Tyler Kepner, Oriole coaches discouraged Arrieta from throwing across the body for fear of inconsistency and injury.

The Cubs have allowed Arrieta to be himself and he has rewarded them with an astonishing year. Not only baseball’s first 20-game winner of 2015 but becoming nearly unhittable and rarely scored upon.

As the future of Oriole starting pitching is murky at best, the Red Sox can look forward to years with southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez who Duquette traded late in 2014 to rent reliever Andrew Miller. Miller helped the Orioles to the playoffs but then signed as a free agent with the Yankees where he has been a shutdown closer.

Late this season, believing that Birds were only one bat from real contention, Duquette traded young righthander Zach Davies to the Brewers for the rental of Gerardo Parra. Parra has not been the answer at the plate while Davies has shown promise in Milwaukee with a victory over the Cubs already under his belt.

I realize that ardent fans can let emotions eclipse reason so maybe I’m going too far when I say that Davies has potential Greg Maddux-type abilities. But signed after high school he did improve every year working up the minor league ladder.

Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are signed on for at least the next three years in Baltimore. Though Duquette flirted with taking the presidency of the Toronto Blue Jays last off-season (a position recently filled by longtime Indians executive Mark Shapiro), I presume he will stay on the job.

I just hope that the future of my favorite team doesn’t seem as bleak as it does at the current time. One thing that I would highly recommend though is the rewarding with longer than one-year contracts Manny Machado and closer Zach Britton.
Along with a healthy second baseman Jonathan Schoop their performance has
made the Orioles usually worthy of watching this disappointing year.

AN ATTEMPT AT PUNDITRY: Looks like the playoffs will be very exciting again and maybe even a Wild Card play-in between Astros and Angels before they start. Defending American League champion Kansas City has lost a lot of games in September as well as its closer Greg Holland to likely Tommy John surgery.

It is true that the Royals have not had meaningful games to play for weeks. They must be thinking that they can turn it on when it matters. That remains to be seen.

Toronto has passed them for best record in the American League and thus home field throughout the playoffs. They could make the World Series for the first time since 1993.
David Price has become the ace they had lacked and despite the injury to another late-season pickup/shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, they are showing that they know how to win.

I don’t watch the National League as closely as the AL but the Cardinals are on pace to win 100 or more regular season games. Despite many major injuries they are like the Timex watch – “they just keep on ticking.”

So a week before the playoffs I am leaning towards a first-ever Toronto-St. Louis World Series. But I think the Pirates, Cubs, Mets, Dodgers in the NL and the Yankees,
Rangers, Astros or Angels or less likely Twins, will disagree firmly.

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