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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.

The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.

The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.

In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.

Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.

A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.

When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.

The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.

Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.

I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.

I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.

I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.

Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.

Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.

The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.

Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.

Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.

After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)

Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.

But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”

Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.

From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.

It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.

Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.

It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.

Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?

So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.

That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
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"Troubling Off-Season Trend Continues As Cubs Snag Yu Darvish At Reduced Rate"

I’m not the first person to note that in America 2018 the line between real headlines and satirical “Onion” headlines is very small. The headline in today’s post actually appeared this past weekend on Sports Illustrated’s si.com website.

Yu Darvish, the talented righthander from Japan who is partly of Iranian descent, has reportedly signed a 6-year $126 million contract with the Cubs. SI considers this amount a “reduced rate” for a pitcher with a history of injury who bombed out not once but twice in the World Series that the Dodgers lost last season to the Astros.

There are reports that three other big-name free agents - outfielder J.D.Martinez, pitcher Jake Arrieta, and first baseman Eric Hosmer all represented by super-agent Scott Boras - are thinking of sitting out some of the regular season - unless they get the years and the dollars they want, especially the years.

Hosmer, the defensively-solid line-drive hitting first sacker, is the youngest of the three at 28. San Diego reportedly wants him very badly, and reigning first baseman Will Myers is willing to move to left field to accommodate him. But Hosmer reportedly wants eight years instead of seven and a total amount of more than $160 million.

Boras, an avowed admirer of Marvin Miller (ignoring that Miller loathed agents that stressed the individual over the union), thinks there will always be an owner who will break down and want that "moose on the wall" and pay anything for it. He might yet be right.

How much is too much remains a good question. It is clear that the MLB Players Association has been outwitted by management in the five-year collective bargaining pact that still has three more years to run.

But it is just silly and petulant for some agents and players to threaten to boycott spring training. Maybe the eloquent but inexperienced Tony Clark needs more legal help at the MLBPA offices. But bad deals happen all the time in business and you live with it, fellas. Even at the "reduced rate" of tens of millions.

The key to building consistent contending teams remains a good organization that is constantly replenishing the system with high ceiling talent under control for at least a few years. A lot easier said, I know, than done.

BEFORE I LEAVE TODAY HERE’S A REPORT FROM THE THEATER:
Michael A. Jones’s play “The Black Babe Ruth” about Negro league legendary slugger Josh Gibson (played by Dave Roberts) is well worth a trip to the Theater for the New City in east Greenwich Village - 1st Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets.

Gibson's relationship with Satchel Paige (Daniel Danielson) is well conveyed. Kudos to the guitar and vocal work of Perci Prince that provides the glue connecting the scenes.

You have eight more chances to see this well-acted and crafted play through Sun Feb 25. Th-Sa at 8p, Su at 3p.

I was thrilled to be part of a panel after the Sun Feb 11 matinee that discussed the Negro leagues and baseball integration. With fellow SABR members Ralph Carhart and Phil Ross and playwright Jones, we covered a wide range of topics about baseball in segregated times.

I was glad to give homage to the pre-Jackie Robinson pioneers, among them Moses Fleetwood Walker, who briefly broke the color line in 1887, and Rube Foster organizer of first Negro league after World War I. Thanks to good work by moderator Janelle Lester, the producer of "The Black Babe Ruth," we got great contributions from the audience.

On the big topic of why there are fewer AfAms playing baseball today, the consensus was football and basketball, esp. the rise of Michael Jordan, has eclipsed baseball among the young people. Actress Daphne Danielle lamented that in her home state of Alabama there are many well-maintained baseball fields that are barely used.

I cross fingers that the increasing awareness of football’s physical dangers might provide an inroad for baseball. But it needs the kind of leadership that baseball scout John Tumminia has shown with his "Baseball Miracles" project bringing clinics to the underprivileged at home and overseas.

Check out baseballmiracles.org More on that remarkable development next time.

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