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NINE Magazine Baseball Conference Scores A Ten In Phoenix

The 25th annual conference of NINE Baseball Magazine was a rousing success in Phoenix last week. I find it hard to believe that it has been ten years since I delivered the keynote address, “Whatever Happened To The Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?”

I still like the title and the idea - that baseball should be entertaining and fun, not a matter of life and death, not a vehicle for obtaining and showing off great wealth and celebrity. I’m a realist, though. In an increasingly violent and insecure world, baseball and almost all sports remain a high-growth industry.

One of the charms of the NINE conference has been there are no simultaneous panels, everyone can hear each other’s presentations without missing any one paper. Too many highlights to mention them all but here are a few:

**The opening night talk by Felipe Alou, the first Dominican star in major league baseball history. He talked about his new book from U of Nebraska Press, “Alou: A Baseball Journey,” with an introduction by Pedro Martinez. Collaborator/sportswriter Peter Kerasotis has captured well the rags-to-riches story of a man who is known to speak in parables.

**California Whittier College professor Charles S. Adams’s wry look filled with gallows humor at Seattle Mariners’ history and their lack of “an adequate myth”.

**Larry Baldassaro’s probing and good-natured look at Italian-American baseball players since the 1930s.

**Ed Edmonds and Frank Houdek's take on the California state law that actress Olivia deHavilland utilized to get out of her long-term movie studio contract and how it might apply to baseball players, perhaps especially Mike Trout of the Angels.
(Still feisty at 101, DeHavilland - who made her screen debut at age 19 opposite Joe E Brown in "Alibi Ike" (1935) - recently sued to prevent unauthorized use of her personage in a current movie.)

There was no keynote at NINE this year because Jane Leavy begged out for a variety of reasons. It turned out that the closing panel “Baseball and the West” sufficed very nicely as an alternative.

It featured three winners of the SABR Seymour medal for the best book of the given year - latest winner Jerald Podair for “City of Light” about the building of Dodger Stadium, Andy McCue for his monumental bio of Walter O’Malley “Mover and Shaker” and yours truly for my “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman”.

The fourth member of the panel was Rob Garratt, emeritus professor of Irish-American literature at the University of Puget Sound outside Seattle, whose history of the SF Giants “Home Team” was runner-up to Podair. Rob made the good point that Horace Stoneham doesn’t get enough credit for actually making up his mind to leave NY long before O’Malley did.

If I had grown up in Brooklyn, I doubt I could have had the dispassion to be part of this panel. When Branch Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn by Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, the road was clear for an ultimate relocation. Banished to Pittsburgh, Rickey said many times until his death in 1965 he never would have moved the team.

I was a New York Giants fan but their players didn’t live in Harlem where the Polo Grounds was located. So the loss of the Jints of Willie Mays and company wasn’t felt as acutely as the departure from Flatbush of the Dodgers, many of whom made their homes in Brooklyn.

I was pleased that the evening was filled with reason and passion on all sides including very informed questions from the audience of around 80 people.
Baseball certainly needed to open up to the west coast by the 1950s. I still feel it was tragic that the cost of progress was the loss to New York of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

So I’m glad I was able to recite the lyrics from folk singer/social activist Dan Bern’s 2002 classic, “If The Dodgers Had Stayed In Brooklyn.” It opens:
“If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe things would be different today/
Maybe John F. Kennedy would have been president til 1968 . . .”

Another verse begins:
"If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe Watergate would be some obscure hotel/Tienamen [sic] square would be a square & Vietnam a vacation spot that travel agencies would try to sell . . . " (Of course those agencies are selling trips to Vietnam these days but that as they say is another story.)

Before I leave, I must mention that one of the long-time benefits of NINE attendance is “field research” as conference founder Bill Kirwin used to call going to spring training games. The must-see spot in Arizona spring training is the Talking Stick Salt River Fields complex not far from Scottsdale.

We saw the Milwaukee Brewers visit the Colorado Rockies (Colorado shares the complex with the Arizona Diamondbacks). Former Oriole farmhand Zach Davies looked sharp for the Brew Crew in his two innings though he did give up a solo home run. (Don’t get me started on how my team has been foolhardy in trading promising arms with little in return.)

What separates Salt River from other Arizona facilities is the quality of the concessions and the wide open spaces. They even provide free sun screen behind the center field scoreboard. Didn’t need much because it was somewhat chilly during my stay.

At a sparsely attended game at Mesa's HoHoKam field, where the A's now play, Willie Calhoun caught my eye when he roped a home run over the right field fence. He reminds me of a left-handed Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn former Astros star. Where the key player in the Yu Darvish trade plays is still a question. That's what spring training is for.

The only bummer of my trip was being unable to see the Arizona State Sun Devils play the opening game of their three-game series against Oklahoma State. The Friday Night Game is the big event in college baseball and ten NINE attendees looked forward to the evening.

However, we ran afoul of the rules at Phoenix Municipal Stadium where ASU now plays off-campus. Some of the bags and purses of a few members of our group were ruled too large. It became a perfect storm of frustration.
**We came by hotel van so no cars were available to store the offending items.
**There were no lockers available.
**We were told that clear bags were possible but we weren't season ticket holders.
Adding insult to injury, we paid for tickets but they were not refunded.

Written complaints have been filed but so far no response has been received.
I hope I have some news in the next blog. The ASU Ten of NINE will not be denied!

That's all for now as the regular season nears. So, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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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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