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Baseball Thoughts On The Verge of the Good Old Summertime

Readers of this blog know that I am an ardent Orioles fan. So far in 2013 we loyalists have been given reasons to hope that our surprise 2012 rise to contention was not an aberration. The popularity of the Orioles is catching on nationally. The top seven men in the batting order all have a chance to be All-Stars with kudos especially to the not-yet-21-year-old doubles machine Manny Machado, already a superior third baseman; singles hitter extraordinaire/fine right fielder Nick Markakis; and the possible Triple Crown candidate Chris Davis whose defense at first base has definitely improved now that he is a regular.

Then there is the fine defense up the middle and occasional timely hitting of centerfielder Adam Jones, shortstop JJ Hardy and catcher Matt Wieters. And I have not forgotten left fielder and stolen base whiz Nate McLouth.

I must say, however, that the switch-hitting Wieters has been a disappointment offensively but he remains a top-drawer defensive catcher and game caller. Unfortunately, the starting pitching has not yet been of pennant-winning caliber although Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez have emerged as consistent performers.

The return of Taiwanese-born southpaw Wei-Yin Chen in a couple of weeks is eagerly awaited. But until the rest of the starting rotation gets into a groove I am resisting ordering my playoff tickets (of course none will be available until mid-September).

In this topsy-turvy 2013 season there is no sure lock for anything except it would be a major surprise if the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL and the Detroit Tigers in the AL did not make the playoffs. Biggest disappointments must be listed as the pre-season favorites Washington Nationals in the NL East and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in AL West. The Nationals are hovering around the .500 mark with the Atlanta Braves leading comfortably. Until the Angels get close to .500, they do not seem a playoff threat to either the Texas Rangers or the Oakland Athletics.

But the season hasn’t even reached the halfway mark so no need to prognosticate too much. Best advice: Just enjoy the daily grind of the wonderful game of major league baseball.

Dustin Pedroia’s diving catch of a bloop in extra innings at Tampa Ray that preserved a tie in a game that the Bosox won in 14. It far exceeds Billy Martin’s famous catch of a Jackie Robinson bloop in Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. Pedroia had to come from a far greater distance at deep second base and needed to dodge the body of the clueless Bosox pitcher Tazawa who seemed not to know what was happening.

On Monday July 1 at 11AM, public school high school All-Stars from Chicago will invade Yankee Stadium to meet their New York City counterparts. It revives a great tradition that dates well back into the 20th century. In the early 1920s Lou Gehrig of Commerce HS belted a grand-slam at Wrigley Field in this game.

On the night of my 50th college reunion dinner, Columbia won its first game ever in the NCAA baseball tournament. It rallied from a 5-0 top of 8th deficit to win 6-5 in 13 over Arizona State. First baseman/closer Alex Black got the game-winning hit and the save.
Sub-regional host Cal-Fullerton eliminated the Lions the next day but our season was a rousing success.

Alex Black was drafted in 29th round by KC Royals. Only other Ivy Leaguer drafted was Dartmouth southpaw Mike Horacek by the Orioles. Black's teammate Tim Giel was
signed by Yankees as undrafted free agent.

Kudos also to Princeton right-hander/first baseman Mike Ford who is one of three finalists for the John Olerud Two-Way Player trophy. It will be awarded at the annual College Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Lubbock, Texas on Sat Jun 29th. I'll be in attendance and keep your eyes open for a report in this space early next month.

That’a all for now. Rememeber always: Take it easy but take it.
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Will June Be A Boon or A Swoon?

Usually Memorial Day weekend is a good assessment of where the season is heading, the likely contenders and pretenders. Not this year. Except for teams who had no hope of pennant contention before the season began – the Marlins, the Cubs, the Astros, high among them – there are still many questions about who will be for real come September.

Will surprising Boston stay atop the AL East? Can the Pittsburgh Pirates finally have a winning season and even make the playoffs? Will the expensive California Angels (OK, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) continue to sputter? Well, that’s why we watch the games.

My Orioles have not cracked the 10-above .500 mark yet. Their high so far in 2013 is eight above. The oblique injury to the Birds’ most reliable starter WEI-YIN CHEN has definitely hurt the pitching rotation. (Years ago no one heard of an oblique, now the injury to it is very common and I think it’s because players overdo their workout regimens.)

The Birds have rushed last year’s number one draft pick KEVIN GAUSMAN less than a year out of LSU to join the rotation. He is yet to win though his first home start against the tough Tigers lineup was very promising.

How unlike the Orioles of Their Glory Years 1960-1983 – a topic I discussed in late May at the annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. The great farm-developed pitchers of the 1970s like Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor got their feet wet in middle relief before being thrown into the fire of starting.

That luxury is not available for an Oriole team that wants to compete again for a pennant after last year’s breakthrough season. So I wish Gausman the best as for the time being he joins the improving Chris Tillman, last year’s miraculous minor league discovery Miguel Gonzalez, Jason Hammel and the game but fading Freddy Garcia in the current rotation.
And here’s a wish that wunderkind Manny Machado and emerging slugger/.300 hitter Chris Davis keep up their good work.

“Did You Feel The Draft?”
Chicago Cubs area scout John Ceprini pointed out to me the other day that this year’s MLB Free Agent Amateur Draft occurred on the same day as the immensely important D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944.

One of the great clichés about baseball scouting is that it is a crapshoot. But an increasingly very expensive crap shoot. This is not football or basketball where the player is close to a finished product and the likelihood of failure is far less.

In the new collective bargaining agreement there is a strict salary cap on how much in bonuses can be given to players coming into the business. I have little doubt that some of the more conservative owners would like to see the salary cap come to the top of the scale too. That is unlikely but it still will be very interesting to see how much a free agent like the Yankees’ Robinson Cano will be lavished with if he enters the free agent market after this season.

"Roar Lion Roar!"
My Columbia Lions won the Ivy League championship last month, sweeping Dartmouth in a
doubleheader to win the automatic NCAA tournament bid. Over a thousand people gathered at Satow Stadium at Robertson Field (just north of the Baker Field football complex) to watch the Lions upset the favored Big Green. Usually a college baseball game draws in the mid-double digits with most of the crowd being family and friends of the players. So this was a special moment in the history of Columbia team sports.

On the night of my 50th college reunion, Columbia trailed New Mexico 5-0 in the 8th inning
and it looked like they would go two and out at the Fullerton,California sub-regional. I turned off in resignation my android that was tuned into the game on ESPN 3.

Lo and behold! When I got home I learned that the Lions had scored 5 in the 8th to tie and won it in the 13th. They did get eliminated the next night by Arizona State but for an Ivy League school to win just one game in a tourney with the Big Boys is quite an accomplishment.

Hail to all-sub regional All Stars Alex Black and Nick Ferraresi and coach Brett Boretti and associate head coach/pitching coach Pete Maki! First baseman/closer Black and right fielder Ferraresi just graduated and may their follow their pro dreams if they have the chance. Ditto junior-eligible Joey Falcone, the oldest player in Division I, just turned 27.
He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and the son of former major league LHP Pete Falcone deserves to follow any dream of his choice.

One final Lion pride note - Dario Pizzano, 2012 Ivy League Player of Year, was just voted to Midwest League All-Star team. Dario, grandson of a former Red Sox batboy, is one of four Columbia men currently playing minor league baseball.

“Sleeper Film of the Season”
Mirra Bank’s “The Only Real Game” - about the efforts to build a baseball stadium and a baseball presence in Manipur, one of the poorest and most politically corrupt areas of the world in northeast India on the border with Burma. The last line of the film resonates with me every day: “Baseball is like breathing.”  Read More 
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