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Yours In Baseball Forever But College Basketball Nice, Too

This past Tuesday Feb 24 I made my first trip ever to the Xfinity Center formerly known as the Comcast Center on the University of Maryland campus in College Park.
I guess I hadn’t seen the Wisconsin Badgers live since my days in graduate school
in the late 1960s. But I follow them closely on TV, the web, and in print.

Though I haven’t forgiven the athletic department for dropping baseball in the 1980s (Wisconsin remains the only Big Ten school without varsity baseball), basketball and football have become contending programs. It all dates back to then-UW president Donna Shalala hiring Barry Alvarez as football coach. In a few years, starting in 1994, Rose Bowl appearances became frequent. (Alvarez is now athletic director.)

The hiring of Bo Ryan as basketball coach in 2001 has led to similar excellence on the hardwood. Last year they reached the Final Four and lost narrowly to the Kentucky powerhouse in a semi-final. Returning most of last year’s team, the Badgers entered Tuesday night’s game with a chance to clinch the Big Ten regular season title.

However, the Maryland Terrapins were too much for the Badgers this night.
They took control of the game in the middle of the first half and roared to a 31-20 halftime lead. Though Wisconsin led by 7’ foot center Frank Kaminsky did manage to tie the score at 47 in second half, they never reclaimed the lead. They could not stop the talented Maryland guards, high scorer Dez Wells and freshman wunderkind point guard Melo Trimble, when it mattered.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fan-friendly Xfinity Center arena. The architects have recreated the compactness and good sightlines of the storied Cole Field House that fortunately still stands less than a mile away on the campus. (It is hoped that old Cole will be turned into an indoor football practice facility.)

The yellow-gold clad Maryland faithful provided a great home court advantage to the Terps who have lost only one game at home all season. At the top of the steps heading into the main entrance of the arena, there is a little bronze statue of Testudo the Terrapin icon.
Dozens of fans rubbed the head of Testudo before they entered.

It sure brought plenty of good fortune this night. The Maryland fans' vocal support and their booing of the Badgers created an electric atmosphere that after the game Badger forward Sam Dekker paid homage to. (An improving junior, Dekker could turn pro after the season, a decision that Badger fans don't want to think about until April.)

That's it for my basketball report. Spring training has begun and in this winter from hell in the Northeast the sights of players getting ready for the season are particularly consoling. I head for the NINE Baseball magazine conference in Phoenix in less than two weeks and will be reporting back from some of the highights there.

With so many changes to so many teams, it's ridiculous to make predictions this early. I do think that the Dodgers with a new and aging double-play combination in Jimmy Rollins and Howard Kendrick are not the high-90-win lock some experts are predicting. But that's why they play the games, to see who is best.

So in the meantime, always remember: “Take it easy but take it.”
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Report from NYC Hot Stove League Dinners

The winter in New York is taking on fearsome qualities with no end in sight. Ice on the ground may be here indefinitely, bringing back mercifully forgotten memories of my five winters in Madison, Wisconsin during my graduate school days in the 1960s.

Hot stove league baseball banquets thus provide great solace because I have long believed that winter with its saving grace of increasing daylight reinforces the love of baseball in us defiant addicted baseball nuts.

So here are some highlights of the 92th annual NYC Baseball Writers Association of America dinner and the 50th annual New York Pro Baseball Scouts Hot Stove League dinner that took place within six days of each other in the last week of January.

A highlight of the writers’ gathering was Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw who flew in to New York from Texas where the day before his wife delivered their first child. The reigning NL MVP and Cy Young award winner gave homage to virtually all his teammates including ones traded this off-season. He also thanked the clubhouse personnel and trainers by name and ended with a tip of his cap to the St. Louis Cardinals “who taught me that I am not as good as I think I am.”

A lovely conclusion to the evening was the 50th anniversary celebration of Sandy Koufax’s last perfect game in which he bested the Cubs’ southpaw Bob Hendley 1-0. Kudos to the writers for inviting Hendley too - he allowed only one hit that night and on the dais he noted that a week later he beat Koufax in Chicago, 2-1, throwing a four-hitter to Koufax’ five-hitter. (In a fascinating side note, Hendley, who labored for non-contending teams, went 3-1 in matchups against Hall of Famer Koufax.)

For a man who doesn't like to speak in public, Sandy Koufax exudes charm and class on the podium. In introducing new father Kershaw, he announced the most important statistic: "Six pounds and ten ounces."

At the scouts dinner the following Friday at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck, Long Island. event organizer Cubs scout Billy Blitzer proudly listed 11 players from the NYC metropolitan area who made their MLB debut in 2014. They included:

**Joe Panik, a World Series hero for the Giants, signed by John DiCarlo (son of the late Joe DiCarlo who signed among others Al Leiter for the Yankees)
**George Springer, a coming star outfielder with the Astros signed by John Kosciak
**Eric Campbell, Mets’ utility player signed by Art Pontarelli, and
**Nick Greenwood, Cardinals’ LHP signed for the Padres by Jim Bretz

Blitzer also paid homage to Long Island’s Jeff Biggio who starred at Seton Hall and was just elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Pride in New York-area baseball has always been a theme at the Pro Scouts dinner.
For good reason. Tilden HS of Brooklyn grad Willie Randolph received a rousing ovation. Emcee Ed Randall voiced his disbelief that Randolph has not returned to the managerial ranks after leading the Mets to the brink of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. (Of course Willie was also a key part of the 1976-78 Yankee pennant-winners and 2-time WS champs.)

Willie gave homage to scout Dutch Deutsch who signed him for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(Before the 1976 season the Yankees made one of their best trades ever by obtaining Randolph - still a minor league second baseman - and pitchers Ken Brett and Dock Ellis
for pitcher George "Doc" Medich.)

Former Mets gm Omar Minaya, a product of Queens Newtown HS, thanked the late Ralph DiLullo for giving him the chance to play pro ball. Recently hired as a Latin American liaison for the MLB Players Association, Minaya implored scouts to always give an opportunity to players.

“I couldn’t hit and he couldn’t hit,” Minaya said pointing to Seattle Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara who was named scout of the year, “but we had a chance.”

Tom McNamara was born in the Bronx and a large contingent of his family came out to support their favorite son. In well-chosen remarks McNamara gave tribute to the late scout Bill Lajoie who advised him early on "to watch, listen, and learn."

While working for the Milwaukee Brewers, McNamara signed slugger Prince Fielder,
son of the late-blooming home run hitter Cecil Fielder. When McNamara told Cecil that he had played one year of pro ball, the elder Fielder replied, "At least you smelled the dirt."

As I listened to the heartfelt comments this evening that concluded with a final elegy to New York baseball by St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer, I recalled the wisdom of one of the first scouts I got to know, the late Twins scout Herb Stein. “The moment you sign a letter he is automatically a better player because the monkey is off his back,” said the man who who inked Rod Carew, Frank Viola, and 1991 World Series-hero Columbia Gene Larkin.

That's all this time from my YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) journal. With spring training only a couple of weeks away, Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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