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Late August Thoughts As The Home Stretch Looms

It is hard being an Orioles fan right now but as you dear blog readers know I have been loyal to a fault since 1970.

I guess we've reached a certain point in this summer slide where we have to say without sarcasm that Sunday’s rain-delayed 5-3 loss to Houston was respectable (after giving up 27 runs in the prior two games). There is enough time to straighten the ship but a schedule of facing contenders doesn’t get any easier.

“To be the best you have to beat the best” is a mantra that Branch Rickey and all winning sports leaders have invoked. So tough schedules have never been an excuse for bad play.

Neither have easy schedules been an excuse for coasting into the playoffs. How well I remember Earl Weaver going ballistic when a writer would say, “If you play only .500 ball the rest of the way, the opposition must play over .750.”
Earl would growl, “Are you telling me we are going to lose half our games?!”

It is up to a genuine contender to play like a champion regardless of the teams on the other side of the ball. And since before the All-Star Game, the O’s have played sub-.500 ball.

The lack of depth in the farm system -- from starting pitching to speedy guys who can manufacture runs -- lies at the heart of the problem. The loss of fleet rookie outfielder Joey Rickard to a hand injury has really been a major blow.

I was at the game at Yankee Stadium a month ago when I heard the thudding sound of his hand colliding with the hard auxiliary scoreboard in right field. Rickard’s broken finger has not sufficiently healed and he won’t be ready to play until sometime in September.

Still, it is too early to throw in the towel on 2016. The O’s remain only two lost games behind Toronto and Boston, but clearly the confidence from leading the AL East for much of the season has been shattered. Someone on the starting pitching staff must step up with a deep effort to allow so-far-perfect closer Zach Britton to work his late game magic.

**There must be a rule passed in the off-season to place a limit on how long a replay challenge can take. Three minutes might even be too long. You can split hairs on different camera angles, but the cost of disrupting the flow of the game is too great.

Here's a good question to ask in all walks of life these days:

**I see where it is becoming fashionable again to criticize baseball for being too slow a game for the instant gratification of today's age. I beg to differ.

From my vantage point, baseball doesn’t need a clock between pitches. It needs some courage from leadership to stop batters from adjusting batting gloves after every pitch, and to limit the number of visits of catchers to the pitcher to one per AB or maybe only a few per inning.

Then the natural flow of the game could proceed the way it was intended.

**How about the response of Philadelphia Phillies fans to the return of Chase Utley in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform? He received a standing ovation before his first at-bat, something he admitted he was looking forward to. He received more ovations after hitting two home runs, including a grand-slam.

The emotional bonds between fans and players run very deep, even after a hero has been traded. Utley was a mainstay on the Phillies teams that won 2008-09 pennants and the 2008 World Series. His three-word victory speech at the 2008 parade, “World F----n’ Champs,” won’t ever be forgotten in Philadelphia.

Though New York Mets fans have a far more negative view of Utley for his hard injury-causing slide into Ruben Tejada in last year’s N.L. playoffs, there is no doubt that the Southern California native has always played the game very hard.

Philly fans’ warm reaction to Utley’s return reminded me of something baseball’s first forgotten late 19th century labor hero John Montgomery Ward once said: “Without sentiment baseball would be a very empty game.”

That’s all for now. As the song goes, “See you in September.” And always remember:
“Take it easy but take it.”
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Chautauqua A Wonderful Way of Dealing With The Dog Days

A little googling has turned up the origin of the phrase “dog days”. It comes from the ancient Greeks who coined the term for the period from early July to mid-August when Sirius, the so-called dog star, rose just before the sun.

Dog days in baseball are obvious because players are dragging from the effects of the long long season. My Orioles are a vivid example. They are stumbling along looking like no more than a .500 team. Now they will have to do without key reliever Darren O'Day for the rest of the month, his second trip to the DL this year, this time with an ominous shoulder issue.

Yet except for probably the Cubs there are no super-teams out there so the last weeks of the season should be "fun" to watch, if one calls it fun to agonize with every pitch and possible pitfall.

Hall of Fame first baseman Jim Bottomley, the first great product of Branch Rickey's St. Louis Cardinals farm system, once offered this sage advice on how to deal with baseball’s inevitable ups-and-downs: "Win three, lose one, win three, lose one," etc etc. That way, he argued, there is no pressure from streaks, losing or winning." Of course, that is too rational a view. Fans live by passion and hopefully they are rewarded now and then.

My solution to the dog days this year was taking my first journey to the Chautauqua Institution in far western New York State 70 miles from Buffalo and just 15 miles from Erie, Pennsylvania. I co-taught Baseball and American Culture with veteran American Studies/Amer. Literature professor Mark Altschuler during the first week of August to an impressive group of 20 adult students.

They came from as far away as Mississippi and northern California, Ohio and Texas, Maryland and Kentucky. They learned a lot about Branch Rickey's long career from me and something about the importance of comedian Joe E. Brown's remarkable baseball passion.

Mark Altschuler had the brilliant idea of discussing the great interview with Wahoo Sam Crawford in Larry Ritter's classic oral history "The Glory of Their Times." He also led an exciting class on Jim Shepard's 1996 short story, "Batting Against Castro," set in pre-revolutionary Cuba (before Castro formed his guerrilla band in the mountains.)

Never missing a chance to see a minor league baseball game, my adventure actually started the previous Saturday night at Coca-Cola Field, home to the Buffalo Bisons, the Blue Jays’ Triple A affiliate in the International League. The Syracuse Chiefs, the Washington Nats’ top farm club, provided the opposition.

As always in minor league games, there was an interesting mixture of old and new, vets trying to hang on and prospects looking to make or return to The Show, the vivid term players use to describe the Majors.

Rehabbing infielder Ryan Goins showed some flash for Buffalo and soon he was back in Toronto--though he clearly is a sub now as talented Devon Travis has cemented his hold on the second base job.

Chiefs outfielder Brian Goodwin showed off the speedy tools that has left him for years on the cusp of a callup. And sure enough the Nats brought him up just last week for the first time.

There is always a poignant moment or two at a minor league game, a flash of yesteryear that comes along when you least expect it. Tonight it was seeing a Bisons pitching coach trudging off to the bullpen before the game. He had a little paunch and a fringe of longish gray hair framing the bottom of a largely bald head.

It was Bob Stanley, the longtime Red Sox reliever, who threw the pitch in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series that catcher Rich Gedman couldn’t handle before the infamous Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner ground ball. Gedman’s passed ball tied the game but people only remember Buckner’s error that won it for the Mets who won the Series in Game 7.

I also saw stretching on the field before the game Chris Colabello, the disgraced ped user who was suspended for 80 games earlier this season. The first baseman-outfielder had been a feel-good story for last year's Blue Jays - rising from the independent leagues to become a productive major leaguer. But his success was tainted by the drug disclosure.
Toronto evidently has no plans to call him back to the majors.

On the Sunday before my classes began at Chautauqua, I paid a visit to the impressive Robert H. Jackson Center in nearby Jamestown, NY (home town of Lucille Ball where a Lucy and Desi museum stands - didn't have time to see it).

The Jackson Center is devoted to the life and work of the Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who served as chief prosecutor at the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Center director Greg Peterson was gracious enough to tape an interview with me about my love of baseball and my work on Branch Rickey. It can be accessed at YouTube.

It is remarkable that Rickey, one of the leading Methodist lay preachers, never spoke at Chautauqua, an institution founded by Methodists after the Civil War as a retreat for Sunday school teachers. It quickly evolved into a center for all kinds of inquiry into culture and the arts.

"Cultivate Curiosity and Wonder" reads the sign on the wall of the giant Amphitheater that can seat 5000 people (though you must walk carefully going down the ramps to your seat.)
How true that statement is! I got to hear David Simon, creator of the classic HBO series "The Wire," talk about the futile war on drugs in his home town of Baltimore.

Most of all, I got to sense the special feeling of community that Chautauqua engenders. Once you get your gate pass that allows you in and out of the little town, you feel like you are in Brigadoon, the fantastic creation of the 1940s Broadway musical. I compare it to Cooperstown and Key West with water nearby and quaint houses everywhere and flowers and flowers galore.

Just two example of Chautauquan community - I told some ardent softball players who are intense fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates that I was an Oriole fan. The next day one of them gifted me with two 1965 Topps cards, one of Brooks Robinson and one of "Boog Powell outfielder"!

Second item - after indulging my metrosexual tastes with a massage and pedi-manicure,
the owners of the St. Elmo's Spa gave me some cherry tomatoes and organic corn on the cob from their garden. How tasty they were after my return to NYC.

For information of the nine weeks of Chautauqua in 2017, check out www.ciweb.org
Am making plans that some form of "Baseball and American Culture" returns.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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