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I just returned from SABR’s 39th national convention (Society for American Baseball Research) at the JW Marriott Hotel near the White House in Washington, DC. Too many highlights to report in one blog entry but was pleased at the reaction to my talk on Branch Rickey’s February 1948 speech to the annual football banquet at the historically black Wilberforce State University in central Ohio.

It caused quite a stir in its day and Rickey had to backtrack from his accusation that the owners voted 15-1 in 1946 against his plan to bring up Jackie Robinson the following season. There was a lot more discussed at that unusual midsummer meeting of the owners a year after the end of World War II, issues that Rickey didn’t want aired publicly either. For example, changes in reserve system, threat of a Mexican League, and the new pension system for the players. But there is no doubt that most owners didn’t want to deal with racial integration and Rickey’s courage in standing by Robinson remains his finest of his many fine hours in a long and adventurous career.

Other highlights at SABR were former players Frank Howard and Rick Dempsey holding forth delightfully for nearly 90 minutes in a session hosted by longtime SABR member and DC television personality George “The Sports Machine” Michael. Slugger Howard credited his manager in Washington Ted Williams for convincing him to learn the strike zone and take more walks. In 1969, his first year under Williams, Howard increased his base on balls total from 54 in 1968 to 102. The same year he also hit 48 homers and drove in 111. In 1970 Howard led the American League with 44 HRs, 126 RBI, 132 BB.

A Ohio State basketball star originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Howard is a gentle giant who is blessed with a booming voice that to my ears even sounds these days like his revered late mentor Ted Williams.
Here is a sampling of some of Frank Howard’s baseball wisdom and humor:

“Baseball is not a game you can turn on and off. You must keep the faucet on and keep it on.”

“I could hit any fast ball. The other three pitches – curve, slider, and changeup – were like UFOs to me – unidentified flying objects.”

“Hank Aaron once told me he didn’t break bats. He wore them out.”

Frank Howard hopes that education and awareness will clean up baseball’s steroid problem in the way that tobacco and drug abuse in the country at large has been reduced. But like many realistic former players (Mike Schmidt comes to mind) he wonders whether he would have had in his day the “ethical strength” to turn down the opportunity to extend his career if an agent said to him, “Frank, you’re earning $2 million now as a 25 HR hitter. I can get you $10 million if you hit 40.”

The always-entertaining former catcher Rick Dempsey also provided many informative insights. George Michael showed a clip of Dempsey as an Oriole being bowled over at home plate by Bo Jackson. “At least I held him to less yardage than Bosworth [Brian the overrated linebacker],” Dempsey quipped. On the subject of performance enhancers, Dempsey said that he had only once tried red juice – an amphetamine concoction – when he was a catcher for the Minnesota Twins. On a stolen base attempt the hyperactive Dempsey threw a ball that one-hopped center fielder Ted Uehlander near the fence. End of experiment, he said.

Responding to George Michael’s question, “Whatever happened to the Oriole Way?” (see below for my own lament), Dempsey recalled that Cal Ripken Sr. in spring training used to walk every player to every base and tell them what to do and what not to do in every situation. Talk about days that are long gone even on good teams but always being an optimist about baseball’s ability to heal itself, perhaps, just perhaps, that kind of training on baseball fundamentals will return.

Speaking of spring training, the only good news these days about the Woerioles (my name forl them as owned by Peter Angelose-lose-lose) is that AT LAST they have found a home for both major and minor leaguers. Effective this coming spring, it will be in Sarasota. For nearly 30 years, the major leaguers have trained in Fort Lauderdale and the minor leaguers three hours cross the state in Sarasota. Both facilities were embarrassingly out-of-date. Finally FINALLY there will one home for both with assurances of improvements in facilities. Of course, until the papers have been officially signed, hard not to wonder if another snag may develop.

Before I go into my painful Woeriole lament, want to mention that another highlight of the SABR convention was Dallas Green’s receiving the Roland Hemond Award given by SABR to the major league executive who has made the greatest contribution to the research and publicizing of the vital work of baseball scouts. Hemond, who turns 80 in October though you’d never guess, happily presented the award to Green, who won a World Series as a Phillies manager in 1980 and built a strong Cubs organization shortly thereafter. He had less success later as Yankees and Mets manager though he said he enjoyed his New York experience. You just have to learn to deal with a press corps who “want to make the news and not just report it,” Green said. Of course, the issue is more complicated than that but I certainly understand where his frustration came from.

Green was introduced as a 20-game winner in the major leagues though it took him eight years to get there. He enjoyed the laugh on himself. He was a member of the 1964 Phillies that blew a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games to play in the season. (That still beats the 2007 Mets' blowing a 7 1/2 game lead with 17 to play.) He suggested in a smaller session at the conference that manager Gene Mauch was a furniture-throwing kind of skipper after a tough loss but during that awful losing streak he was very calm. "We all expected a tirade and maybe we would have done better if he had thrown it," Green suggested.

To the full convention, Green said that he enjoyed his scouting and minor league development work the most of all, paying tribute to a long list of scouts by name. He quoted the late Hugh Alexander: "You'll never make a mistake if you break the player down [by his basic skills in hitting, running and throwing]."

Does being an Oriole fan make you a masochist these days? I’m afraid the answer is a yes. Two weeks ago I went to all three games of the Yankee sweep of the Orioles in the Bronx. Only the third game was not really competitive as Bird rookie hurler Jason Berken gave up four runs in the first inning and the Birds were never really in the game. The final 6-4 score was deceptive because two of the last runs came on back-to-back solo homers by Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in the 9th inning against struggling Yankee reliever Brian Bruney.

The Orioles could have won the first game of the series as another rookie David Hernandez overcame his early woes to pitch six innings of one-run ball.
Alas, the Birds couldn’t break the tie and suffered the near-ignominy of having runners thrown out at home plate on back-to-back plays in the 8th inning.

In the toughest division of baseball, the Woerioles have several more games to play against the tough Bosox, Yankees and Rays. It seems they have a chance to win only one game in three against such competition. This past Friday night in Baltimore was one such encounter. Before a Camden Yards filled house that was at least 50% Red Sox fans and a nice delegation of SABR conventioneers, the Orioles got a mid-game one-run lead on home runs by Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff that Jeremy Guthrie immediately coughed up the next half-inning. I never thought Guthrie was an ace and one wonders whether if he is even a serviceable fifth starter any more.

To compound Oriole problems, Brad Bergesen, their most reliable pitcher lately though only a rookie who wasn’t even in the major league spring training this year, took a line drive off his shin on Thursday and he is on the disabled list. Top prospects Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz are now in the starting rotation. Prospects with even higher ceilings have been ruined by being rushed to the majors, but enough of my negativism for one week. Back to you when August has turned to double-digits and there are more adventures of the baseball year to relay with great relish. But oh for the day when I never again have to use the term Woerioles! Ciao for now.
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