Labor Day is as late as it gets this year and on its eve as the season is winding down to what I hope will be truly exciting playoffs, it is high time for me to contribute to my blog once again.
For the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, Major League Baseball played double-headers on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. What a thrill it was to pick up the paper on a holiday and see the crowded Probable Pitchers column in the newspapers with the (2) after the names of the pitchers and the listing of game time. That day is long gone and players and managers are happy that it is even if most fans aren’t.
Earl Weaver, the great feisty manager of the Orioles in most of their glory years, hated doubleheaders because most were split and baseball players and managers want the finality of a win or a loss after working at a ballpark. I understand that point of view now more than I once did.
Speaking of the Orioles, they won two nice games in a row Saturday and Sunday against the contending Texas Rangers who sorely miss the big bats of Michael Young and Josh Hamilton. Young, originally in the Blue Jays organization, has been shuttled from second base to shortstop and now third base (where he briefly complained before he consented to the switch before the start of the season). He leads by example and it may be hard for the Rangers to catch the Red Sox for the wild card now though they are only 3 behind as Labor Day looms. As for Orioles, nothing like some good starting pitching by the young veteran Jeremy Guthrie and the promising rookie Brian Matusz to afford a little hope to a fan base nearly numb with depression.
The Tampa Bay Rays, my second team of choice after the Orioles, just suffered a devastating home sweep by the resourceful Detroit Tigers who came from behind three games in a row and now have a commanding lead over the Twins in the AL Central. You have to admire manager Jim Leyland who is a throwback in intensity to Earl Weaver and experienced a similar career path – career minor leaguer who never had the talent to play in the big leagues but knows how to get the most out of big leaguers. Leyland lets his players play but he commands them firmly when necessary.
He let Brandon Lyon save both Saturday and Sunday victories after normal closer Fernando Rodney was wild with walks on Friday and also threw a ball into the press box after earning a save. On Saturday night it was Leyland and not the rookie pitching coach Rick Knapp (who also endured a long minor league apprenticeship) went to the mound to tell young Jeremy Bonderman how to handle the Rays’ fleet Fernando Perez who was a baserunner at first. Within a few pitches, Perez did try to steal second but rookie catcher Alex Avila gunned him down. Avila’s two-run home run off the Rays’ alleged ace James Shields had brought the Tigers within one run in the game and Placido Polanco then tied it. On Sunday Brandon Inge shocked the Rays with a 9th-inning grand slam.
The return of Bonderman from serious vascular surgery is another boost for the Tigers who could be making a genuine move into contention as a serious pennant hopeful. Alex Avila’s rise is another feel-good story because his father Al Avila is a longtime scout and confidante of Tigers’ gm Dave Dombrowski, first with the Florida Marlins and now with the Tigers as a vice president/assistant gm.
A sadness in the Rays’ loss today is that fast-working Wade Davis was deprived of a victory in his major league debut. Signed out of high school in Lake Wales Florida five years ago, Davis worked his way steadily up Tampa’s minor league ladder. I had been alerted to his promise by Dick Bosman the roving minor league pitching instructor for Tampa Bay Rays who I got to visit with in Hudson Valley at the end of August. Dick, the winner of 82 major league games who once pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland, loved the book I wrote with Tom Seaver THE ART OF PITCHING. He was also as a player rep during the formative days of the Players Association and liked my first book THE IMPERFECT DIAMOND that incidentally will be out in a third edition next spring.
A young-looking 65 who still sports the handlebar mustache he grew as a member of Charlie Finley’s A’s, Bosman is a hands-on coach who loves his work with the youngsters and feels that rushing pitchers to the big leagues can be detrimental. Better get your lumps in the minors against less consistent hitters, Boz say. While working with the Orioles, he argued for keeping Curt Schilling, Pete Harnisch, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina longer in the minors to gain valuable experience. He won the argument with all of them except McDonald who never fulfilled his promise. Of course, one never knows what causes a player from not reaching his potential and that is why baseball arguments are never ended and always vitally important.
Up in Hudson Valley I also got to meet Skeeter Barnes, a former major league utilityman mainly with the Reds and Tigers who is now a Tampa roving minor league hitting instructor. He came up to the big leagues playing for his hometown Cincinnati Reds and he shared stories about his idol Pete Rose as manager. Barnes thinks Rose is a Hall of Famer as a player – few people would disagree on this – but looking back he recalls how Pete’ s gambling problem was evident. Before one game Barnes told me about Rose entertaining 25 jockeys from a local racetrack where the Hit King was a regular bettor and had won a suspiciously high number of trifectas. It’s a story that made John Dowd’s exhaustive investigative report for baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti that led to Rose’s permanent suspension 20 years ago.
Ciao for now! Back later this month with more thoughts on baseball this season and seasons past as I prepare to start a new term for my Columbia sport history class in the graduate Sport Management program and also finish work on an upcoming third edition of my first book, THE IMPERFECT DIAMOND: A HISTORY OF BASEBALL’S LABOR WARS. As Woody (not Jeremy) Guthrie would say, “Take it easy but take it!”