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Sure good to be back in my hometown and longtime residence of New York City after a few days in Phoenix and nearly a week in Orlando. Chillier weather than expected in both places but enjoyed many memorable moments in both Arizona and Florida. I was blessed with the opportunity to introduce both the opening and closing speakers at the NINE conference that I keynoted two years ago with my talk “Whatever Happened To the Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?” Published in volume 17, number 2 of NINE magazine last year, the title still resonates with me, remembering when sports was a passion under control and not yet a seemingly life-and-death multi-billion dollar business. I must admit though that the massive growth of sports and sports fandom of all classes and colors and both genders certainly gives us a lot of us opportunity to comment.

In his opening NINE address Marty Appel, author of the best-selling biography of Thurman Munson and 16 other books, was gracious and informative as always. He shared highlights of his lifelong love of baseball growing up a Yankee fan in Brooklyn for one of the most unusual of reasons. He said because he felt bad for them when they lost the 1955 World Series to the Dodgers. His first job was answering Mickey Mantle’s fan mail while serving as college summer intern. By the age of 24 he was the youngest pr director in baseball history for his beloved team and his next book will be the first non-cocktail table about the Yankees in a half-century. Happy is the man who works at what he loves!

The closing keynote speech at NINE was delivered by Larry Dierker, Mr. Houston Astro who made his debut for the franchise on his 18th birthday on September 22, 1964 striking out Willie Mays in the first inning. He went on to win 137 games in a Houston uniform and after a sore arm forced his early retirement at the age of 30 in 1977, he became one of the team’s acclaimed broadcasters for nearly 20 years.

From 1997-2001 he was the most successful manager in Astros history getting into the playoffs for four of those years. However, he never made it out of the first round, prompting Astros owner Drayton McLane to replace him. “I learned how to motivate millionaires, lose in the playoffs and wear Hawaiian shirts,” Dierker wryly observed not long after his managerial career ended.

Always a fluent writer of newspaper columns and short radio pieces, in recent years he has authored two books, a musical about baseball currently in revision and is now working on a third book chronicling and analyzing some of baseball’s most memorable quotations.

Among the perceptive observations from his keynote address: “My definition of tough is a guy who makes a tough pitch when he has to. . . . He wants to be in the center of the circle and be there in the line of fire.”

Dierker is no fan of the designated hitter, likening it to “a turd in a punch bowl.” I don’t like the rule either but it has been nearly 40 years since the American League has not allowed the pitcher to bat. The National League has steadfastly refused to use it but in fairness it must be said that only the Japanese Pacific League has joined the NL in dh abstinence. A debate about whether to abolish it or –perish the thought – order both leagues to apply it would be a very good idea. And I hope that Commissioner Selig’s big name committee empowered to investigate every issue in baseball has fruitful discussions about the dh that are shared with the public.

One of Larry Dierker’s friends who attended the conference has a son pitching in the Mariners chain, Princeton graduate Christian Stehlely, and we got to visit him in the impressive new facility that Seatte and the San Diego Padres share north of Phoenix in Peoria, Arizona. Among the coaches assisting the Mariners in spring training was Andy Stankiewicz, the former Yankee reserve infielder who was a fan favorite in New York and hasn’t lost any of his intensity and enthusiasm as a coach.

Don’t know if the Mariner pitching will be adequate beyond budding ace Felix Hernandez and new acquisition Cliff Lee, who has had abdominal muscle problems this spring. He also faces a five-game suspension for throwing at Arizona catcher Chris Snyder in an exhibition game shortly after Snyder tagged him out hard in a home plate collision that likely caused Lee’s injury.

Another question mark hanging over the Mariners is whether oft-traded outfielder Milton Bradley helps Seattle’s power-shy offense more than this frequent tantrums disrupts the clubhouse. Whether the Mariners have enough horses to catch the perennial contending California Angels led by probably the most complete manager in the game in Mike Scioscia is a good question. And the Rangers and the Athletics might be heard from in that AL West division. However, any team like Seattle that has an experienced scout Jack Zduriencek serving as general manager is worth pulling for.

So is any team with Ichiro Suzuki leading off and playing a brilliant right field. I will always remember the first two pitches I saw in 2010 spring training. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco’s Cy Young-award winner in the past two seasons, brushed Ichiro off the plate with an inside fastball at the letters. Ichiro took a breath, looked down and then out at Lincecum, and on the next pitch roped – and I mean roped! – a double into the right field corner. If this game had been in the regular season, I think he would have legged out a triple. Yes, Ichiro is one of those rare players worth the price of admission.

The only prediction I will make for 2010 is that there will be a surprise team or teams because of the nature and unpredictability of the game and the long 162-season. Though it is doubtful that any surprise dark horse team can ever prevail as a World Series champion (or in the March Madness of college basketball), it is nice as April starts with every team at 0-0 to entertain the dream of contention.

Going to Opening Day in Baltimore Fri Apr 9 for Orioles against the Blue Jays. Reports on that and more in my next post. And also on my reading in Brooklyn’s DUMBO area Apr 1 and the Book Culture bookstore near Columbia Apr 6. Consult my events page please.

PROGRAM NOTE: The Jane Jarvis Memorial will be held on Monday May 10th 7p at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the Citicorp Center on Manhattan’s East Side, E. 54th Street east of Lexington Ave. The ballpark organist for both the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Mets, Jane led a full and rewarding life of 94 years making many lasting friends in the worlds of jazz and baseball. More on her remarkable life in an upcoming post. To repeat, those in the NYC area please remember Monday May 10 7p St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, E 54th St/Lexington Ave.
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