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Wow! Thoughts on August Dog Days and Minor League Revival

August did not bring much relief from the stifling heat and humidity in New York City and environs. They were dog days indeed and thanks to a very interesting point noted by Larry Dierker the versatile former pitcher-broadcaster-author in one of his regular mlb.com commentaries, in ancient Egypt a dog was actually sacrificed to the gods to ease the pain and discomfort of the worst months of summer and to appease the god Sirius from making the coming flood season less onerous.

The biggest plus of the dog days is that pennant races are heating up and that is manna for the real fan. And what wonderful craziness is happening throughout the country of baseball! Even my Orioles are playing better under new manager Buck Showalter. They finished August with their first winning record in that month since 1997 and there is a chance that they won’t lose 100 games if they can play competitively in Sept. against the AL East divisional powers Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. There is also that little matter of trying to win a few games against Toronto that enjoy an embarrassing 12-0 record against them so far in 2010.

The Birds are getting great pitching since Showalter took over though he made no changes in the staff of coaches he inherited. And as so often happens good pitching spawns good defense especially if the pitchers work fast and keep the fielders on their toes.

Earlier in August the Orioles inducted into their Hall of Fame Ray Miller, who succeeded George Bamberger as pitching coach under Earl Weaver and was briefly their manager in the 1990s. It was Ray Miller who preached the mantra, “Work Fast, Change Speeds, Throw Strikes, Hold ‘Em Close,” on a T-shirt that I still proudly own (though it doesn’t fit any more, alas).

The late Johnny Oates, another former manager, also was inducted into the Oriole H of F. With the permission of Oates’s widow Gloria, Buck Showalter is wearing number 26, Oates’ old number. It is homage to a man who was Buck’s first minor league manager and a very savvy and genuinely humble baseball man.

I will never forget Oates telling me once about a Little League coach who had been critical of Oates’s son Andy’s problems on the field. “Why can’t a major leaguer’s son do better than that?” the coach complained. Oates could not understand how that man could be so insensitive.

I remember also when the young son of Oriole infielder Tim Hulett was killed when run over by a car on a street near his home. Every player on the Orioles was heartsick by the news but they had to play a game that night. “This is not a business where you can call in sick,” Oates commented. “You have to go to work.” Nice to see Oates’s number kept alive by Showalter who is at last giving long-suffering Oriole fans a little hope. Now if only Adam Jones and Nick Markakis play the consistent ball that the supposed core of the team is supposed to provide. (Also nice that another Tug Hulett, another son of Tim, continues to play professionally and was briefly with the Red Sox early this year.)

**Here are some of the highlights of the dog days of August seen in person or on the tube:

On Mon August 16th at Yankee Stadium I witnessed the Tigers hang on to a 3-1 victory against the Yankees in a three and a half hour game that was played at an excruciatingly slow pace on a very humid night. I always do love it when those smug outrageously entitled Yankees lose esp. in their billion-dollar playground with manager Joe Girardi wearing 28 for the next championship - he wore 27 last year. To add to the outrageous sense of entitlement in Yankee land, there are no longer flags from the other teams atop the stadium but just the pennants of the 27 World Series winners. And there is not even a permanent out of town scoreboard because after all we are here to anoint the Champions! And people wonder why rooting against the Yankees is fairly common even in New York City.

Before the game of August 16 Johnny Damon bowed to the crowd revealing a neatly trimmed Mohawk haircut that he might not have been able to wear as a Yankee. Damon received a huge ovation from the Yankee fans who at their best do remember players who gave their all for the home team. Certainly Damon’s stealing two bases on the same play in last year’s World Series will be remembered as one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Fall Classic. (I know FC is a cliché but a great one, in my opinion.)

I think Damon’s desire to remain on good terms with the keepers of the Yankee tradition was a major factor in his refusing to accept the Red Sox’s late August waiver claim.

**Another August highlight for yours truly was attending the New York-Penn League All-Star game at the Yankees’ fine ballpark on Staten Island just a few minutes walk from the legendary ferry that incidentally is free. The team of American League affiliates managed by Staten Island’s Josh Paul got 3 in 8th to win the game over NL farm teams skippered by Wally Backman.

I enjoyed a good conversation during the game with Pat O’Conner, president and chief executive officer of Minor League Baseball, formerly known by the bulky name of National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. A native of Columbus Ohio O’Conner’s roots go deep in baseball. His father was a member of the Knothole Gang of the Columbus Redbirds, a franchise that Branch Rickey’s Cardinals had affiliated with back in 1931 when the team was run by Larry MacPhail.

O’Conner played baseball through his years at division III Wittenberg College in Ohio but he knew early on that his future was on the administrative side of things. As president and ceo of MiLB he presides over 160 teams that collectively have set another attendance record in 2010.

I mentioned that when Wally Backman was the starting second baseman for the 1986 Mets world champions neither the Brooklyn Cyclones or Staten Island Yankees existed. “Wow!” was the word I used to describe the vast growth in the minor leagues since the 1980s and O’Conner quickly agreed. “Wow!” No wonder given the family-friendly prices, the often top-level brand of play, and watching the most rewarding of games as summer rises and ebbs away.

Now if only they can reduce the ear-splitting sound systems for at least one inning a game! That goes for the major leagues too. How about a silent inning like the third or fourth when the starting pitcher has to go through the lineup for a second time?!

MiLB also now owns what used to be called Dodgertown in Vero Beach but because of a trademark dispute with the LA Dodgers is now called the Vero Beach Sports Village. Almost all-year round, high school and college teams use the facility that was created by Branch Rickey’s Dodgers in the late 1940s and facilitated baseball’s first racially integrated team. O’Conner is pleased that the social-historical importance of Dodgertown is not being lost. MiLB now also is using the Durham Athletic Park in North Carolina as another base of operations.

**Here’s to a happy and exciting September song for all contenders and lovers of the game. And for those who love the rhythm of names, can we look forward to a late September matchup of Yankee rookie pitcher Ivan Nova against Red Sox rookie Daniel Nava? Nava and Darnell McDonald are wonderful stories for the banged-up Red Sox who cling to frail hope as September starts. Nava the independent league rescue-job and McDonald the former number one draft pick of the Orioles who turned down a football scholarship to play running back for the Texas Longhorns and 13 years later has become a key contributor on both sides of the ball for Boston. Talk about stick-to-it-iveness! And kudos to Bosox manager Terry Francona for keeping the team competitive in this season of unimaginable injuries.

Until next post, ciao for now! And remember – “Take it easy but take it!” Thanks to Woody Guthrie for the mantra and Jeremy Guthrie (no relation) for rescuing his season for himself and the Orioles.
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