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(portions of this post appeared originally at booktrib.com)
New York City and much of the Northeast has enjoyed an incredibly mild winter so far – but I remember when Andy Pettitte dodged snowflakes while pitching an early April Opening Day for the Yankees so I won’t get cocky or put my overcoat and boots away just yet. Whatever the weather in the North the onset of spring training is always a time for irrational hope and giddy expectation. I never tire of repeating the greatest phrase in the English language: “The pitchers and catchers are now reporting to spring training.”

By what used to be called George Washington’s Birthday Feb 22 all 30 MLB teams will be in full operation and because the season for Oakland and Seattle will start in Tokyo before the end of March the A’s and Mariners are already getting into shape.

This year I go to Phoenix for a few days in early March for the 19th annual NINE Baseball Magazine conference. I will be talking about the plans for a long-overdue College Baseball Hall of Fame slated for ground-breaking soon in Lubbock, Texas. The opening Wed night March 9 conversation of acclaimed writer JEAN HASTINGS ARDELL with ILA BORDERS the female pitcher who played in the Northern League should be a pip. As well as songs by the remarkable woman umpire/musician PERRY BARBER. And the Saturday night keynote should be special, delivered by historian ROB FITTS who has written major works on baseball in Japan including his latest BANZAI BABE RUTH about the Bambino’s journey in 1935. More on the NINE conference in the next post.

Last year I spent a delightful mid-March week on Siesta Key near Sarasota watching many games of the Orioles in their renovated new home at Ed Smith Stadium. Had hopes for a rebirth of respectability in Baltimore that was not to be, alas. Also caught a couple of the Tampa Bay Rays games in Port Charlotte and Clearwater.

At the Phillies home at Bright House Stadium I overheard one fan’s succinct description of the Rays: “That’s where players go if they don’t want to make any money.” That comment brought a rueful smile to the face of Rays young general manager ANDREW FRIEDMAN but if players want to win Tampa is the place to go. They made the World Series against the Phillies in 2008 and were it not for the two-time defending American League Texas Rangers they might have returned to the Fall Classic the last two seasons.

The Rays are certainly a team to embrace for all lovers of underdog stories like yours truly. They have a deep pitching staff almost all home-grown from their excellent farm system. And they have wisely held on so far to all these powerful arms. They won’t be able to afford ace JAMES SHIELDS when he becomes a free agent after this season but he should anchor again a formidable staff that includes last year’s Rookie of the Year JEREMY HELLICKSON.

Despite fairly impressive numbers I believe that southpaw DAVID PRICE had a disappointing 2011. He seemed to endure one bad inning in many starts that cost the Rays the game. For the team to contend and to win Price must become more consistent, certainly a skill that the young veteran is capable of achieving.

The Rays lacked solid offense last year and 2012 marks the return of first baseman CARLOS PENA on a one-year contract. The likable and often eloquent Pena brings solid defense with him as well as big home run power. He is “a swing and miss” type of hitter so one lives with his strikeouts but he also draws a good number of walks.

Likely joining him in the everyday lineup as regular DH will be the former Oriole slugger LUKE SCOTT also on a one-year contract. The former Oriole missed most of 2011 because of shoulder surgery but he is a solid power hitter with 30 HR a year capability. He also has been a vocal “birther,” a critic of President Obama’s American heritage, but as a performer on the field he brings solid credentials and a great élan for power hitting. No one enjoys his home runs more than Luke Scott and that love of his craft undoubtedly made Scott appealing to the Rays.

Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay on the eve of spring training extended manager JOE MADDON’s contract through 2015. The optimism and intelligence of the two-time Manager of the Year sets the tone for the entire organization. He exudes the 3 P’s: Passion, Dispassion, and Compassion.

In December I was able to observe Maddon’s compassion first-hand. In Florida speaking for the Columbia Alumni Association about my Branch Rickey biography, I made it a point to go to St. Petersburg where Joe Maddon was cooking and serving his homemade Italian meat sauce and Polish pirogies for the foster children of St. Pete. It was a memorable experience to help out with many members of the Rays organization including third base coach TOM FOLEY and ageless DON ZIMMER.

Maddon expanded this year his “Thanksmas” project to his home town of Hazelton, Penna that recently has seen the influx of 10,000 Hispanics. In his FRANK CAPRA-loving way Maddon wants the new Americans to feel at home as the locals made his immigrant parents feel decades ago. “Thanksmas” is Maddon's coinage for that period between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the needy and homeless feel particularly lonely. (BTW Maddon recently learned that the original spelling of the family name was Maddonni, not Maddonini as I thought.)

LET’S GO RAYS is my 2012 mantra, esp. as once again my team of over 40 years the Orioles have little reason for hope in the very tough AL East. It is hard to see them challenging .500 though that goal is attainable, says new general manager DAN DUQUETTE who traded for PEDRO MARTINEZ when he was Red Sox gm in the 1990s and has some good credentials as an evaluator.

It says here that the only chance that the Birds have for respectability is the return to active duty of second baseman/leadoff man BRIAN ROBERTS. He has been out for virtually the last two seasons with concussion syndromes and there are no indications he is ready to play again. There are a host of candidates for his position with last year’s incumbent ROBERT ANDINO probably having the best shot.

The O’s also traded their recent regular Opening Day starter JEREMY GUTHRIE to the Colorado Rockies. They received two retread pitchers, starter JASON HAMMEL and reliever MATT LINDSTROM. Perhaps the best part of Hammel’s lineage is that he was originally signed by Tampa Bay before he was surpassed by their stable of remarkable arms.

Lindstrom adds to the logjam of pitchers in a bullpen that has no overpowering presence except perhaps JIM JOHNSON who may get the chance to close. But the Johnson City NY native now conveniently living in Sarasota has not succeeded in his prior chances at the job. And just the other day the disturbing news that promising southpaw ZACK BRITTON has lingering shoulder soreness and won't be ready for regular work for who-knows-when.

I’ve long loved the cliché, “All teams are 0-0 until Opening Day.” But it is hard to grasp any hope that the once-proud Orioles, a constant contender from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, can have an exciting competitive year. Last year's horror show began with the abrupt early season resignation of manager BUCK SHOWALTER's hand-picked pitching coach MARK CONNOR who soon resumed his advisory duties with the Texas Rangers. And the mid-summer suicide of MIKE FLANAGAN, who was a lifelong Oriole as pitcher-coach-general manager-broadcaster, was the absolute nadir. Would like to believe that there is nowhere to go now but up. Under the ownership of PETER ANGELOS, however, that timetable is at best murky.

The 9th annual LA dinner of agent-turned-baseball management consultant DENNIS GILBERT’s PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL SCOUTS FOUNDATION lived up to its billing on Jan 14 as the must-see event of the off-season.

Lifetime achievement awards were bestowed on longtime Yankee scout BILL LIVESEY and DON PRIES a veteran scout for many teams who has worked with both the Major League Scouting Bureau and the new Scout Development program.

In presenting Livesey's award, Yankee gm BRIAN CASHMAN praised him “as the architect behind the architect” [Gene Michael] who was central to the player development of the Yankee Core Four of DEREK JETER, MARIANO RIVERA, BERNIE WILLIAMS and the recently retired JORGE POSADA.
The blockbuster trade of catcher JESUS MONTERO for fireballing 6’ 7” MICHAEL PINEDA Pineda had just been announced perhaps accounting for Cashman’s generally serene appearance.

Even if you are not a Yankee fan like yours truly, you have to credit the fine scouting and player development organization the Yankees have developed. Livesey, a onetime Brown University and Eckerd of Florida baseball coach, was in at the creation as was the current farm director of the Tampa Bay Rays, MITCH LUKEVICS. (NOTE: Cashman must be a good poker player because he gave no indication of the revelations that broke the next week about his extra-marital affair and subsequent subjection to a stalker.)

DON PRIES delivered an eloquent speech beginning , “This room is filled with dreams.” And ending with an elegy to his father who did not live to see his son make the major leagues as a player but with his award now can look down at a son who has made the majors as a honored scout. Pries concluded by urging everyone to “respect the game and protect the game.”

**I met for the first time in LA ROBERTA MAZUR the director of the Scout of the Year organization a sterling group that since 1984 has been giving annual awards to three scouts, one each from the East, West and Midwest. This year's winners are BOB ENGLE, MIKE RADCLIFF and MEL DIDIER from the respective regions.

**Former Dodgers manager TOMMY LASORDA as always brought his hilarity to the Gilbert proceedings. When his long-suffering wife once complained to him, “You love baseball more than me," he consoled her: “But honey I love you more than football and basketball.” The dinner will be rebroadcast on the MLB TV network on Feb. 21. Check your listings.

**Back in New York the following weekend, I attended for perhaps the 20th year in a row the NEW YORK PRO SCOUTS HOT STOVE LEAGUE dinner at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck. The prestigious Turk Karam award as scout of the year was given to the Blue Jays TOM BURNS of Harrisburg, Pa.

**Kudos also to JOE RIGOLI the Cardinals scout who signed in late rounds of the draft World Series-closer JASON MOTTE and former Met and new White Sox coach JOE MCEWING. Rigoli won a Scout of the Year award in November from the Mid-Atlantic Baseball Scouts Association at their annual dinner at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland.

**A tip of the cap also to SAL AGOSTINELLI the Phillies international scout who received in late January a Lifetime Achievement award from Manhattan’s John Jay College for Criminal Justice.

There were plenty of highlights the next night Sat. Jan 22 at the 76th annual dinner of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Among them:
**The moving comments by GARY CARTER's three grown children as their father is battling a spreading brain cancer.
**Brainy pitcher JAY HOOK (an original 1962 Met and winner of their first game) recalling that after he wrote a learned article on why a baseball curves but shortly after got bombed in a game, manager CASEY STENGEL came to him and said: "I like guys who can do what they know."
** Octogenarian DON NEWCOMBE’s hilariously suggestive intro of JUSTIN VERLANDER from one dual Cy Young-MVP winner to another.
**And last but certainly not least, retiring Yankee trainer GENE MONAHAN’s farewell words quoting a definition of happiness he heard once from BROOKS ROBINSON: "Doing your best at what you love.”
GET WELL SOON, BROOKS! who was recently hospitalized in Florida after falling off the back of a stage at a sports dinner.

**On Sat aft Jan 28 I had the pleasure of hosting for the New York City Casey Stengel chapter of SABR a panel inspired by the new SABR book, CAN HE PLAY? A LOOK AT BASEBALL SCOUTS AND THEIR PROFESSION. BILLY BLITZER of the Chicago Cubs and CESAR PRESBOTT of the Yankees shared vivid stories of scouting in the trenches of the New York City area and the Dominican Republic.

“If you want to find out about a boy don’t talk to his English teacher – talk to his baseball coach.” The late actor HARRY MORGAN to JACK WEBB as Officer Gannon to Webb’s Joe Friday in a “Dragnet” TV episode late 1950s. Noted it on a CBS Sunday Morning tribute to Morgan who recently passed after living a full life into his mid-90s.

That’s all for now. Back to you in March with more tales of America’s greatest ongoing repertory theatre, the baseball season.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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