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Baseball Banquets Provided Nice Prelude to Spring Training (with corrected spelling of Darrel Chaney)

Football is finally over except for the Super Bowl which I will watch.  But the daily news revelations about scofflaws and felons on teams already eliminated reminds me that the violence of players on the field too often extends to their off-field life. Not to mention the auto accident deaths and domestic violence charges that have plagued the University of Georgia college football champions since their easy win over Texax Christian U. 


The embattled romantic in me still believes that "pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training" remains the greatest phrase in the English language.  By Valentine's Day, it will be true. 


I devoted some of the last days of January to attending my two favorite baseball banquets, the 56th annual New York Professional Baseball Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard's of Great Neck and the 17th annual Portsmouth Ohio Murals banquet, this year for the first time at Shawnee State University.


In New York, the very able broadcaster Sweeny Murti was a last-minute substitute for David Cone as guest speaker and he delivered a memorable talk. 


Murti recalled his first visit to a MLB clubhouse in 1990 as a Penn State intern. The San Diego Padres had been blasted by a then-contending Pirates team, 10-2, and the awed Murti could not think of any question to ask the players. 


But as they were heading into the hallway, he mustered enough courage to say to Tony Gwynn, "You

hit it hard today." As he walked away, Gwynn said simply, "Tomorrow is another day."   


Some time later, Sweeny looked up the box scores and discovered that the next day in St. Louis, the future Hall of Famer had gone 3 for 4 on his way to a Hall of Fame career. 


I myself never talked to the late outfielder who played his whole career with San Diego, but I'll never forget that when Gwynn came to play at Yankee Stadium in the 1998 World Series, he was the first Padre to visit Monument Park. (Such a shame that his addiction to chewing tobacco ended his life at the age of

54 in 2014.)


What made Sweeny Murti's remarks particularly memorable is that he delivered them on the same day Jan 20th that he made his last appearance as a regular on WFAN.  Station brass wanted him to take a pay cut and it was an offer he could refuse.  Here's hoping he'll reappear soon on the air waves. 


I have never been an addict of sports radio to say the least, but I have also enjoyed Kimberly Jones'  work on WFAN on both baseball and football. Her WFAN appearances will likely be cut back because she has now become the New York football Giants reporter for Newsday. She's another Penn State graduate bringing honor to a school that is rivaling Syracuse for producing major broadcasting talent. 


Here are some highlights from award winners at the New York scouts dinner:


**Phil Rossi currently a Marlins scout gave props to the Red Sox for whom he started scouting as a 24-year-old.  Their next youngest scout was 58 but he learned from all of them. 


**Mets scout Tom Tanous, a product of a Rhode Island community college, wryly noted that the

Ivy Leaguers and business school graduates peopling all MLB front offices these days may say

they agree with you when they really mean, "Please go out on the road and don't come back for a long time."  


**Reds scout John Morris, winner of the coveted Turk Karam Award as the NY region Scout of the Year,

said that Whitey Herzog, his manager in St. Louis, convinced him that his future in baseball was in

a utility role.  "You do more in one AB than you do in four," Herzog advised  - Morris had 7-year career

with Reds, Cardinals, and Angels. 


Speaking of Cincinnati, it is less than 100 miles from Portsmouth where the Portsmouth Murals banquet has always been one of my favorite gatherings.  It is the Scioto County seat, the home area of Branch Rickey who grew up on a farm not far from the port city that endured a devastating flood in 1937.


A flood wall was erected on the Ohio River across from Kentucky but after several years it became an eyesore.  Enter the gifted artist Robert Dafford who from 1993 through 2002 painted nearly 100 murals that covered the fascinating history of the region and included many of the region's famous people like

Branch Rickey, cowboy star Roy Rogers, and Jim Thorpe who coached and played for the 1927 Portsmouth pro football team that a few years later became the Detroit Lions. 


Recent athletic heroes from the area have been added to newer murals including three notable future major leaguers from the 1960s, Larry Hisle, Gene Tenace, and Al Oliver, possessor of 2743 career hits who is now a pastor in Portsmouth and usually delivered the dinner's opening prayer but was not available this year. 


I am happy to report that in my new book out in April BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES there will be a chapter on the prolific and beloved scout Gene Bennett, a Cincinnati Reds lifer as minor league outfielder and longtime scout, signer of Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill, among others.  Bennett also

graces one of the murals. 


The opening prayer this year was delivered by pastor Acy Gibson, father of Greg Gibson who just retired after a career of over 20 years as a National League umpire. The Gibsons hail from nearby Boyd County across the Ohio River near Ashland, Kentucky. 


Greg delivered a few heartfelt remarks.  He said that after 200 nights a year on the road and enduring many injuries, it was time to let younger umpires take over.  Closing on a religious note, he said: "Some day you'll meet your Maker and I hope He calls you safe." 


Former Big Red Machine utility infielder Darrel Chaney was the main speaker this year. He delivered a very effective combination of humorous story-telling and statements of his own strong religious and moral beliefs.  Originally from Hammond, Indiana where his father supported the family as a pipefitter in an oil refinery near Chicago, Chaney now lives in the hills two hours north of Atlanta.


Like John Morris, Chaney had to adapt to being a utility player behind such stars as Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose.  Manager Sparky Anderson told him, "I want you to be ready in case the game comes to you."


As for Rose's permanent banishment from baseball, Chaney expressed sympathy for his former teammate but he sighed at his inability to come clean:  "If you tell the truth, you'll never have to remember what someone else said." 


One more word on muralist Robert Dafford.  His work has won plaudits all over the world from British Columbia to Belgium to France to many other American cities - from Steubenville Ohio to Paducah Kentucky to his home town of Lafayette Louisiana where he is now working on murals commemorating that area's fascinating history.


When I asked him some years ago if he knew Ron Guidry, the local hero who became the great Yankees

pitcher, he replied, "I ran track with him in high school, . . . far behind him." 


That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it, and these days: stay positive, test negative.


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Reports from the Banquet Circuit, Part 2: Portsmouth Ohio and Great Neck NY

On Wednesday night January 15, 2014 I attended the 10th annual Portsmouth Murals Banquet in Portsmouth, the Scioto County seat in southern Ohio, the home area of Branch Rickey. The man I called the Ferocious Gentleman in my biography may have left this earth nearly 50 years ago, but the memory of his achievements is fresh in Scioto County. I was tremendously pleased when there was an overflow line of people wanting to buy my biography.

Rickey is featured on a few of the murals on the Flood Wall that adjoins the Ohio River in downtown Portsmouth. They are a remarkable series numbering nearly a hundred that celebrate the history and notable people who came out of the region. All were painted by the talented artist Robert Dafford from Lafayette, Louisiana, hometown of the great Yankee southpaw Ron Guidry. Always looking for connections, I once asked Dafford if he knew Guidry and he said, “I ran track with him in high school . . . far behind him.”

Program Note: On Sunday night Feb 16 on PBS stations in Ohio, John Lorentz's documentary about the murals, "Beyond These Walls," will air. Later this year most national PBS stations will broadcast this outstanding piece of work.

Branch Barrett Rickey, president of the Pacific Coast League and grandson of the immortal executive, was the featured speaker this year and I had the pleasure of introducing him. Many in the audience of nearly 400 remarked later that if they closed their eyes, they thought it was grandfather Rickey himself speaking.

Young Branch told many good stories about his life as a baseball scout before he became a top minor league executive. One of them concerned an early assignment for the Pittsburgh Pirates (where his grandfather was general manager in the 1950s and his father Branch Rickey Jr. served as farm director.)

Young Branch was given the unenviable task in spring training of breaking the bad news to minor leaguers that they had been released. Fortunately, the first player accepted the bad news philosophically. “I need to start on my career after baseball,” said the player, an infielder that planned to go to law school. He got his degree but returned to baseball and made his mark as a manager. His name? Tony LaRussa elected into the Hall of Fame earlier this month.

It is remarkable that a small and not very prosperous county like Scioto (pronounced Si-OH-ta) has produced so many great baseball people. “It must be because of the water,” Al Oliver likes to say. A former outstanding outfielder/first baseman with the Pirates and Texas Rangers, Oliver is now a pastor in Portsmouth and always delivers the opening banquet prayer.

He is featured on one mural along with Twins and Brewers outfielder Larry Hisle and three time-World Series-winning catcher/first baseman Gene Tenace. All three played on the same American Legion team in 1964. A high school classmate of theirs was Kathleen Battle, the renowned opera singer.

Other notable Scioto County baseball personages include southpaw Don Gullett whose possible Hall of Fame career was cut short by injury and Pat Borders, Toronto Blue Jays World Series-winning catcher. Two umpires also hail from the Portsmouth area, the active Greg Gibson and the retired Terry Craft, both of whom spoke effectively at the banquet.

Don Gullett also spoke well as did the legendary scout Gene Bennett who signed him and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. Introduced in the audience were former Reds southpaw Tom Browning ("the only pitcher ever to throw a perfect game on Astroturf," he told me) and shortstop Johnnie Lemaster the only player ever to hit an inside-the-park home run on his first major league at-bat.

Also honored were the two-time HS baseball champs from Wheelersburg, a Scioto County town of barely 2000 people. Gene Bennett suggested that a great Little League program over the last half-century has served as an excellent feeder system for the high school.

It was a memorable night that lasted over four hours and didn't feel half as long. I think a special plaudit must go to the Ribber, a local restaurant that provided superior ribs and chicken for the affair.

On Friday night Jan 24 I attended the 49th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck just outside the NYC borough of Queens. The Friday night traffic was more horrendous than usual with slippery conditions to deal with from the recent snow and subsequent cold snap.

It was still well worth making the trek to an event I would never miss, especially since the devoted scouts honored me four years ago with their Jim Quigley Service to Baseball Award. (Quigley was a late scout and coach who never tired of working out and encouraging young players who wanted to follow their dream of playing baseball at the highest level.)

Emcee Ed Randall, the veteran broadcaster and tireless advocate for prostate cancer awareness, delivered as usual some memorable one-liners. Perhaps the best came from a T-shirt he swears he saw on a Cubs fan at the FanFest last July before the All-Star Game at CitiField: On the front it read: “WHAT DID JESUS SAY TO THE CHICAGO CUBS?” On the back came the answer: “DON’T DO ANYTHING UNTIL I COME BACK.”

Red Sox scout Ray Fagnant won the prestigious Turk Karam award as scout of the year.
It was a deserving honor for a longtime Bosox talent hunter who signed such future major leaguers as Lou Merloni and Carl Pavano. After all, the Red Sox (along with the Texas Rangers) have become a state-of-the-art organization in finding and developing talent.

Fagnant also deserves credit along with the Yankees' scout Matt Hyde for hosting every year a summer program for draft-eligible high school players from all over the country. They play games in both the Boston and New York areas with the highlight being a
a game at Yankee Stadium - the thrill of a lifetime for the youngsters.

Gene Michael was this year's featured speaker. He delivered thoughtful remarks in praise of the usually unacknowledged work of the scouts. “They are the life blood of the game,” he said more than once. He praised the work of the grassroots scouts who must project into the future the capabilities of amateur players who may always look good against inferior competition.

"How will they do against better competition?" That is the $64,000 Question. Michael said that a big key was looking for players that concentrated all the time and developed pitch recognition.

Michael himself scouted after his career as a shortstop primarily with the Pirates and Yankees. Then he became a manager and general manager under the volatile reign of George Steinbrenner. He can laugh about those days now because he has a less stressful job serving as a special assistant under the far less volatile Yankee general manager Brian Cashman. The audience laughed along with Michael as he shared some stories of The Boss’s imperial wackiness.

Next year will be the Golden Anniversary of the NY Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner. It is usually the next-to-last Friday in January. Mark it down.

These banquets always mark for me the start of the baseball season – a tremendous tonic along with the increasing daylight reminding us that baseball is on the way back.

I do feel a little unease about how the Yankees and the Dodgers are throwing around unfathomable amounts of money at free agents. I still believe that you cannot buy a pennant, but dishing out big dollars certainly can help a team get a leg up at contention.
Let’s hope that a surprise team or two will emerge in 2014 to make for another season of exciting unpredictable pennant races.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it.  Read More 
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