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The Nearing of Spring Training Will Mean A Lot In A Time of Loss

The new year has not started well for me personally.  On the first Sunday in January, my ex-wife died after a courageous two-year bout with cancer. Willie Nelson's lyric about not getting "over" deep losses but getting "through" them is so true.


It's also true that grief comes in waves. Tears flowed again yesterday morning when reading Robert Semple's tribute on the Sunday NY Times editorial page to his former colleague the great columnist Russell Baker who died on January 21 at the age of 93. 


Baker loved to drive Buicks, a sensible middle-class car, Semple recounted. When he 

asked Baker's neighbor if he still drove a Buick, he was told yes - it was still in front of his house waiting for his return. Boy, was that ever a poignant description for the loss survivors feel. 


Baker's legacy is huge.  His memoir "Growing Up," about his transition from rural Virginia to Baltimore, is a classic. His occasional commentary on sports was always humorous and trenchant. 


One particular column I remember was his deft put-down of George Steinbrenner when the volatile Yankee owner apologized to the city of New York after the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers.  Baker noted that he had lived in NYC for many years and no one had ever apologized to him for anything. 


I learned of another passing this weekend when Peter Magowan died at the age of 76, my age (gulp!)  The former owner of the SF Giants saved the team from transfer to another city in the early 1990s and supervised the building of the sparkling new ballpark on SF Bay.


I remember Magowan speaking some years ago at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Greenwich Village. (The clubhouse, alas, closed last year.) Magowan was born in New York City and like yours truly was a New York Giants fan.


He posed a great trivia question:  Can you name the six future MLB managers who were in uniform as players for the momentous Bobby Thomson game on October 3, 1951? (The day incidentally lthat future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was born.) 


Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I have no objection to any of the four newest members who will be inducted into the shrine at Cooperstown on Sunday afternoon July 21.  The late Roy Halladay got in on his first try as did Mariano Rivera who is the first unanimous entrant.  (Derek Jeter, the only likely slam-dunk electee in the upcoming 2020 class, should be the second.) 


Mike Mussina's 270 wins with only 153 losses and a great walk-strikeout ratio of 785:2813 earned him my hypothetical vote.  Like Catfish Hunter and Greg Maddux, Mussina will go in with a blank cap on his plaque.


He didn't want to choose between his first team the Orioles, where he toiled his first 10 years, or the Yankees where he spent his final 8 years, winning 20 games for the first and only time in his last season. 


Halladay will wear a Blue Jays cap though he threw a perfect game and a playoff no-hitter for his last team the Phillies.  His stats of 203-105 W-L, 3.38 ERA, and 592:2117 BB-K ratio jump off the page. 


His willingness to demote himself to the lowest minor leagues early in his MLB career to retool his mechanics is a testimony to his desire to excel. So sad and even maddening that his desire to compete led him to fly his private plane to an early death at the age of 40, leaving a wife and two small children behind. 


No need to explain why closer extraordinaire and no-nonsense compeitor Mariano Rivera got elected unanimously. 


Edgar Martinez, the one hitter going in on the writers ballot, was a rare career .300 hitter in this age of the what-me-worry? whiff. Lifetime BA .312, slugging AV: 515, 2247 hits, and also extremely rare these days:  a positive BB:K ratio of 1253:1202. 


He is the first primarily designated hitter going into the Hall but that shouldn't have been used against him.  He was a feared hitter whenever he played, and like Halladay he demonstrated an exceptional devotion to his craft. 


He used to do eye exercises for at least a half hour before every game.  Hand/eye coordination is not just a God-given gift, it must be practiced and honed. 


Glad I could end this blog on an up note.  Back to you again on the eve of spring training that opens the earliest on Feb 11 and Feb 12 for the A's and Mariners who will be opening the season in Tokyo the next-to-last week in March. 


Before I sign off, let me heartily recommend Robert Caro's mini-memoir in the Sept. 28, 2019 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  It is filled with wisdom about the practice of journalism and writing and the search for truth. 


As always, take it easy but take it!  And oh yes on the trivia question here's a hint:  There was one Dodger and five Giants in player uniform on 10/3/1951 that became MLB skippers.

Answer next time.



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Orioles Showing Great Come-From-Behindability

As the weekend of June 10 begins, the O’s are a season-high 13 games
over .500. Despite the pundits’ dismissal of their chances, they are acting like they could contend for a long part of the season.

My goal for every season is not necessarily for the Orioles to win it all, but for the team to be "Playing meaningful games in September" - the title of my first piece on the Orioles glory years 1960-1983 in Nine Magazine's vol. 22, #2.

My second more autobiographical essay will be out late this summer, "How A New Yorker Fell In Love with Earl Weaver's Orioles" in the Dan Nathan-edited volume, BALTIMORE SPORTS (U. of Arkansas Press).

While I'm plugging my activities, I'll be co-teaching a Baseball and American Culture at the Chautauqua Institution in western NY State in the first week of August. More information at ciweb.org

Admittedly the O's all-righthanded starting rotation doesn’t overwhelm anybody. But raw rookie Tyler Wilson and greatly inexperienced Kevin Gausman and Michael Wright have kept the Birds in games for the most part. The potent offense, however strikeout prone, leads the league in come-from-behind wins and Zach Britton has been a lockdown closer.

Kudos to manager Buck Showalter for not overworking a deep bullpen so far. And to Korean import-left fielder Byun-Soo Kim for patiently waiting for his chance after a slow adjustment to American MLB. He is now stroking the ball all over the field while hitting close to .400. His fielding is coming around, too.

Ah the wonders of a baseball season that because of the nature of the game nobody can predict (despite what the seemingly endless number of brainiacs tell you).
If anyone told you that the Orioles would be in first place in mid-June despite losing underrated shortstop JJ Hardy since early May with a foot injury and key setup man Darren O’Day with a hamstring strain for at least 15 days, they’d be lying.

Still a long long way to go in a 162-game regular season, but the Birds are showing that they are a confident bunch right now despite the questionable starting pitching.

They will also soon be without Manny Machado for up to four games. On Tuesday June 7 in Baltimore, he raced to the mound and punched Royals hot-tempered pitcher Yordano Ventura after being hit in the back by a high-90s fast ball.

Ventura received a 9-game suspension which means at most he loses only two starts. Machado stands to lose twice as many games.

Each had been suspended in prior years. Because of the DH in the American League, Ventura never has to face in the batter's box the wrath of the other team's pitchers.
Both players need to grow up and it says here that the penalties for further incidents should be much greater.

Back to the nicer side of baseball, I heard Jim Palmer speak earlier this month at the wonderful space known as the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse between the West and East Greenwich Villages just a little southwest of Union Square. His new book NINE INNINGS TO SUCCESS (Triumph) is a useful combination of incisive memoir and self-help advice.

As anyone who listens to his commentary on Oriole TV broadcasts, Palmer is a straight-shooter who doesn't sugarcoat his opinions. He has proudly been an Oriole his whole career and he gives homage to the great teachers in the organization.

From Cal Ripken Sr., he learned, "There are no shortcuts to success." From his revered major league pitching coach George Bamberger (later a Brewers and Mets manager),
he learned the importance of mastering the low-and-outside overhand fastball.

Readers will be fascinated by Palmer's measured and largely positive portrait of manager Earl Weaver. They were often antagonists - at times compared to Civil War Generals slovenly Ulysses Grant and perfectionist Robert E. Lee. But in this volume Palmer mainly remembers the late Weaver fondly for his obvious commitment to winning and getting the best out of every player on the roster.

One last tip for the lovers of baseball on the grassroots level.
On Monday June 13, Yankee Stadium will host the PSAL high school baseball championships.
The 4p Double A title game will feature Bayside HS, with leading hitter Daniel Alfonzo
(son of former Met star Edgardo), vs Eleanor Roosevelt HS.
The 7p game of the Triple AAA division matches Tottenville vs. Midwood.

Later in June a PSAL all-star will fly to Chicago to engage in a series of games against the Windy City scholastic all-stars. This competition has only recently been revived. It has a long history that dates way back to the early 20th century when Commerce High's Lou Gehrig slugged a mammoth home run in the Second City.

As a supporter of all northeastern area baseball, I'm also pulling this weekend of June 10 for Boston College tackling the University of Miami-Florida in a best-of-three series.
The winner goes to Omaha to join seven other teams for the College World Series from June 18-29.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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