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Lucking Out in Arizona + Farewells to Joe Delucca and Kelly Rodman

Here is my first blog post since the cancellation of the rest of spring training and MLB's decision to delay the opening of the regular season until no earlier than April 9. 

 

As someone who grew to love baseball when opening day was around April 15, this decision is welcome. Here's hoping for a return to a 154 game season or less. 

Of course, we don't know when the season will really start. It could be very late.  

 

I feel heartsick for the college seniors who will not play any college baseball this spring.  Omaha will host no College World Series in mid-June. (Most likely, MLB's amateur free agent draft, which would have been held for the first time in Omaha on the eve of the CWS, will now be back in MLBTV studios in Secaucus, NJ, in the NY metro area.


I also feel the pain of all the college basketball seniors, men and women, whose careers have ended abruptly.  A shout-out to Wisconsin's only senior, swingman Brevin Pritzl whose sharp-shooting and clutch rebounding meant so much to the Badgers' eght-game winning streak that propelled them to their unexpected Big Ten title. 

 
We will survive this current scare just like we survived the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the polio scare of the early 1950s, and the divisiveness over the Vietnam War.  

 

If there is a blessing in disguise during all this unease, I hope we can regain the sense once again of what a real "nation" is - populated by people who may not agree on everything but who share an acceptance of basic decencies and belief in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


So here folks is the blog I nearly finished before all the shutdowns began. 

 

My annual trip to Phoenix for the 28th annual NINE baseball magazine conference 

was blessed with perfect weather in the first week of March. Temps in low 80s, sunny but breezy and comfortable even if a tad chilly at night and early morning.  

 

As always, the DoubleTree Hilton on the Tempe-Phoenix border on S. Priest Rd. provided a comfortable setting. The conference attended by nearly 100 scholars/writers/teachers/informed fans was very stimulating. 

 
Too many highlights to list them all but here are a few.  

As keynoter and opening night panelist, Ron Rapoport, veteran sportswriter now based in LA after many years as Chicago Sun-Times columnist, talked movingly about his Ernie Banks biography LET'S PLAY TWO, now in paperback from Hachette Books.  

 
It is not only a wonderful baseball book that will enthrall if bring back painful memories for Cubs fans who watched their chronic losing franchise let their 1969 lead slip away to the onrushing Mets. 

 
It is also a profound look at an essentially lonely man who was at his best, as Rapoport says, "being Ernie Banks," a person whose bubbling personality on the surface masked a crippling depression. 

 

Like any good biography, the book is peopled with incisive portraits of people who intersected with the Hall of Famer. Among them the innovative but baseball-blind Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, belittling manager Leo Durocher, and admiring teammates like Billy Williams who was as happy in his family life as Banks was unhappy. 

 
Another revelation at the NINE conference came in the screening of Larry Foley's documentary, "The First Boys of Spring." It is about Hot Springs, Arkansas where starting in 1886 the first spring training was held.  

 

Foley, a film professor at the University of Arkansas, has unearthed footage of Babe Ruth, working off his wintertime paunch, and Rogers Hornsby delivering hitting instruction to students at Ray Doan's baseball school that operated from the mid-1930s until shortly after World War II. 

 
"The First Boys of Spring" also features interviews with baseball historians Charles Alexander and Marty Appel.  The latter was appropriately filmed at Foley's bar a block south of the Empire State Building. (But I doubt Larry is related to the late NY Daily News sportswriter Red Foley for whom the tavern is named.) 

 

NINE offers the chance for authors to deliver brief papers about their books.  Mithcell Nathanson, previously a biographer of Richie/Dick Allen who did not consent to be interviewed, delivered a brisk talk about the late Jim Bouton, who did cooperate on Mitchell's upcoming biography from University of Nebraska Press.  

 

Anne Raugh Keene's discussion of her book "THE CLOUDBUSTER NINE: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II" also whetted the appetite. It will be out in paperback on April 21.

 

In the kind of find that historians dream about, Anne discovered after her father's death a trunk with clippings and photos about his time as a batboy for that navy team preparing for combat in the Pacific. Jim Raugh Jr. was inspired to become a great college pitcher at UNC-Chapel Hill and later a minor leaguer who never quite made the show. 

 

The NINE conference always features two afternoons of "field research," which of course means seeing Cactus League games.   The idea was insisted upon by conference founder the late Bill Kirwin, a social work professor at the University of Edmonton in Alberta who was an all-around athlete who played hardball until his early 60s. 

 
The first game we saw was especially sharp for so early in spring training as the visiting Dodgers flashed a lot of leather at the home team Oakland Athletics at Ho-Ho-Kam Stadium in Mesa, the former home of the Cubs. 

 

Yet another Santana in pro ball, Cristian Santana, whose number #94 likely indicates he will be back in the minors for the Dodgers, made three outstanding plays in a row at third base. He is only 23 but the native of San Cristobal in the Domincan Republic is entering his seventh year as a pro.   


Our second game was at the joint Diamondbacks-Rockies facility, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in the outer reaches of Scottsdale. What the game lacked in artistry was made up for by the welcoming aspects of the park, its fine concessions, and the excellent design that offered  both sunshine and shade, the latter very welcomed by this aging fan. 

 

For information on next year's NINE conference (and yes, despite the anxiety of the moment, there wil be a next year), contact david.pegram@paradisevalley.edu 

 
I must now conclude this post with some sad notes.

Near the end of February, Joe Delucca, longtime baseball scout and high school coach and teacher in the western area of Long Island's Suffolk County, died at the age of 91.

 

The funeral was held at the ornate red brick St. Joseph's Cathedral just opposite Babylon High School and the baseball field named in Delucca's honor. 

His daughter Joyce captured the essence of her father's life-affirming nature. 

 

A veteran of the Korean War, Joe Delucca had a love of all kinds of popular music.  He liked the Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin.  One day he whispered to his daughter, "Have you heard the Grateful Dead?"  

 
A year ago, Delucca's scouting mentor and best friend Tom "T-Bone" Giordano passed away at the age of 93. T-Bone had been scouting director for both the Orioles and Indians with Joe as his right hand man.  It was Joe who did the leg work to get Manny Ramirez to sign his first Cleveland contract.  

 

The presiding priest at Joe's funeral must have known this connection because he told a joke about two lovers of baseball who made a pact that when one died the other would let the survivor know if there were baseball in heaven. 

 

So not long after one dies, the curtains start shaking in the other's bedroom and a voice is heard bringing good news and bad news.  The good news? There is baseball in heaven and whatta team - Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Robin Roberts, Don Larsen just signed on.

 
So what's the bad news?  "I'm sorry but you're starting next week."       

 
Joe Delucca lived a long fruitful life. It was achingly tragic to learn that early this month Yankee scout Kelly Rodman left us before her 45th birthday, losing her battle to ovarian cancer.  Her friends, many young athletes, and the scouting community came out in force to remember her on Monday March 9th at the Bailey Funeral Home in Wallingford, Connecticut. 

 
Kelly exuded a love of life and love of baseball in every pore.  She was a star softball player in high school and at Eastern Connecticut State University. She then played hardball in New England, other areas of the U.S. and internationally until she found her niche in scouting.

 
She graduated from MLB's now-unfortunately-defunct scouting school in 2013, and had been a full time area scout for the Yankees since 2017.

 

Yankee scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and northeastern scouting supervisor Matt Hyde spoke movingly about how Kelly accepted without complaint the incessant travel and the hard work of evaluation that comes with the territory of the job.  She only regretted that she couldn't fulfill the terms of her contract, Oppenheimer said.

 

I have a vivid memory from a couple of winters ago of Kelly working with joy and energy at a Baseball Miracles clinic in Newburgh New York. Her ablity to connect with baseball people of any age or nationality or gender will be sorely missed. (There are only two other women scouts in MLB at the present time.)

  

She asked that contributions in her memory to the organization that brings equipment and instruction to under-served communities all over the world.  The address is www.baseballmiracles.org 

 
That's all for now.  I'll be back soon with more thoughts on coping with baseball without actual games for a while.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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NINE Magazine Baseball Conference Scores A Ten In Phoenix

The 25th annual conference of NINE Baseball Magazine was a rousing success in Phoenix last week. I find it hard to believe that it has been ten years since I delivered the keynote address, “Whatever Happened To The Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?”

I still like the title and the idea - that baseball should be entertaining and fun, not a matter of life and death, not a vehicle for obtaining and showing off great wealth and celebrity. I’m a realist, though. In an increasingly violent and insecure world, baseball and almost all sports remain a high-growth industry.

One of the charms of the NINE conference has been there are no simultaneous panels, everyone can hear each other’s presentations without missing any one paper. Too many highlights to mention them all but here are a few:

**The opening night talk by Felipe Alou, the first Dominican star in major league baseball history. He talked about his new book from U of Nebraska Press, “Alou: A Baseball Journey,” with an introduction by Pedro Martinez. Collaborator/sportswriter Peter Kerasotis has captured well the rags-to-riches story of a man who is known to speak in parables.

**California Whittier College professor Charles S. Adams’s wry look filled with gallows humor at Seattle Mariners’ history and their lack of “an adequate myth”.

**Larry Baldassaro’s probing and good-natured look at Italian-American baseball players since the 1930s.

**Ed Edmonds and Frank Houdek's take on the California state law that actress Olivia deHavilland utilized to get out of her long-term movie studio contract and how it might apply to baseball players, perhaps especially Mike Trout of the Angels.
(Still feisty at 101, DeHavilland - who made her screen debut at age 19 opposite Joe E Brown in "Alibi Ike" (1935) - recently sued to prevent unauthorized use of her personage in a current movie.)

There was no keynote at NINE this year because Jane Leavy begged out for a variety of reasons. It turned out that the closing panel “Baseball and the West” sufficed very nicely as an alternative.

It featured three winners of the SABR Seymour medal for the best book of the given year - latest winner Jerald Podair for “City of Light” about the building of Dodger Stadium, Andy McCue for his monumental bio of Walter O’Malley “Mover and Shaker” and yours truly for my “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman”.

The fourth member of the panel was Rob Garratt, emeritus professor of Irish-American literature at the University of Puget Sound outside Seattle, whose history of the SF Giants “Home Team” was runner-up to Podair. Rob made the good point that Horace Stoneham doesn’t get enough credit for actually making up his mind to leave NY long before O’Malley did.

If I had grown up in Brooklyn, I doubt I could have had the dispassion to be part of this panel. When Branch Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn by Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, the road was clear for an ultimate relocation. Banished to Pittsburgh, Rickey said many times until his death in 1965 he never would have moved the team.

I was a New York Giants fan but their players didn’t live in Harlem where the Polo Grounds was located. So the loss of the Jints of Willie Mays and company wasn’t felt as acutely as the departure from Flatbush of the Dodgers, many of whom made their homes in Brooklyn.

I was pleased that the evening was filled with reason and passion on all sides including very informed questions from the audience of around 80 people.
Baseball certainly needed to open up to the west coast by the 1950s. I still feel it was tragic that the cost of progress was the loss to New York of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

So I’m glad I was able to recite the lyrics from folk singer/social activist Dan Bern’s 2002 classic, “If The Dodgers Had Stayed In Brooklyn.” It opens:
“If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe things would be different today/
Maybe John F. Kennedy would have been president til 1968 . . .”

Another verse begins:
"If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe Watergate would be some obscure hotel/Tienamen [sic] square would be a square & Vietnam a vacation spot that travel agencies would try to sell . . . " (Of course those agencies are selling trips to Vietnam these days but that as they say is another story.)

Before I leave, I must mention that one of the long-time benefits of NINE attendance is “field research” as conference founder Bill Kirwin used to call going to spring training games. The must-see spot in Arizona spring training is the Talking Stick Salt River Fields complex not far from Scottsdale.

We saw the Milwaukee Brewers visit the Colorado Rockies (Colorado shares the complex with the Arizona Diamondbacks). Former Oriole farmhand Zach Davies looked sharp for the Brew Crew in his two innings though he did give up a solo home run. (Don’t get me started on how my team has been foolhardy in trading promising arms with little in return.)

What separates Salt River from other Arizona facilities is the quality of the concessions and the wide open spaces. They even provide free sun screen behind the center field scoreboard. Didn’t need much because it was somewhat chilly during my stay.

At a sparsely attended game at Mesa's HoHoKam field, where the A's now play, Willie Calhoun caught my eye when he roped a home run over the right field fence. He reminds me of a left-handed Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn former Astros star. Where the key player in the Yu Darvish trade plays is still a question. That's what spring training is for.

The only bummer of my trip was being unable to see the Arizona State Sun Devils play the opening game of their three-game series against Oklahoma State. The Friday Night Game is the big event in college baseball and ten NINE attendees looked forward to the evening.

However, we ran afoul of the rules at Phoenix Municipal Stadium where ASU now plays off-campus. Some of the bags and purses of a few members of our group were ruled too large. It became a perfect storm of frustration.
**We came by hotel van so no cars were available to store the offending items.
**There were no lockers available.
**We were told that clear bags were possible but we weren't season ticket holders.
Adding insult to injury, we paid for tickets but they were not refunded.

Written complaints have been filed but so far no response has been received.
I hope I have some news in the next blog. The ASU Ten of NINE will not be denied!

That's all for now as the regular season nears. So, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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