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In Praise of Wisconsin Badger Basketball + No-Baseball Blues, Part II

Saturday April 4th would have been the start of the Final Four.  It is also the 27th birthday of the great Wisconsin Badger center Frank Kaminsky who five years ago on that night led my team to a stirring semi-final victory over previously undefeated Kentucky.  

 
It was sweet revenge for a loss to the Wildcats in the 2014 Final Four semi-final. 

It is too bad that Wisconsin couldn't hold a lead in the final against Duke - cunning Coach Mike Kryzewski successfully worked the refs in the second half and the Badgers didn't respond well enough. 

 

Yet the 2014-15 Badgers remain close to most of us alums' hearts. Frank Kaminsky was the poster boy for the Badger way of patient player development.

 

After needing the first two seasons to get used to the relentless toughness of Big Ten competition, Kaminsky exploded on the scene as a junior and in his senior year was named National Player of the Year, a first-of-its-kind honor for a Badger.

 

Kaminsky is currently recovering from knee surgery and hopes to resume his journeyman's pro career with the Phoenix Suns next season (whenever next season starts).  He's been the most successful pro from a team that included forwards Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig - all have played more in Europe than in either the NBA or its developmental league.

 

The line from Kaminsky went first to Ethan Happ who gave Kaminsky fits in practice when red-shirting. If only Happ, whose first cousin BTW is Yankees southpaw J. Happ, could shoot fouls and anything outside the paint.  (Last I heard Happ was playing in Europe before the pandemic ended his season.) 

 

It's a shame that this year's Badgers never got a chance to play in the post-season tournament.  The surprise #1 seed in the never-played Big Ten Tournament roared down the stretch with a eight-game winning streak.  

 

Big men Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter showed they were worthy successors to Kaminsky, Dekker, and Happ; gritty guards Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice brought back memories of the Ben Brust-Josh Gasser-Traevon Jackson trio; and swing men Aleem Ford and Brevin Pritzl, the only senior on the team, had great moments as well.   

 
The pain of losing basketball at a crucial time was bad enough even if an ESPN simulation predicted the Badgers would have gone all the way. Since coach Greg Gard, a worthy successor to his former boss Bo Ryan, gave crucial minutes to only six men makes me wonder if these Badgers would have gone all the way. Alas, they never had a chance so we'll never know.

 
No March Madness, and now we are dealing with the ongoing no-baseball blues. There are so many movies one can watch on TCM before one lusts for outdoor activity and seeing live sports again.  

 

I did catch a lot of TCM's late March baseball films.  Never had seen "Pride of the Yankees" straight through and Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and Eleanor Gehrig made for a very endearing couple.  

 

I hadn't realized that Yankee catcher Bill Dickey plays a role in the 1942 film as a defender of Gehrig, slugging a teammate who criticizes the Iron Horse as his career tragically declines.  Babe Ruth also plays himself in the film and brings a lot of Ruthian energy to the role. 

 

Alex Mankiewicz, the daughter of co-screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz, made the pertinent observation in pre-film commentary that her father did love baseball and had been a pretty decent player.

 

MLBTV, of course, is another baseball outlet for me these days. I caught on April Fool's Day the replay of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series with the Twins beating the Braves in a 1-0 10 inning thriller.   

 
I remembered it as the Jack Morris Show with the Series-winning pinch hit delivered by Columbia's Gene Larkin.  I had forgotten that it was Dan Gladden's hustle leading off the bottom of the 10th inning that set up the winning run. 

 

Gladden never stopped running on a bloop single to left center and just got into second in the nick of time. Then Chuck Knoblauch did when the analytic geniuses of today pooh-pooh, gave himself up with a 4-3 grounder that sent Gladden to third base with the winning run. 

 

After intentional walks to Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, pinch-hitter Gene Larkin ended the drama with a first pitch single over the head of left fielder Lonnie Smith

for the World Series-winning RBI. I felt bad for reliever Alejandro Pena who had pitched two innings in Game 6 and had worked this game since the 8th. 

 

I had forgotten that the Twins had great chances to score in the 6th, 8th, and 9th innings before Gladden and Larkin delivered in the 10th.  Of course, Game 7 is most remembered for Lonnie Smith's inexplicable stopping at second base on Terry Pendleton's drive over Gladden's head in left field.

 

On a play in front of him, Smith somehow got deked by the Twins' adroit DP combo of future Yankee Knoblauch and former Yankee farmhand Greg Gagne.

Of course, Jack Morris deserves full credit for pitching out of the second and third and no out situation on his way to a stirring complete game victory.

 

I had forgotten that Sid Bream, whose slide into home on Francisco Cabrera's single beat the Pirates in the NLCS to get Braves into the Series, hit into a 3-2-3 DP that got Morris out of the 8th inning jam.  How like capricious baseball to turn a hero into a goat in a matter of days.  

 
Announcer Jack Buck annoyingly wouldn't let Smith forget the booboo for the rest of the broadcast. But to Buck's credit, he did realize that the scoreless battle was a classic in the making.  After one half-inning, he invited viewers to return after a commercial break for more "torture and pleasure". 

 
I'm sure MLB will fill the void with more great games from the past.   It is a pale substitute for the real thing, but I do believe that patience is a virtue.  It looks like we'll have a chance to be very virtuous in the weeks ahead because I cannot see a baseball season starting before summer if then. 

 
Nonetheless, as always take it easy but take it!

 

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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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