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"Playing Meaningful Games In September": An Unexpected Joy For Oriole Fans (slightly revised)

I never expected it to happen in 2022 and was skeptical about future years.  And yet

with 32 games left, 20 at home, as Labor Day weekend starts, the Orioles are 1 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays for the third and final wild card spot.  Seattle and Tampa Bay hold

down the first two spots with the Birds three lost games behind them. 


My long-held views that Every Baseball Season Is Different and There Is At Least One

Surprise Team Each Year have come true in the most pleasant and heart-warming manner. 


The Birds have 10 games left with Toronto, seven of them at home including an old-fashioned Labor Day doubleheader.  The Blue Jays were one of the pre-season favorites in AL East but they have not played very consistent baseball.  


Nor have the Yankees who just endured an August that was its worst since Stump Merrill's 1991 team. The Red Sox are in the AL East basement, following their recent pattern of boom-bust-boom-bust. 


I saw the Orioles twice last month during SABR's 50th convention held this year in downtown Baltimore a short walk to Camden Yards.  The Birds lost the makeup day

game with the Cubs, 3-2, but unheralded castoff RHP Spenser Watkins pitched well.


Before an enthusiastic crowd of over 30,000 on Friday night, including many of the SABR attendees sitting in the right field bleachers, the Orioles blasted the Red Sox, 15-10,

belting five homers.  It was a rare offensive outburst by a team whose rise to contention has been fueled by vastly improved pitching and often sensational defense. 


I had never sat in the outer reaches of Camden Yards and it brought back memories of Fenway Park's fabled section.  In both places, you feel a bond with the third base and left field fans, creating the kind of shared community that is ballpark viewing at its best.


The remarkable resurgence of the Orioles got an added boost in late August by the play of 21-year-old Gunnar Henderson, a second round draft choice who was signed after his graduation three years ago from high school in Alabama.  


All he did in his first game was hit a long home run in his second AB after being victimized in his first AB by Guardians' left fielder Steven Kwan's great catch. In his second game, Gunnar made two outstanding defensive plays at shortstop and stole his first base.


I've seen him play in the lower minors and twice earlier this season at Triple-A Norfolk.  He has that "it" quality, the art of making a difficult game look easy. And you can see his

love of the game is not an act.  


Ditto for catcher Adley Rutschman who was drafted a round ahead of Henderson.  Adley is scuffling at the plate now, but his catching and leadershp skills are not suffering.  


The Orioles suddenly look like they have a bright future. The 2023 option on the contract of   manager Brandon Hyde was quietly picked up earlier this year.  So was the same 2023 option on injured southpaw John Means' contract.  Nothing like stablility in an organization once there is light at the end of the tunnel


It will be a challenge for Hyde, Joe Maddon's bench coach when the Cubs broke their 108-year World Series-championship drought in 2016, to get playing time for all the players

arriving.  Jorge Mateo remains the incumbent shortstop, the former Yankee prospect who

has been a revelation in 2022 once given regular playing time. It is a nice problem to

have, too many good players, but I think Hyde will find a way. 


As for the SABR convention, a highlight for me was Boog Powell in conversation with local sportswriter Dan Connolly of the Athletic.  He shared warm reminiscences of playing for 

the Orioles and how after his retirement he hustled to get the Lite Beer commercial that featured him and umpire Jim Honochick. The lines for Boog's BBQ at the ballpark are deservedly long.


Before I close this return to blogging, here's a tip of the cap to the Mets Old-Timers Day that owner Steve Cohen organized last Saturday August 27.  Cohen is a genuine Mets

fan and many original Mets returned for the first Old Timers Day in almost 30 years.  One of them was Jay Hook who won the team's first game.


In a TV interview with SNY broadcaster Steve Gelbs, Jesse Orosco shared the moving story of what happened to the glove that he threw towards the Astrodome roof when the Mets

won the epic 16-inning game over Houston that propelled them into the 1986 World

Series.  He said he gifted it to Steven McDonald, the NYPD officer who was paralyzed in

the line of duty. 


The National Anthem played on Old Timers Day was a recording by Jane Jarvis, the team's only organist from its first days at Shea Stadium in 1964.  I was fortunate to get to know Jane during her career as a jazz pianist when she left the team after the 1979 season.


Jane had been a child prodigy on both piano and organ in Indiana, proficient in classical music but loving jazz and all kinds of music. She later lived in Milwaukee where, among her other gigs, she became the Braves' ballpark organist.  


That's all for now.  But here's one TCM tip - Thursdays in September will be devoted to the

many films of Humphrey Bogart, some of them real classics.  


Always remember - take it easy but take it!  





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"Collecting Lottery Tickets" - What Oriole Baseball Has Come To - Plus A Shout-Out to "Toni Stone"


I guess the trade this past weekend of the Orioles' most reliable pitcher Andrew Cashner to division rival Red Sox was not surprising. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and conventional wisdom says that the Orioles couldn't expect much in value for him.

Baltimore got two 17-year-old Venezuelans playing in the Dominican summer leagues, outfielder Elio Prado and infielder Noelwarth Romero. Both are undoubtedly years away from making The Show if they ever come close to the majors.   


According to Dan Connolly, the diligent Oriole correspondent for "The Athletic" online subscription website, the Orioles are "collecting lottery tickets" as they go through the complete "rebuild" of their largely unproductive organization. 

My response to that explanation is:  Who is going to pitch for the rest of this season?

The once-heralded Dylan Bundy went on the injured list after he gave up seven runs in the first inning of his first post-All Star Game start.  His knee was hurting during his warmup, but he didn't tell anybody until after he got shelled. 

Rookie southpaw John Means, the Orioles' lone All-Star this season, got rocked by Tampa Bay in his first post-ASG start.  He can't be expected to carry a full load.

Couldn't the Orioles have gotten more for Cashner, 32, who is having a career year - 9-3 for a team that has only 28 wins?  I would hate to think that the hasty trade was made because they feared that he - like Bundy - could get injured before the July 31 trade deadline.

What pains me about the Cashner trade is that he wanted to stay in Baltimore. He was committed to the rebuild. The Orioles were his fifth major league organization and he was looking for a home, especially now with his wife expecting. 


He was a Cubs first round draft pick in 2008, signed out of TCU, the same program that produced former Oriole hurler now with Phllies Jake Arrieta and Cardinals corner infielder Matt Carpenter.  Ultimately Cashner was traded to the Padres in the Anthony Rizzo deal and later spent time with the Marlins and Rangers. 

Signed to a two-year contract before the 2018 season, Cashner became a leader of the Orioles, not just the pitchers. I think I'm a pretty good judge watching on TV of who is faking intensity and who isn't.  You could see that the bearded 6' 6" hurler cared about competing and winning. 

His passion reminded me a little of Pete Vuckovich, the Brewers right-hander who I vividly remember once competed so hard during a playoff game against the Yankees in the 1981 strike-marred season that he refused to leave the mound despite throwing up, evidently battling some kind of ailment.

There was another admirable aspect in Cashner's background.  Understanding his son's passion for baseball, Andrew's father built a diamond in the back yard of the family home in Texas for Andrew to practice on. 

Oriole manager Brandon Hyde was effusive in his praise of Cashner, wishing him well in Boston except when he pitched against the Orioles.  I enthusiastically second that sentiment as he makes his debut tonight (Tues July 16) at Fenway against the Blue Jays, another "rebuilding" team.

Oriole fans are now fearful that first baseman/right fielder Trey Mancini may be the next to go.  He is currently in the worst slump of his career, but he continues to play hard and welcomes the role of young veteran leader on an unproven team. The converted infielder Mychal Givens will probably be dealt to teams looking for bullpen help.

We lived through a wave of trades last year at this time: Manny Machado to the Dodgers (now doing fine with the Padres on his $300 million plus contract); Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers (now a regular contributor on the AL Central first-place Twins); Kevin Gausman and Brad Brach to the Braves (where Gausman has been injured and ineffective and Brach, now with the Cubs, is also struggling).   

There are glimmers of hope in improved Oriole minor league play at the Double A Bowie level and the lower minors at Delmarva (Low Class A) and Aberdeen (Short Season). But it will be maddening if the Orioles unload Mancini and Givens and other players and get so little in return as what they received for Cashner. 

The new regime can't be thinking that Hawaiian shirt and straw hat fedora giveaways will substitute for a real plan for the future, can they?  Don't want to answer that question!

At least, for fans of other teams, there is plenty of excitement and weeks of hope, however illusory, ahead.  By its very nature, baseball always surprises.  


For example, nothing was more astonishing than former Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud's three-homer game against the Yankees last night Monday July 15. His third dinger, a 9th inning blast off Aroldis Chapman, led the spunky Tampa Bay Rays to a 5-4 victory. It kept alive the Rays' flickering hopes of catching the Yankees in the AL East divisional race.


Before I close this latest post, I want to urge you in the New York City area to see "Toni Stone," playing through Sunday August 11 at the Laura Pels Theatre (115 W 46th Street just west of Fifth Avenue). The comfy Pels is one of the theaters that is part of the Roundabout Theater group.


Rarely does a solid piece of historical research, Martha Ackmann's "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone" (Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, 2010), get transformed into exciting theatre. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation, "Toni Stone" succeeds in viscerally bringing to life the remarkable story of the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. 

There is a bravura performance by longtime Off-Broadway luminary April Matthis in the title role. She is aided by a supporting cast of eight talented male actors playing a variety of roles. Kudos must also be given to the crisp direction of Pam McKinnon and the brilliant choreography by Camille A. Brown.

I was enthralled from the opening of the first act when Toni Stone delivers a monologue in praise of the wonder and drama of baseball. (The writing reminded me of Roger Angell's elegiac essay, "On The Ball," from a 1976 New Yorker magazine, anthologized in "Five Seasons"). 

As a black tomboy in segregated America, Toni Stone had a hard time gaining acceptance.  "People weren't ready for me," she told Martha Ackmann when belatedly - she died in 1996 - she was rediscovered in the last years of her life, living for decades as a nurse in the SF Bay area.  "I wasn't classified. I was a menace to society."

But what an exciting achieving life she led - good enough to replace Hank Aaron as second baseman on the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 when he went into the Braves organization. A versatile woman athlete better than the legendary Babe Didrikson.  Good enough to play semi-pro baseball into her 60s in the Bay area. (Many thanks to Minnesota's great baseball historian Stew Thornley for his help in providing some additional details.)

It is a credit to Lydia Diamond's script that she has streamlined a lot of the stories in Toni Stone's life. She establishes a good dramatic flow without overburdening us with facts that could overwhelm the non-sports fan. Blessedly, the script rarely gets preachy.

My only quibble is in the misleading treatment of Gabby Street, the former major league catcher and World Series-winning manager, who befriended teenaged Toni when she enrolled in 1935 in his St. Paul, Minnesota baseball school.

A baseball traditionalist from the Deep South, best known as a member of the Washington Senators who once caught a baseball thrown from the Washington Monument, Street at first wanted nothing to do with Toni's desire for baseball instruction. 

She wouldn't accept no for an answer and ultimately Street realized that Toni's passion and talent were genuine.  For her 15th birthday he even gave her a pair of baseball spikes, a gift she always treasured.  So I felt it was a rare cheap shot for Toni in the play to say that Street was a member of the Klan. 

Despite this one jarring note, I still heartily recommend seeing "Toni Stone" at the Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 11. The play moves to the Arena Theatre in DC in the fall and early next year in San Francisco.

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

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