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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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Joe Maddon’s Hazelton Integration Project Banquet A Big Hit on the Hot Stove Circuit

The third annual Hazelton Integration Project shindig on Friday night Dec 20 drew over 600 people in support of the program inspired by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Blessed with a nice acronym and slogan, “Get HIP!”, the goal of the program is to provide literacy and other vital services for the more than 10,000 Hispanics that have recently settled in Hazleton, Maddon’s home town, a onetime thriving hard coal community in central Pennsylvania.

A few years ago widely publicized local hostility to the new immigrants disturbed Maddon who was certain that the negative attitude did not represent the real Hazelton. He vowed that once he established some national profile he would do something to welcome the newcomers as his Polish-Italian ancestors had been made to feel at home when they first settled in town.

An impressive turnout of baseball people and members of the media came out to support HIP. The dais included Maddon; newly-appointed Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, a shortstop hero on their first World Series winners of 1980; legendary Cuban-born pitcher Luis Tiant; new Tigers bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer who formerly held the same position with the Phillies; and broadcasters Kimberly Jones, Ed Randall and Ken Rosenthal. Baseball’s most talented and outrageous mascot the Philly Fanatic also made a cameo appearance drawing squeals of delight from the many youngsters in the audience.

Pennsylvania native-Penn State graduate Kim Jones summed up beautifully the essential idealism of the Hazelton Integration Project. “Some of our differences make for the strongest bonds,” said the former YES network clubhouse reporter for the Yankees who now works for the NFL TV network. Fox Sports and MLB analyst Ken Rosenthal added that “acceptance, tolerance, and unity” were the watchwords of HIP.

In a free-wheeling exchange of views with peppy veteran broadcaster Ed Randall, Maddon tipped his cap to the Red Sox who won it all in 2013 and dominated the Rays in head-to-head meetings. He said he was not surprised in the least when the last place Bostonians of 2012 surged to the top. A great believer in the makeup of players not just the statistics on their bubblegum cards, Maddon knew the Red Sox would be trouble once they signed free agents Jonny Gomes, a former Ray, and Mike Napoli, who Maddon knew from his years as a California Angel scout, instructor, and coach.

Maddon said it was “50-50” whether the Rays can hold on to star southpaw David Price who will soon be too expensive for the budget-challenged Rays. (Most observers think it is sadly close to a sure bet that Price will be traded maybe even before the start of spring training.) However, Maddon is convinced the Rays will always contend because of the organization’s outstanding player evaluation from the amateurs through the pros.

Maddon pulled a surprise when he answered a youngster’s question about his favorite player: “Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.” He explained that last season during a early spring training game between the Rays and the Pirates, McCutchen beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop even though it was two out in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Pirates were well behind. After the game, Maddon congratulated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for instilling that kind of hustle in the centerfielder who went on to become the 2013 National League MVP.

I certainly hope Maddon is right that the Rays will continue to contend because they go about things the right way. They have locked up their best player third baseman Evan Longoria into the next decade and have always managed to find the pieces to fit around him, beginning with the biggest part of all, the pitching staff.

Maddon is as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’ve ever met not just in baseball but also in any walk of life. Whether he is wearing a faux sharkskin sport jacket - as he did at the banquet –- or inviting penguins and snakes into a Rays clubhouse that needed some relaxing last season or building team unity by organizing wardrobe themes for his players on road trips, Maddon is always trying to get the most out of his men and the most out of his life. At a time when baseball talk is too often about millions of dollars and almost double-digit years in contracts, he is a most refreshing breath of fresh air and intelligence.

In honor of him, I will appropriate his closing salutation to end this Christmas Eve post:
Be well and be fun!  Read More 
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