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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.

The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.

The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.

In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.

Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.

A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.

When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.

The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.

Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.

I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.

I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.

I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.

Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.

Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.

The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.

Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.

Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.

After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)

Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.

But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”

Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.

From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.

It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.

Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.

It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.

Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?

So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.

That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
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My Cuban Adventures + Shout-Outs to Chris Davis & Peyton Manning

In many ways January is the most hopeful month of the year. Days are finally getting longer, football mania is ebbing, and “pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training” – still the greatest sentence in the English language – will become true in a month.

My year got off to a rousing start with my first trip to Cuba. The Cuban amateur leagues were on hiatus but I was gratified to meet some vibrant Cuban baseball personages who deeply love their baseball. They are very well-informed about American baseball, not surprisingly because our major leagues to Cubans have long been known as The Great Leagues.

I arrived in Havana only a couple of weeks after the mid-December goodwill tour of prominent American baseball honchos Joe Torre, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, and two-time Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw. Sigfredo Barros, the longtime baseball correspondent for Granma the official Cuban newspaper, was touched at the scene of Kershaw bending down to work with youngsters at baseball clinics in and outside Havana.

To the pleasant surprise of Barros and other Cubans, the Castro government gave permission for recent defectors from Cuba to join Major League Baseball’s delegation. In the past the families of defectors suffered retribution.

Last month, however, Dodgers rightfielder Yasiel Puig, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, former Chisox shortstop now with the Padres Alexei Ramirez, and former Reds catcher now with the Cardinals Brayan Pena were welcomed warmly. Tears flowed when Abreu was reunited with his young son whom he had not seen in three years.

There is a possibility that the Tampa Bay Rays will play exhibition games in Cuba during spring training. The last major league team to visit was the Orioles during 1999 spring training. They won a close game in Havana but were routed in a rematch in June in Baltimore.

Memories of those games remain vivid for Cubans. In a touching gesture of friendship, Luis Zayas, 77, gave me the gift of his press pass from the March 1999 game. Zayas played for the Havana Sugar Kings in the 1950s when they were a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds in the International League.

Zayas later played in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and was in spring training in 1960 in Vero Beach, Florida when he was faced with a momentous decision. He was in love with a woman in Havana but he knew that if he returned to Cuba he could not continue his American career.

In 1960 the Sugar Kings were relocated to Jersey City, the American embargo began, and Fidel Castro decreed that only amateurs could play in the Cuban leagues. Zayas returned home to marry, but to continue his pro career he journeyed to Mexico where he played for the next ten years.

Afterwards he went back home to Cuba where by the mid-1970s he was able to work as a trainer for Cuban athletes. Among those he has worked with are such prominent defectors as Yoenis Cespedes, whose hitting led the Mets to the World Series, and switch-hitting Kendry Morales who won a World Series ring in 2015 as the excellent designated hitter for the Kansas City Royals.

“There is no easy solution to the question of defection,” Ismail Sene, a prominent baseball authority, told me. But he is glad that after decades of discord there is growing communication between Cuban and American baseball officials.

Sene, who served the government for 23 years in Czechoslovakia, has never lost his interest in baseball. He hosts a weekly sports show on Cuban television and is proud that he shares the same home town as Miguel “Mike” Gonzalez, a longtime catcher in the major leagues who coined the pithy description of a suspect player, “Good field, no hit.”

Let’s hope the Tampa Bay Rays do get to visit Havana and other Cuban cities during spring training. Love of baseball in Cuba dates to shortly after the American Civil War and despite the tortured relations with the U.S. since 1959 the passion happily persists.

Re: the Orioles winter – To the surprise of many including yours truly, the Orioles re-signed slugging first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year contract reporting worth $161 million. His aggressive agent Scott Boras tried to get a bidding war going with other teams but Davis likes Baltimore and manager Buck Showalter and he hits best at Camden Yards.

With the re-signing of reliever Darren O’Day for four years and catcher Matt Wieters for one year, the Orioles’ core remains basically intact. They need to bolster the starting pitching – what team doesn’t? – but there is more hope in Charm City for 2016 than many of us thought after the disappointing 2015 season ended.

And a final note on football – I’m glad that Peyton Manning gets another shot at a Super Bowl opportunity and against the Patriots and Tom Brady next week. Because of injury and age Manning is a shell of his former self but he managed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to give his Denver Broncos another shot at Super Bowl redemption.

That’s all for now – always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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