Football is finally over except for the Super Bowl which I will watch. But the daily news revelations about scofflaws and felons on teams already eliminated reminds me that the violence of players on the field too often extends to their off-field life. Not to mention the auto accident deaths and domestic violence charges that have plagued the University of Georgia college football champions since their easy win over Texax Christian U.
The embattled romantic in me still believes that "pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training" remains the greatest phrase in the English language. By Valentine's Day, it will be true.
I devoted some of the last days of January to attending my two favorite baseball banquets, the 56th annual New York Professional Baseball Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard's of Great Neck and the 17th annual Portsmouth Ohio Murals banquet, this year for the first time at Shawnee State University.
In New York, the very able broadcaster Sweeny Murti was a last-minute substitute for David Cone as guest speaker and he delivered a memorable talk.
Murti recalled his first visit to a MLB clubhouse in 1990 as a Penn State intern. The San Diego Padres had been blasted by a then-contending Pirates team, 10-2, and the awed Murti could not think of any question to ask the players.
But as they were heading into the hallway, he mustered enough courage to say to Tony Gwynn, "You
hit it hard today." As he walked away, Gwynn said simply, "Tomorrow is another day."
Some time later, Sweeny looked up the box scores and discovered that the next day in St. Louis, the future Hall of Famer had gone 3 for 4 on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
I myself never talked to the late outfielder who played his whole career with San Diego, but I'll never forget that when Gwynn came to play at Yankee Stadium in the 1998 World Series, he was the first Padre to visit Monument Park. (Such a shame that his addiction to chewing tobacco ended his life at the age of
54 in 2014.)
What made Sweeny Murti's remarks particularly memorable is that he delivered them on the same day Jan 20th that he made his last appearance as a regular on WFAN. Station brass wanted him to take a pay cut and it was an offer he could refuse. Here's hoping he'll reappear soon on the air waves.
I have never been an addict of sports radio to say the least, but I have also enjoyed Kimberly Jones' work on WFAN on both baseball and football. Her WFAN appearances will likely be cut back because she has now become the New York football Giants reporter for Newsday. She's another Penn State graduate bringing honor to a school that is rivaling Syracuse for producing major broadcasting talent.
Here are some highlights from award winners at the New York scouts dinner:
**Phil Rossi currently a Marlins scout gave props to the Red Sox for whom he started scouting as a 24-year-old. Their next youngest scout was 58 but he learned from all of them.
**Mets scout Tom Tanous, a product of a Rhode Island community college, wryly noted that the
Ivy Leaguers and business school graduates peopling all MLB front offices these days may say
they agree with you when they really mean, "Please go out on the road and don't come back for a long time."
**Reds scout John Morris, winner of the coveted Turk Karam Award as the NY region Scout of the Year,
said that Whitey Herzog, his manager in St. Louis, convinced him that his future in baseball was in
a utility role. "You do more in one AB than you do in four," Herzog advised - Morris had 7-year career
with Reds, Cardinals, and Angels.
Speaking of Cincinnati, it is less than 100 miles from Portsmouth where the Portsmouth Murals banquet has always been one of my favorite gatherings. It is the Scioto County seat, the home area of Branch Rickey who grew up on a farm not far from the port city that endured a devastating flood in 1937.
A flood wall was erected on the Ohio River across from Kentucky but after several years it became an eyesore. Enter the gifted artist Robert Dafford who from 1993 through 2002 painted nearly 100 murals that covered the fascinating history of the region and included many of the region's famous people like
Branch Rickey, cowboy star Roy Rogers, and Jim Thorpe who coached and played for the 1927 Portsmouth pro football team that a few years later became the Detroit Lions.
Recent athletic heroes from the area have been added to newer murals including three notable future major leaguers from the 1960s, Larry Hisle, Gene Tenace, and Al Oliver, possessor of 2743 career hits who is now a pastor in Portsmouth and usually delivered the dinner's opening prayer but was not available this year.
I am happy to report that in my new book out in April BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES there will be a chapter on the prolific and beloved scout Gene Bennett, a Cincinnati Reds lifer as minor league outfielder and longtime scout, signer of Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill, among others. Bennett also
graces one of the murals.
The opening prayer this year was delivered by pastor Acy Gibson, father of Greg Gibson who just retired after a career of over 20 years as a National League umpire. The Gibsons hail from nearby Boyd County across the Ohio River near Ashland, Kentucky.
Greg delivered a few heartfelt remarks. He said that after 200 nights a year on the road and enduring many injuries, it was time to let younger umpires take over. Closing on a religious note, he said: "Some day you'll meet your Maker and I hope He calls you safe."
Former Big Red Machine utility infielder Darrel Chaney was the main speaker this year. He delivered a very effective combination of humorous story-telling and statements of his own strong religious and moral beliefs. Originally from Hammond, Indiana where his father supported the family as a pipefitter in an oil refinery near Chicago, Chaney now lives in the hills two hours north of Atlanta.
Like John Morris, Chaney had to adapt to being a utility player behind such stars as Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose. Manager Sparky Anderson told him, "I want you to be ready in case the game comes to you."
As for Rose's permanent banishment from baseball, Chaney expressed sympathy for his former teammate but he sighed at his inability to come clean: "If you tell the truth, you'll never have to remember what someone else said."
One more word on muralist Robert Dafford. His work has won plaudits all over the world from British Columbia to Belgium to France to many other American cities - from Steubenville Ohio to Paducah Kentucky to his home town of Lafayette Louisiana where he is now working on murals commemorating that area's fascinating history.
When I asked him some years ago if he knew Ron Guidry, the local hero who became the great Yankees
pitcher, he replied, "I ran track with him in high school, . . . far behind him."
That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it, and these days: stay positive, test negative.