The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
These Dads Were Ballplayers, Too

It’s one thing for a dad to have his son make it to the major-leagues, but it’s even more special when the dad was also a former major-leaguer.  The number of big-league father-son combinations is pretty rare.  Less than 500, out of almost 19,000 major leaguers to have played since 1876, are a father or son.

When former major-leaguer Pete Rose was shopping around for a new team in the free agent marketplace, one of his considerations was that the team would allow his son to practically have everyday access to the team’s clubhouse.  Many major-league sons like Pete Jr. have their interests in baseball as youngsters fueled by hanging out with their dads in the clubhouse or shagging fly balls during batting practice before their dads’ games.  Consequently, the sons have a unique opportunity to rub shoulders with big-league players and to begin learning the ropes of what it takes to be a successful professional ballplayer. 

Ironically, the fathers probably didn’t get too many chances to see their sons develop their own skills while growing up on the playgrounds, since the dads were off playing in big-league cities across the country.  For example, Pete Rose said he attended fewer than ten of his son’s games during his childhood.  When Ken Griffey Jr. was playing in his first pro season in an instructional league, it was the first time in five years his major-league father had seen him play.

In honor of Father’s Day, below is a group of major league dads from the past, whose sons are currently playing in the big-leagues.  The dads are organized into a Fathers Fantasy Team.

1B -- Andy Van Slyke, father of Scott Van Slyke (Los Angeles Dodgers).  Andy was a three-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner during 1983 to 1995.  Most of his career was spent with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates as an outfielder, but he occasionally played first base as well.

2B – Delino DeShields, father of Delino DeShields Jr. (Texas Rangers).  The elder DeShields was the first-round draft selection of the Montreal Expos in 1987.  Three years later he was runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year honors.  He then went on to 13-year career in which he batted .268.

SS – Ivan de Jesus, father of Ivan de Jesus Jr. (Milwaukee Brewers).  Ivan Sr. was a slick-fielding shortstop for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies.  He was the shortstop on the 1983 Phillies World Series team whose infield included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt.

3B – Clay Bellinger, father of Cody Bellinger (Los Angeles Dodgers).  Clay appeared in the World Series in 2001 and 2002 with the New York Yankees, earning a championship ring in 2001.  Primarily a utility player, he played every position with the Yankees except pitcher and catcher in 2000.

OF -- Kevin Romine, father of Andrew Romine (Detroit Tigers) and Austin Romine (New York Yankees).  Kevin was a 2nd-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1982 and played with them during 1985 to 1991.  He had one post-season appearance with the Red Sox in 1988.

OF – Eric Young, father of Eric Young Jr. (Los Angeles Angels).  Eric Sr. played fifteen seasons in the big-leagues with seven different teams as a second baseman and outfielder.  During his career he compiled a .283 batting average and 465 stolen bases, currently 48th on the all-time stolen base list.  He was an All-Star in 1996 with Colorado as a second baseman.

OF – Raul R. Mondesi, father of Raul A. Mondesi (Kansas City Royals).  The elder Mondesi was National League Rookie of the Year in 1994 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up playing seven seasons with them, including two post-seasons appearances.  He played a total of 13 seasons in the majors, compiling 271 home runs.

C – Sal Butera, father of Drew Butera (Kansas City Royals).  Sal was a backup catcher for five different major-league clubs during 1980 to 1988.  He was a member of the 1987 World Series champion Minnesota Twins.

SP – Tom Gordon, father of Dee Gordon (Miami Marlins).  Nicknamed “Flash,” Tom first started his pro career as a starting pitcher, but later switched to the bullpen.  He was runner-up in the voting for the American League Rookie of the Year in 1989 while with the Kansas City Royals.  He won 97 games as a starter during his first 10 seasons.  He led the led the American League in saves in 1998 with the Boston Red Sox.  Altogether he recorded 158 career saves.  He was a three-time All-Star selection.

RP – Steve Bedrosian, father of Cam Bedrosian (Los Angeles Angels).  Steve compiled a 76-79 record and 184 saves over 14 seasons during 1981 to 1985.  He was the National League’s Cy Young Award winner in 1987 with the Philadelphia Phillies, a relatively uncommon feat for a relief pitcher.  He was a member of the 1991 World Series champion Minnesota Twins.

A few other current major-leaguers with fathers who also played at the major-league level include Steve Lombardozzi (Marlins), Lance McCullers Jr. (Astros), Jason Grilli (Blue Jays), and Travis Shaw (Brewers).

Scooter Gennett an Unlikely Player to Hit Four Homers in a Game

Major League Baseball players named “Scooter” don’t have a reputation for being home run hitters.  Yet Scooter Gennett accomplished one of the most rare single-game performances that can occur in baseball--more infrequent than a perfect game (23 in history) and hitting for the cycle (307 in history).  On June 6, the 5-foot-10 outfielder hit four home runs in a game for the Cincinnati Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming only the 17th player to do so in the sport’s 142 year history.  The last player to accomplish this feat was Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton in 2012.

With his historic outing, Gennett has set himself apart from the other two “Scooters” who have appeared in the big leagues.  Hall of Famer Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto hit only 38 career home runs in 13 seasons and 1,661 games, while Eddie “Scooter” Tucker hit only one dinger in a three-year career, although he appeared in only 51 games.

On the other hand, Gennett is definitely not in the same league as several of his “4-homer” club companions when it comes to power production.  Players such as Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, Gil Hodges, Josh Hamilton, Joe Adcock, Matt Williams and Rocky Colavito are prominent sluggers on the list.  Gennett’s four homers last week gave him a season total of 7 home runs and a career total of 42 in a little over 500 games.  His career-high 14 home runs in 2016 was a bit of an aberration, since he averaged only seven per year prior to that.

Gennett produced a 5-for-5 day at the plate when he slammed his four home runs.  His first hit came on an RBI single in the 1st inning.  Then he hit a grand slam in the 3rd inning, a two-run home run in the 4th, a solo home run in the 6th, and another two-run shot in the 8th.  He generated a total of 10 RBI for the game, and his home runs came against three different Cardinals pitchers.  The Reds won the game, 13-1.

The 27-year-old Gennett was the 16th-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009 and then made his major-league debut with the Brewers in 2013.  After four major-league seasons with the Brewers, he was selected off waivers by the Reds in March 2017.  He has split time between second base and the outfield with the Reds this year.

Holliday Delivers Just What the Yankees Ordered

No, Matt Holliday isn’t delivering pizzas to the Yankees’ clubhouse.  At least not yet.  But he sure is making the Yankees’ front office look good by getting off to a fantastic start this season, after being acquired as a free agent over the winter.

Over the last couple of years, the Yankees have engineered a make-over of its team, shedding big-dollar contracts of older veterans and infusing the roster with some of its upstarts from their farm system.  In fact, they’ve now become known as the “Baby Bombers” for the offensive breakout by several of the young players.

Among the players displaced from the team over the winter were Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, long-time, well-respected veterans of the big-leagues, who were able to provide the newcomers with leadership required in the clubhouse.  Beltran and McCann became expendable because the Yankees didn’t want to extend the contracts of the aging players at the salaries they would command.

Recognizing the leadership void this would create in the clubhouse, Yankee GM Brian Cashman pursued Holliday, whom the St. Louis Cardinals released to free agency for the same economic reasons.

Just a few years ago, Holliday had been a premier outfielder, an all-star selection in seven seasons.  However, the Yankees took somewhat of a gamble on the 37-year-old because he had been plagued with injuries over the previous two seasons with St. Louis and saw a drop in offensive production.  An outfielder practically all of his career, his skills were diminishing there, too.  Yet Cashman signed him to a one-year deal for $13M, which would limit the Yankees’ commitment and liability if he didn’t work out.

Well, Holliday hasn’t disappointed the Yankee brass or their fans.  Used primarily as the team’s designated hitter, he’s responded better than expected with 12 home runs, 35 RBI, and a .363 on-base percentage as of June 3. His power numbers on the team rank only behind Aaron Judge, one of those new rookie upstarts with the Yankees.  Holliday has provided some flexibility in the Yankees’ lineup by also serving as an occasional first-baseman.  If needed, he could also be pressed into service in the outfield, as well.

During the off-season the list of high-profile free agents didn’t include Holliday.  Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, and Jose Bautista got most the attention and the big bucks.  But Holliday has been as productive this season as any of those guys.

His impact on the Yankees has been immense.  They are currently 10 games above .500.  They’ve been in first-place of the American League East Division for over half of the season.  They’ve been one of the biggest surprises of the year in Major League Baseball so far, and Holliday has been a significant contributor to that, along with Judge and the better-than-expected pitching staff.

Holliday’s presence in the clubhouse has been equally noticeable as it has been on the field.  The veteran’s locker was purposefully located next to Judge’s who consults with him every day about the hitting plan for the day’s opposing pitcher.  They discuss mechanics, approach, and philosophy.  Holliday has been a resource for the other young hitters, as well.  Yankee manager Joe Girardi practically has another coach on the team in Holliday.

 After 7 ½ seasons with the Cardinals, they had decided after last season it was time to move on without Holliday.  But now with the Yankees he’s an integral part of the team.  He’s demonstrating the type of clutch competitor he’s been in the past, and the rest of the team is feeding off that.

If the Yankees continue their winning ways and indeed make the post-season playoffs, Holliday will be a good guy to have around.  He’s no stranger to the post-season, having played in three different World Series—one with Colorado Rockies and two the Cardinals, claiming one World Series ring.  He has 13 home runs and 37 RBI in seven years of post-season competition.

Holliday seems to have re-energized his career and in turn energized the Yankees by his addition to the team.  At his age, who knows how long it will last.  But for now, he’ll be the one ordering the pizzas, not delivering them.

LSU Provides Its Share of Active Major Leaguers

LSU is largely known for the large number of football players it provides to the National Football League.  But they are no slouch in also sending its baseball players to Major League Baseball.  LSU has one of the premier baseball programs in the nation, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1980s.  In 2016 three more baseball alumni from LSU made their major-league debuts.  They are among eleven former Tigers who are currently active in the majors this season and part of a group of 85 former Tigers who have donned major-league uniforms dating back to the early 1900s.  Among SEC schools, LSU has the most number of active major leaguers so far this season.

Below is a brief overview of the players making their debuts in 2016.

Alex Bregman made the biggest splash among last year’s Tiger rookies, when he was called up to the Houston Astros in late July, after less than year of minor-league experience.  Despite a rough start in his first 10 games, he went on to demonstrate why he was the second overall pick in the 2015 Major League Draft.  He had only five hitless games during his last 39 games of the season, while accumulating 8 home runs and 34 RBI.  Bregman was a member of Team USA in the recent 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Ryan Schimpf had a credible first season in 2016 as well. He smacked 20 home runs (3rd most on the team) and 51 RBI in 89 games for the San Diego Padres.  The infielder had been the fifth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009 and was signed as a free agent by the Padres following the 2015 season. 13 of his 24 hits so far in 2017 have been home runs, and he leads the Padres in that offensive category.

JaCoby Jones was a late-season call-up of the Detroit Tigers in 2016, getting two hits in his debut game.  A former infielder with LSU, he appeared in 13 games, with seven of them in starts in the outfield.   Jones was the third-round selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 and was traded to the Tigers in mid-season 2015.  Jones began the 2017 season as the Tigers’ starting centerfielder.

Other former LSU players in the majors in 2016, who are still active this year, include the following.

DJ LaMahieu turned in the best performance of all former Tigers in 2016 by leading the National League in batting average.  In his sixth major-league season, LaMahieu bested his 2015 average by 47 points to .348 in 2016.  He was second in the league with a .416 On-Base Percentage.  He had previously been an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner at second base.

Will Harris was one of the top middle relievers in the majors in 2016.   Pitching with the Houston Astros, he posted a 2.25 ERA and 1.047 WHIP in 66 games.  The ninth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in the 2006 MLB Draft, Harris was selected to the American League All-Star team in 2016.

Aaron Nola was the first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014 and moved into their starting rotation by July 2015.  The pitcher’s 2016 season was cut short at the end of July when he suffered an elbow injury.  He finished the season with a 6-9 record and 4.78 ERA.  He averaged almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings.  Nola was back in the rotation at the start of the 2017 season.

Kevin Gausman pitched in his fourth major-league season in 2016 with the Baltimore Orioles.  The right-handed pitcher was the first-round draft selection of the Orioles and fourth overall pick in 2012, he finished the season with a 9-12 record and 3.61 ERA.  He was the Orioles’ Opening Day starter in 2017.

Mikie Mahtook played in his second major-league season last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, who selected him in the first-round of the 2011 MLB Draft.  In 65 games for the Rays he batted .195 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI.  Mahtook was traded to the Detroit Tigers during the winter, where he joins fellow Tiger Jacoby Jones in the outfield.

Nick Goody appeared in his second major-league season last year with the New York Yankees as a relief pitcher.  He had been selected by the Yankees in the sixth-round of the 2012 MLB Draft.  The right-hander was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the off-season and is currently on the Indians roster.

Aaron Hill is the dean of the active Tiger baseball alumni.  He is in his 13th major-league season, having made his debut in 2005.  He is currently on the San Francisco Giants roster as a utility infielder. The former two-time Silver Slugger Award winner has played the majority of his career with Toronto and Arizona.  Hill was the first-round pick (13th overall) of the Blue Jays in the 2003 MLB Draft.

Jason Vargas is another long-time major leaguer with the Kansas City Royals.  The 12-year veteran missed most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to injury, but appears to have rebounded this year with a 6-3 record and 2.39 ERA.  Vargas was the second-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2003.

Matt Clark and Louis Coleman are former Tigers who have prior major-league experience, but are currently playing in the in the minors.

Who are the most likely former LSU players to next join the ranks of the big leagues?  Below are three candidates.

Austin Nola, Aaron’s older brother, played second base at Triple-A New Orleans in 2016.  However, he has converted to the catcher position over the winter and is working his way back up the ranks with Double-A Jacksonville in the Miami Marlins organization.  Nola was a 2011 draftee of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ryan Eades is currently playing for Double-A Chattanooga in the Minnesota Twins organization.  The right-handed pitcher was the second-round pick of the Twins in 2013.

Joe Broussard is currently pitching for Triple-A Oklahoma City in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.  The right-handed relief pitcher was the 15th-round pick of the Dodgers in 2014.

At Yankee Stadium They're Chanting "Here Comes the Judge"

The New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge has been stirring up a lot of interest in the Bronx with his home-run-hitting prowess and his role in the team’s resurgence to division leadership in the American League East.  So far, he’s slammed 14 home runs, some of them mammoth shots.

When the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Judge lumbers to the plate, Yankee Stadium fans can be heard chanting, “Here comes the judge,” as a take-off of a comical song recorded in 1968 by Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, one of the first rappers in the music industry.  The song was actually a parody of the justice system, but there is nothing to be made fun of regarding the performance of the Yankee slugger.

Judge is one of the relatively new Baby Bombers that have arrived in Yankee Stadium over the past few seasons.  These kids are making baseball fans recall Yankee history when the team was referred to as the “Bronx Bombers” for their prodigious power-hitting that yielded numerous World Series titles.  In reality, it’s way too early for this current version of the Yankees to be compared to the teams that had Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, Combs, Dickey, Koenig, and Lazzeri.  But it’s been exciting for Yankee fans to envision the possibilities of a return to prominence.

Judge is joined by the Yankees’ rookie sensation of last season, catcher Gary Sanchez, and young first baseman Greg Bird, who is currently on the disabled list.  Tyler Austin is another up-and-coming Yankee stud, although he has recently had a difficult time finding a regular outfield spot, since veterans Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are healthy and playing quite well at the moment.

Monstrous home runs have become Judge’s trademark.  He hit a 460-foot home run at Yankee Stadium in April.  During a recent batting practice session, he shattered a TV monitor in dead centerfield, estimated to be 480 feet away.  He became the youngest player in history to hit 13 home runs in his first 26 games of the season.  Judge was selected the American League’s Rookie of the Month for April.

Last year Judge showed a sampling of his power during his late-season call-up, but his strikeout rate (40%) was a concern.  This year he appears to have somewhat addressed the strikeout problem, since his whiffs have dropped to 25% of his plate appearances.

Judge wears uniform number 99, another symbol of his large presence on the roster.  Yankee tradition used to be that Yankee players with single-digit numbers were among the most revered in the team’s history, e. g., Martin—1, Jeter—2, Ruth—3, Gehrig—4, DiMaggio—5, Mantle—7, Berra—8, and Maris—9.  Judge just may be starting a new Yankee trend that the higher uniform numbers will now carry significance.

Judge’s physical size is reminiscent of outsized players from yesteryear, such as Frank Howard (6-foot-7, 255 pounds) and Dave Kingman (6-foot-6, 210 pounds), who were also well-known for their moon shots.  Howard amassed 382 career home runs, while “Kong” Kingman put up 442.  Judge would do well to wind up in their company at the end of his career.

Largely due to Judge’s performance, viewership of Yankee telecasts on the YES Network in New York is the highest since Derek Jeter’s last game as a Yankee in 2014.  In addition to following the resurgence of a winning Yankee team, fans are tuning in to see the next big home run by Judge.  Judge Judy is no longer the most popular judge on TV in New York City.

Billy Hamilton Has Skill That is Fading Away

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton is currently the run-away leader in stolen bases in the National League with 19.  He is on a pace to accumulate 80 for the season.  He has finished in second place in the National League in this offensive category for the past three seasons.  However, while he has been a valuable asset for the Reds with his legs, his impressive capability has largely become a de-valued skill by many major-league clubs because of the emphasis on power hitting.

A look at the number of stolen bases over the past four decades shows a general decline in the use of the stolen base as an offensive tool.  In 1980 the average number of stolen bases by National League teams was 153.  The number dropped slightly to 149 per team in 1990.  Then in 2000 there was nearly a 33% decrease, to 102 stolen bases per team.  2010 saw another 10% drop.  In 2016 the average stolen bases by National League teams was 93.  The Baltimore Orioles, with 19, had the least of all major-league teams during the entire 2016 season.

Hamilton caught the attention of the baseball world when he stole 109 bases in his third pro season in 2011.  Then in the next season his tally jumped to 165, the most ever in organized baseball.  To put these two seasons into context, the only major-leaguers to attain the 100+ stolen base club were Maury Wills (104 in 1962), Lou Brock (118 in 1974), Rickey Henderson (130 in 1982, his third such season with 100 or more), and Vince Coleman, who accumulated 100+ stolen bases in three seasons during 1985-1987.

To illustrate the emphasis one major-league team put on the running game in the past, the Oakland A’s once had a player, Herb Washington, whose sole role on the team was as a pinch-runner.  A former world-class sprinter from Michigan State, he was hired by A’s maverick owner Charlie Finley to utilize his speed to strictly steal bases and score runs.  He appeared in 92 games in 1974, but never had a plate appearance.  He did wind up with 29 steals for the season, although he was caught stealing in one-third of his total attempts. He managed to score in nearly one-third of his games played.

Most major-league teams have forsaken the strategy of playing “small ball,” by scratching out a few runs with singles, advancing runners with bunts and sacrifice hits, and stealing bases.  Major-league clubs almost exclusively rely in the “long ball” for their offensive approach.  Now, each major-league team has only one or two players who can steal any substantial number of bases.  Besides the Reds’ Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Jonathan Villar, Jose Altuve, and Starling Marte are a few other prodigious base-stealers in today’s game.

However, Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price certainly recognizes the dangerous threat to opposing teams he has in Hamilton, "It's an impact on our offense when he's on base, no doubt about it. He's a distraction to the pitcher -- not just at first base, but at second base as well. It opens up holes for our offense due to the need to keep the middle infielders close to the bag at second base to keep him close."

While Hamilton’s best weapon is currently his speed on the bases and as an outfielder, he’s potentially at risk of maintaining his roster spot down the road when the 26-year-old’s legs begin to wear.  He’s not a high-batting average player, with a career average of .248, and his career on-base percentage is only .299.  Yet he makes the most of the opportunities when he does get on base, and right now he is helping the Cincinnati Reds to a surprising second place in the National League Central standings.

Reflections on the First Month of the Baseball Season

With the first month of the Major League Baseball season in the record books, it’s a good time to take an initial accounting of which players and teams are getting the headlines so far.

How often do we see clubs exceed pre-season expectations coming out of the gate, providing some early surprises in the division races?  Then there are the teams and players who fail to measure up to their projections and you wonder if it’s just a bad stretch they are going through, or if there is something more systemic behind their shortfall.  There’s the old adage, “you can’t win a pennant in April, but you can sure lose one then.”  The teams that are severely lumping already are hoping that saying doesn’t apply to them.

Then you have players who are burst onto the big-league scene for the first time, catching all the baseball analysts and fans by surprise.  And then there are the major disappointments of the established players who just can’t seem to get untracked.

The big question is whether the initial results of the first few weeks will be indicative of how the rest of their seasons will go.

Here’s a look at some of the headliners – good and bad – from the first month.

Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers is the Trevor Story of the 2016 season.  Recall that Story got an unsuspecting big break to start the season with Colorado last year and came out swinging, hitting 7 home runs during the first 6 games.  Indeed, he became the “story” of the young season.  Now Thames is making news for his breakout performance this year.  Having most recently played professionally in Korea prior to this season, he literally came out of nowhere to hit 11 home runs in the first 20 games of the season, including 8 against the Cincinnati Reds.

Unlike Thames, outfielder Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees was well-publicized as one of the up-and-coming stars of the team being labeled the “Baby Bombers.”  However, few expected he would break into the “star” category this quickly.  In his brief debut last year, he struck out in over 40% of his plate appearances.  He has cut down on the whiffs this season and managed to slug 10 home runs during April.  At six-feet-seven and 280 pounds, he is reminiscent of a slugger from yesteryear, Frank Howard.

One player who won’t be slugging anything for the first 80 games is Starling Marte.  The Pittsburgh Pirates’ star was suspended by MLB for testing positive for PED use.  This situation reminds us that while baseball has cleaned up its act with respect to performance enhancing drugs, there are still a few bad actors trying to beat the system.

There are a number of other players missing games, too, but not because of PEDs.  It seems like there’s a rising epidemic among major-league pitchers—an epidemic of arm injuries.  The majors have become dominated by hard throwers, but they don’t seem to stay healthy very long.  Several teams started the season without their top-of-the-rotation pitchers, including David Price (Red Sox), Sonny Gray (A‘s); and Alex Reyes (Cardinals), and in-season injuries have already occurred to top-flight starters Shelby Miller (D’backs), Noah Syndergaard (Mets), Felix Hernandez (Mariners), and Madison Bumgarner (Giants).  After his near-perfect season last year, Orioles reliever Zach Britton has been on the DL twice already.  Major League managers are really having to earn their keep with some clever juggling their pitching staffs.

Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros is one hurler that’s not having any arm trouble this year.  He’s already won five games so far for the first-place Astros.  After having an off year last season, he’s proving his Cy Young Award season of 2015 was no fluke, and he’s one of the major reasons the Astros have gotten off to a record start for the franchise.

The Orioles have been somewhat of an enigma with their near-first place standing in the American League East.  Their starting rotation hasn’t been very impressive and they’ve been without closer Zach Britton for a good part of the early season, but yet they are winning games despite having a minor differential (runs scored vs. runs allowed) as a team.

Yankees starting pitching staff had been somewhat suspect going into the season, but has turned out to be pleasantly surprising, at least for Yankee fans.  The Yankees are putting up big offensive numbers and that’s been without the benefit of their new-found hitting star from last year, Gary Sanchez, who has been on the disabled list for most of the season.

In the National League, Arizona and Colorado have been surprise teams, with both of them currently ahead of Los Angeles and San Francisco, who were pre-season favorites in the West Division.  The big question for these newfound leaders is whether they can maintain their current pace and keep the Dodgers and Giants at bay.

There have been several outstanding hitting performances so far this season.  Carlos Gomez (Rangers), Trea Turner (Nationals), and Wil Myers (Padres) have each hit for the cycle, while Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon went 6-for-6 and banged out 10 RBI in a game.

On the pitching side, the Twins’ Ervin Santana turned in a gem with a complete-game one-hitter against the White Sox.  Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale has recorded six consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts.

Toronto may be one of these teams who may have lost the pennant in April.  Their starting pitching staff was touted as one of the best in the league going into the season, but they are currently struggling.  And their highly-touted offense from last year has fizzled so far, too.  They are digging themselves a deep hole by already being 10 games out of first place in a very competitive division.  Is it too early for them to say, “wait ‘til next year?”

The Chicago Cubs are currently tied for first place in their division with a surprising Cincinnati Reds team.  However, all of the teams in that division are currently playing around .500, with the last place Pittsburgh Pirates only two games out of first place.  It will be interesting to see if the Cubs can separate themselves from the rest of the pack again as they did for most of last year.  However, if the Cubs are still battling the Reds for first-place near the end of the season, it will have been an unusually bad year for the Central Division.

 

Pete Thomassie Once Drew Comparison to Fellow West Banker Mel Ott

Former Gretna, Louisiana, resident Pete Thomassie’s baseball career in the early 1940s was on a soaring trajectory such that he acquired the label “Mel Ott of the Southern Association” by The Sporting News. It was an especially flattering comparison since Ott, a native of Gretna, had a Hall of Fame career as one of the all-time great major-league players.

Not only did they share West Bank roots, but Thomassie had a similar diminutive size (5’ 7” and 145 pounds) as Ott (5’ 9” and 170 pounds), and they both batted from the left side. Thomassie could hit, too, as he led the Southern Association in batting average for the better part of the 1945 season and posted four other seasons with batting averages of .300 or better.

However, Thomassie’s career development ultimately hit a brick wall after a near-major-league opportunity, and he never realized the full potential he exhibited in his first several professional seasons.  He played parts of 13 seasons in the minors from 1939 to 1953, never reaching the major-league level.

Pershing “Pete” Thomassie was born in 1921 in Waggaman, Louisiana, a small town on the west bank of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans metropolitan area.  He attended Marrero High School, where he was named to the 1938 Class B All-Prep baseball team selected by The Times-Picayune New Orleans States newspaper.  He attracted the attention of Claude Dietrich, a local scout for the minor-league Atlanta Crackers, and Thomassie inked a contract with them in 1938, along with several other high school and American Legion players from the area.  New Orleans was in its heyday for professional baseball then. A Times-Picayune article in April 1939 reported that Thomassie was among approximately 100 players from New Orleans in professional baseball that year.

In 1939, Thomassie was assigned to play with Waycross of the Class D Georgia-Florida League, which had a working agreement with Atlanta. He immediately excelled as a hitter in his two seasons with Waycross, hitting .315 and .339.  He was also considered one of the fastest players in the minors, stealing 33 and 34 bases, respectively, in his first two seasons.  Acquiring the nicknames of “Little General” and “Pocket Battleship,” the speedy outfielder was voted the most valuable player of the league in 1940.  Noted for his colorful nature, the fans in Waycross bought him a $100 watch in recognition of his honor.

New Orleans played baseball year-round back in those days. Semi-pro leagues were prevalent, where professional players, including major-leaguers, would continue to play after their regular seasons ended in September.  At age 21, Thomassie was playing alongside some of New Orleans’ best players: Howie Pollet, Al Jurisich, Al Flair, and Charlie Gilbert. The Times-Picayune reported a charity benefit game on October 4, 1940, in which Thomassie even played in the same outfield with legendary Ott.

His play in 1940 earned him an opportunity to play the next season for Atlanta in the Southern Association, where he hit .299 in 44 games.  However, he was sent to Class B Savannah for more seasoning, where he batted .336 in 86 games.

Thomassie again signed a contract with Atlanta, but not before he had sent back three earlier proposed contracts unsigned.  The Associated Press reported the fourth contract sent by special delivery to Atlanta contained assurances he “would do his best to be a worthwhile member of the Crackers.”

By 1942, many pro baseball players began entering the military service during World War II. Atlanta’s loss of players to the armed forces allowed Thomassie to claim an outfield spot at the start the season.  However, on June 20, Atlanta traded Thomassie to the Memphis Chicks for Marshall Mauldin.

Thomassie was inducted into the Army in February 1943 and was sent to Camp Wolters in Texas, where he was able to continue to play ball on the service team called the “Doughboys.”. He was the only pro outfielder on the team.  While playing against former major-league pitchers in the service, Thomassie learned to hit with more power, despite his small size.  He received a medical discharge at Fort McPherson, Georgia, on December 1, 1944.

Returning to Memphis for the 1945 season, Thomassie replaced Pete Gray, the one-armed centerfielder who had amazed the baseball world during the 1944 season with his .333 batting average. An outfield spot opened up when Gray was sold to the St. Louis Browns for the 1945 season and became the first amputee to play in the major-leagues.

Thomassie was a unanimous selection to the Southern Association all-star team. Leading the league in hitting at the time, a feature article in The Sporting News labeled Thomassie the “Mel Ott of the Southern Association,” calling him “a bundle of dynamite that looks small on the surface but has tremendous explosive power.” During May of the 1945 season, he hit safely in twelve consecutive at-bats, breaking the previous Southern Association record of ten hits by Oris Hockett. However, he left the Memphis team unexpectedly before the season ended.  News accounts of his leaving didn’t explain the reason, but he returned to New Orleans and played in a local semi-pro league that fall. He had compiled a career-high .365 average with Memphis, although Gil Coan of Chattanooga ultimately surpassed him for the batting title.

The Sporting News reported in November 1945 that Thomassie was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the minor-league draft, one of only ten players selected by major-league clubs. He reached an agreement with the White Sox on February 22, 1946.

Thomassie went to spring camp in 1946 with the big-league White Sox. According to The Sporting News, however, his training was interrupted by his need to accompany his wife during their 16-month-old daughter’s illness. By then, most major-league players had returned from military service and secured their old jobs with major-league teams. Consequently, he started the season with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox. That would be the closest Thomassie would ever get to appearing in the major-leagues, since he was optioned to Nashville in May after playing only 13 games with Milwaukee.

With Nashville, he batted .283 for the season, including a career-high ten home runs. On June 15, he went 5-for-5 in a game that was part of a string of eight consecutive hits in as many plate appearances. On July 8, he hit the first of three consecutive home runs on three consecutive pitches against Little Rock pitcher Bob Raney.  Cy Block and Bill Manning hit the other two home runs.

The Milwaukee Brewers sold Thomassie to the Little Rock Travelers before the 1947 season, but he never appeared in a game for them. He wound up with Class D Houma of the Evangeline League, where he hit .288 in 61 games.

For the next three seasons, Thomassie played sparingly (never a full season) in the low minors, while continuing to compete in New Orleans’ local semi-pro leagues and the annual charity baseball events.

Thomassie appeared to have a resurgence in 1951 when he played a full season with the Thibodaux Giants of the Class C Evangeline League. The 30-year-old hit .351, as the Giants finished in first-place during the regular season. At one point during the season, he hadn’t struck out during a streak of 238 official at-bats.

In the minor-league draft following the 1951 season, Thomassie was selected from Thibodaux by the St. Petersburg Saints of the Florida International League, but he appeared in only 22 games for the Class B team. His 1952 season with the Lafayette Bulls of the Evangeline League was his last professional season.

As late as 1966, Thomassie was still playing baseball in local semi-pro leagues, softball leagues, and old-timers’ games.

Nolan Vicknair, a former West Bank baseball player whose career partially overlapped Thomassie’s, recalls about him, “Pete was a natural athlete, but he rarely took conditioning seriously.” Vicknair, currently 92 years old and a former minor-league player himself, remembers that Thomassie exhibited a relaxed attitude about the game, which ultimately contributed to his professional career being stymied.

In a 1995 article of The Time-Picayune about Thomassie, Louisiana’s official baseball historian Arthur Schott noted about Thomassie, “He was an excellent fielder and a good ball player. He had a good fielding arm and was good at throwing men out at bases.” Vicknair confirms that assessment saying, “Pete could make leaping catches of deep fly balls near the outfield fence, similar to what we see a lot on television nowadays.”

Thomassie’s professional career never actually approached Mel Ott’s Hall of Fame career, but he is remembered by old-timers, such as Vicknair, as one of the best ballplayers ever from the West Bank. Thomassie was elected to the New Orleans Diamond Club Hall of Fame in 1976. He died on September 17, 1979.

UNO's Baseball Legacy Includes Players-Turned-Managers and Coaches

The University of New Orleans has supplied it share of Major League Baseball players.  Yet what may not be as well-known is the school has also been a good source of professional and college baseball managers and coaches, many of them with ties to its long-time head coach, Ron Maestri.

Randy Bush, Roger Erickson, Wally Whitehurst, Ted Wood, Brian Traxler, Joe Slusarski, Jim Bullinger, and most recently Johnny Giavotella are among the UNO baseball alums who reached “The Show” after honing their skills at the Lakefront university. The school has a rich history of baseball which began in 1970 under the leadership of Maestri and includes a College World Series appearance in 1984.

There’s also a fraternity of former UNO players who have extended their careers as field generals and coaches, including jobs at the college, minor-league, and major-league levels.

When Brian Snitker was named the interim manager of the Atlanta Braves in May 2016, he became the second former UNO player to become a major-league manager, following Mike Quade.  Snitker was named the full-time manager of the Braves in October 2016.

Snitker had previously held several major-league roles with the Braves, including bullpen coach and base coach.  He has been in the Braves organization as a player, coach, and manager since 1977.  He played for UNO in 1976 and 1977.

Quade became interim manager of the Chicago Cubs in August 2010 following Lou Piniella’s sudden retirement.  He was named the permanent manager for the 2011 season, but was let go after only one full season when Theo Epstein came over from Boston as the Cubs president.

After playing for UNO from 1976 to 1979, Quade played in the minors from 1979 to 1983 for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.  He then served as a minor league coach and manager before being promoted to the Oakland A’s major-league coaching staff in 2000.  He was a base coach for the Cubs from 2007 until the time he was named Cubs’ interim manager.  Quade is currently the manager of the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.

A former Privateers infielder from 1987-1988, Rouglas Odor is currently the hitting coach for the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.  He has previous experience as a manager in the Indians’ organization.  A native of Venezuela, Odor played in the minors for the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers organizations from 1988 to 1995.  His nephew, Rougned Odor, is currently the outstanding second baseman for the big-league Indians.

Eric Rasmussen was a pitching standout for UNO in 1973, when he won 11 games and posted a 0.90 ERA.  He went on to pitch in the majors from 1975 to 1983 for the St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, and Kansas City Royals.  He began his career as pitching coach in 1988 in the Cleveland Indians organization and has been in the Minnesota Twins organization since 1991.  He is currently the minor-league pitching coordinator in the Twins organization.

J. P. Martinez is currently the pitching coach for Class A Cedar Rapids in the Twins organization, where he has been a minor-league coach since 2014.  He was the ninth-round draft choice of Twins in 2004 and played in the minors from 2004 to 2008.  Martinez pitched for UNO in 2003 and 2004, after prepping at Newman High School in New Orleans.

While not currently active in professional baseball, there have been other former minor-league coaches who played their college careers for UNO.

Roger Erickson pitched for UNO in 1976 and 1977 and then was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the third round of the 1977 MLB Draft.  His best major-league season occurred in his rookie year in 1978 with the Twins, when he posted a 14-11 record that included 14 complete games and 121 strikeouts.  His major-league career ended in 1983 with the New York Yankees.  Erickson served as a coach for Springfield, IL in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1990 and 1991.

Joe Slusarski posted a 26-7 record for UNO in 1987 and 1988 as they advanced to the NCAA Regionals in both seasons.  He was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the second round of the 1988 MLB Draft and then played in seven major-league seasons ending in 2001.  He served as pitching coach for UNO in 2002, followed by minor-league coaching stints in 2003-2006 for the Houston Astros organization.

Wally Whitehurst pitched for UNO from 1983 to 1985 when he won 37 games, most in team history.  He was the third-round selection of the Oakland A’s in 1985 and played in seven major-league seasons for the New York Mets, San Diego Padres, and New York Yankees.  He spent the 1998-2001 seasons as pitching coach for the Privateers, and then served as minor-league pitching coach for several organizations from 2004 to 2011.

Several former UNO players have also excelled at the college level as head coaches.

A former UNO outfielder in 1979, Randy Bush was UNO’s head coach from 2000 to 2005.  His team had a NCAA tournament appearance in 2000.  Bush was the second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, where he helped them win two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991.  Overall, he played 12 seasons in the majors.  Bush was also a major-league scout for the Chicago Cubs and is currently Assistant GM with them.

Paul Maineri has been the head coach for LSU since 2007, where his teams have won over 650 games, including a College World Series title in 2009.  Before that, he was head baseball coach at Notre Dame, Air Force, and St. Thomas University.  Maineri played for UNO from 1978 to 1979, when the team won two Sun Belt Conference titles.

Tim Jamieson was a catcher for UNO from 1978 to 1981, before becoming an assistant coach under Maestri.  His coaching career then led him to the University of Missouri, first as an assistant and currently as the head coach in his 23rd season.

While playing shortstop for UNO, Augie Schmidt was the 1982 recipient of the Golden Spikes Award, which recognizes the nation’s top amateur player.  He was the MLB Draft’s overall Number 2 selection of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982 and played minor-league ball from 1982 to 1986.  He has been the head coach at Carthage College in Wisconsin since 1988, where his teams have won over 860 games for a .689 winning percentage.

There’s an exciting resurgence of the UNO baseball program going on right now.  As part of that, the university can draw on its legacy of past successful teams, as well as its former players who have made significant impacts in the sport beyond their playing days.

Times Have Really Changed for Baseball's Salaries

In 1930 Babe Ruth was demanding a yearly salary of $80,000 from the New York Yankees, by far the highest ever in Major League Baseball at the time.  When a reporter objected that Ruth’s demand was more than that of U. S. President Herbert Hoover’s ($75,000), Ruth replied, “I know, but I had a better year than Hoover.”

Ruth’s salary seemed exorbitant, but then ne never met Clayton Kershaw, current pitcher of the Los Angeles Dodgers who leads all major-league players with an annual salary of $33M.  As a contrast to the huge difference, Ruth’s $80K salary would be equivalent to $1.1M today.  Admittedly, the economics of the game are much different today where free agency and a market-based system have led to what seem to be outrageous salaries.

USA Today Sports Weekly recently published its report of Major League Baseball’s 2017 salaries for the active 25-man rosters of each team.  It shows that the minimum salary amount for major-league players is $535,000, while the average salary for all players in 2017 is $4.47M.  Of all the current gripes about the state of baseball, player salaries aren’t one of them, certainly not by the players themselves.

Kershaw and all of the current major-league players owe the current salary situation to a former player named Curt Flood, who challenged the MLB’s reserve clause system in 1970 that eventually led to free agency for players after their contract term ended.

Pitcher Andy Messersmith is credited with signing baseball’s first free-agent contract after the 1975 season, when he inked a three-year $1M deal with the Atlanta Braves after the Los Angeles Dodgers refused to give him a no-trade clause for the 1975 season.  Prior to Messersmith’s landmark contract, baseball salaries were relatively paltry compared to today’s standards.

In 1980 Nolan Ryan became the first $1M per year player.  That set off a rash of multi-million dollar player contracts, with each one outdoing the previous signings, and it continues today.  Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton signed the richest contract in baseball history, $325M over 13 years.

The salary report shows that the Los Angeles Dodgers are now what the Yankees used to be in terms of total team payroll.  The Dodgers’ ownership has deep pockets and are shelling out $187M in 2017.  Yankees GM Brian Cashman has been on a mission during the past few years to curb team payroll, but his team is still within the top eight teams with a team payroll of $170M.  However, this is significantly less than the $200M the team had been accustomed to spending.

The Dodgers are still waiting for the results of their big payouts, since they have finished in first place in their division for the past four seasons, but have yet to bring home National League pennants or World Series titles.

The San Diego Padres bring up the rear with a team payroll of $34.5M, only slightly ahead of Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s $33M by himself.  However, because baseball salaries are guaranteed, the Padres are paying more for players that aren’t on their current roster than their entire current 25-man roster, as a result of a spending spree by the Padres in 2015 that turned sour.  James Shields and Melvin Upton Jr. were among players acquired in multi-year deals by the Padres prior to the 2015 season, but were dealt away after playing only a partial season with the Padres in 2016.  Without a winning team on the horizon for the next few years, the Padres ownership has significantly scaled back how much they are willing to spend.

Average player salaries by teams are led by the Tigers ($6.9M), Giants ($6.3M), Cubs ($6.5M), Nationals ($6.3), Yankees ($6.3M), and Dodgers ($6M).  All of these teams expect to be in the playoff hunt and contenders for a league pennant.  By contrast, the Padres ($1.1M), Rays ($2.2M), A’s ($2.4M), Brewers ($2.3M), and Reds ($2.7M) have low probabilities of reaching the playoffs in 2017.  The situation demonstrates that teams are shelling out the big bucks to significantly improve their chances to be competitive each year.

Besides Kershaw, other top-salaried players are pitchers Zack Greinke ($31.9M), David Price ($30M), and Justin Verlander ($28M), while first baseman Miguel Cabrera commands $28M.  They are considered the critical components of their respective team’s success.

On the other hand, outfielder Jason Heyward, acquired by the Chicago Cubs in 2016 at an annual salary of $26M, was vastly overpaid for what he contributed to their World Series championship.  He was actually benched at times by manager Joe Maddon during the playoffs because of his inability to hit.  That’s a pretty steep pay for a bench-warmer.  When you consider that his teammate Kris Bryant, the National League MVP last year, made only $1.05M, the Cubs didn’t get a positive return on their investment in Heyward.  This just goes to show that winning covers up for a lot of mistakes.

Albert Pujols, CC Sabathia, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Jayson Werth signed long-term, big-dollar deals years ago that are still strapping those teams after their prime years have passed.  Looking back, the soundness of these investments have been debated many times.  For example, Mauer ($23M in 2017), a former three-time batting champ, last had more than 66 RBI in 2012.

However, not all teams are making those mistakes. As an example, the St. Louis Cardinals refused to extend Pujols’ contract with a long-term deal after the 2011 season.  Pujols wound up signing a 10-year contract with the Angels.  The Cardinals were heavily criticized because Pujols was the best player in the game back then.  Now the Angels are being criticized for having to continue to keep Pujols, who has suffered through several injury-plagued seasons.

After last season, the Toronto Blue Jays decided not to offer 36-year-old hitting star Jose Bautista a multi-year extension, fearing a future situation like Pujols or Werth’s deal with the Washington Nationals.  Bautista wound up having to settle for a one-year $19M deal with the Blue Jays for 2017, when he didn’t attract multi-year offers from other teams.

Just a few years ago, the Houston Astros were where the Padres are now, holding salaries dramatically low while re-building its team.  However, the Astros’ younger players delivered ahead of schedule with a playoff appearance in 2015.  And now the Astros need veteran help to augment the youngsters and consequently are paying $46M this year, increasing their annual payroll by almost 50%, for veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick who were acquired over the winter.  The Astros figure their window of opportunity to get to a World Series is immediate and are now willing to pay handsomely for the additional help.

Teams in the middle of the team salary pack, who are relatively efficient with their dollars, include the Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Kansas City Royals.  These mostly small-market teams have payrolls in the $94M to $132M range and have reasonable expectations of reaching the playoffs, particularly the Indians who narrowly missed defeating the Cubs in the World Series last year.

The Pirates will face the situation of having to shell out a huge sum of money after this season to retain their player who has become the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen.  He’s presently a bargain at $14M in his final year of his contract.  The Pirates actually shopped him around to other teams over the winter in the hopes of obtaining some top young talent in return, but a deal never happened.  However, the 30-year-old star will likely be put on the market again during this season if the Pirates are out of playoff contention early.

McCutchen is indeed worthy of the money he will command, as he has been one of the best all-around players in the game.  But to illustrate the irrationality of some of the other salaries being shelled out for players not nearly as talented, there is Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles.  Because the O’s put top value on the home run hitting prowess of Davis, he is their top paid player at $21.2M.  Yet nearly half of his plate appearances last year resulted in a strikeout (leading the league with 219) or a walk.  Even if Davis slams 40 home runs this year, it will be at a rate of over $500K per homer.  That’s pretty steep.

Miguel Montero is making $14M this year with the Chicago Cubs.  He lost his starting job last year to the younger Willson Contreras, who became one of the new stars of the Cubs.  Under the first full year of his contract, Contreras will make a little above the minimum MLB salary this year.

The Astros’ Yulieski Gurriel will earn $14M this year after playing only 51 professional games in the United States last year.  A defector from Cuba in early 2016, the 33-year-old he had been an elite player in his home country.  The Astros were willing to take a chance on him, thinking he could immediately help the club.  Yet the budding all-star shortstop they drafted as the overall Number 1 pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, Carlos Correa, currently makes the lowest salary ($535K) on the team.

Joe DiMaggio reached a payroll milestone in 1949 when he became the first six-figure baseball player at $100,000 for the Yankees.  That was a big deal at the time.  Mickey Mantle nearly doubled his salary in 1957, from $32,000 to $60,000 after his historic Triple Crown season of 1956, but then took a $10K pay-cut in 1960 after he had a down year (yes, he only hit 31 HR and 75 RBI) as the Yankees failed to reach the World Series in 1959.

To further demonstrate how times have changed, some fifty-five years after Mantle, the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez still received nearly $3M of his salary even though he sat out the season due to a PED suspension.  The Yankees still owe Rodriguez $21M in 2017 after releasing him late last year.  “The Mick” is probably turning over in his grave.

One of baseball’s pre-eminent pitchers, Nolan Ryan, made $3,600 in his first big-league season in 1966, which preceded free agency.  He received baseball’s first million dollar salary in 1980, on his way to earning an estimated $27M during his entire 27-year career ending in 1993.  Now, guys like Kershaw, Price and Grienke are making more than that in a single year.

It makes you wonder what will those young Cubs stars will be making ten years from now!

Red Sox Have Their Own Version of the Killer Bs

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Houston Astros had players like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman leading a successful franchise, after previous years of mediocrity.  Baseball fans and the media gave them the moniker “Killer B’s” for the offensive punch they delivered day in and day out.  Now, the Boston Red Sox have a core group of young players making a name for themselves with their bats.  They could well become known as the second coming of the Killer Bs, since they all happen to have last names that start with the letter “B”.

Outfielders Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi and shortstop Xander Bogaerts are at the core of a Red Sox team that appears will be relevant for the next 3-4 years while they are under contract control by Boston.  They are coming at a good time, since long-time Red Sox slugger David Ortiz passed the torch as the team’s offensive leader after his retirement at the end of last season.  The Red Sox finished at the top of the American League East Division last year, after finishing in last place the two previous seasons.

Bogaerts has been the starting shortstop since 2014, and it took only one full season before he became a standout at the position.  After hitting .320 in 2015, he followed up last year with 21 HR, 89 RBI, 115 runs scored, while still hitting a hefty .294 in his first all-star season.  The major leagues are currently flush with impressive young shortstops, with Bogaerts near the top of the heap.

Jackie Bradley Jr. had a breakout year last season.  He struggled offensively during his first two full seasons with the Red Sox and then came to life in 2016 with 30 doubles, 7 triples, 26 HR and 87 RBI.  He was also an all-star selection last year.

After last year’s near MVP season, Mookie Betts is considered one of the best overall position players in the majors, right up there with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant.  Betts hits for average (214 hits, .318 batting average), has power (31 HR, 113 RBI), runs well (26 stolen bases), and fields well (Gold Glove).  His 9.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was second only to Mike Trout, who also edged him out for the American League MVP Award.

The latest arrival of the Red Sox’ Killer Bs is Andrew Benintendi. He made his major-league debut on August 2nd of last season, hitting .295 in 34 games and earning a starting job in the post-season.  He has also won a starting outfield job this year.

The trio of outfielders has already captured the hearts of Red Sox fans with a playful victory dance routine after games.  If the Red Sox front office management is smart, they’ll find a way to keep all four of these players around beyond their initial contract years, which would ensure there’ll be a bunch of future victory dances.

Bagwell and Biggio from the Astros’ Killer Bs ultimately became Baseball Hall of Fame selections.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Red Sox had another core of players that formed the backbone of the team that included Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr.  Williams and Doerr wound up being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, while DiMaggio and Pesky enjoyed all-star seasons.  However, those Red Sox teams won only one American League pennant during their tenure.

The current-day Red Sox have their sights set on being frequent World Series participants with the aid of their version of the Killer Bs.

2017 Preseason MLB Picks: It's Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Last year’s MLB season ended in dramatic fashion, when the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians faced off against each other in the World Series that came down to the tenth inning in Game 7.  Both the Cubs and the Indians had been among the most World Series-starved teams in the history of the Fall Classic, with the Cubs not having won the championship since 1908 and the Indians since 1948.  The tables could have easily been turned in favor of the Indians, who held a 3-1 advantage after four games.

Well, I’m predicting Yogi Berra’s legendary quip, “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” will apply to the 2017 World Series.

Yeah, I’m picking the Cubs and Indians to make return trips to the World Series.  I just don’t see anybody in either league who has a better all-around team than both of these clubs.  The Cubs lost two key members from last year’s club, outfielder Dexter Fowler and reliever Aroldis Chapman, but have able replacements in Kyle Schwarber and Wade Davis.  The Indians improved their roster in the offseason with the acquisition of slugging first-baseman Edwin Encarnacion from Toronto, plus they get back outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes from injuries.  However, I think both clubs’ pitching staffs and their astute managers will be the main reasons for their returns.

So, what are the odds of the same two opponents repeating World Series appearances in consecutive seasons?  The last time occurred in 1977 and 1978, when the New York Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in both Series.

And what are the chances the Cubs can repeat as World Series champion in 2017?  The last time a team won back-to-back World Series was the New York Yankees who defeated the San Diego Padres in 1998, the Atlanta Braves in 1999, and the New York Mets in 2000.

There have been other recent instances of a single team going to the World Series in back-to-back years, such as the Kansas City Royals in 2014, losing to the San Francisco Giants, and in 2015, when they defeated to the New York Mets.  Prior to that, the Texas Rangers appeared in consecutive World Series in 2010 and 2011, losing both to San Francisco and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.  So a repeat by either club wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

I don’t think there any real “sleepers” in the upcoming season division races.  Sure, there are some sentimental favorites that I might personally like to see challenge the Cubs and Indians, but the reality is each division seems to have one or two clear-cut favorites and the rest of the teams are generally not in the same ballpark to be contenders.

 

American League East (2016 order of final standings: Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays)

The East Division remains the toughest of all—in both leagues.  The other 25 major-league teams are thankful they don’t have to play in this division.

The Boston Red Sox will be the only real challenger to the Cleveland Indians returning to the World Series this year—even without the retired popular and productive David Ortiz.  Outfielder Mookie Betts is a real challenger to Mike Trout and Kris Bryant as the best player in the majors.  Chris Sale will be even better in the Red Sox environment than he was with the Chicago White Sox, which is hard to believe.  David Price’s arm situation is a bit worrisome, so the Red Sox will need another stellar season from Rick Porcello.  The Red Sox didn’t even bother to try to upgrade their catcher position because they don’t need the bat in the starting lineup.  While perhaps not as outwardly vocal and visible as Ortiz, veteran Dustin Pedroia is the unquestionable leader in the clubhouse.

Toronto will edge out the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees for runner-up in the division.  Even though the Blue Jays lost one of its top hitters, Edwin Encarnacion, to free agency, they still have enough offensive punch to go along with a solid starting rotation that flies under the radar because it lacks the big-name ace.  But a lot of other clubs would love to have Estrada, Stroman, Happ, and Sanchez on their roster.

Toronto gets the nod over the Orioles and Yankees because these two teams don’t have the dependable starting pitching like the Blue Jays.  Sure, the Orioles have the best overall record in the division for the last 4-5 years and led the league in home runs last year, but that will only be good enough to possibly get them a wild-card spot like last year.  The Yankees have a revitalized, young squad now, but did nothing in the off-season to improve their starting pitching.  Maybe they thought they didn’t need to address this because they got back one of the best closers in Aroldis Chapman, whom they essentially rented to the Cubs last fall.  The Tampa Bay Rays wish the “good fairy” would magically move them to another division, because they’re destined for last place yet again.

 

American League Central (2016 order of final standings: Indians, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Twins)

The Indians will repeat as Central Division champs because of their pitching staff, both starters and relievers.  Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller, who showed the world just how good they were during the World Series last year, will lead a quality staff again this year.  Then the Indians acquired Edwin Encarnacion big bat during the off-season.  Manager Terry Francona had this club clicking on all cylinders last year despite the significant absences of outfielder Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes and some injured pitchers late in the season.  Francona came within a few innings of winning it all last year in the dramatic World Series.  He’ll have his team hungry to get another shot.

The Detroit Tigers have gotten the label of “aging team” similar to what the Yankees experienced for the last few years.  Many analysts are questioning how much longer pitcher Justin Verlander, first-baseman Miguel Cabrera, and DH Victor Martinez can carry the team.  That may indeed be an issue at some point, but these guys still figure to be significant contributors in 2017.  The Tigers will again finish as runner-up to the Indians in the division, but the question remains whether they can win enough games to snatch a wild-card spot.

A couple of years ago, I was calling the Kansas City Royals the “new” New York Yankees when they had back-to-back World Series appearances, including a championship in 2015.  They appeared then to be set with a core of good players for the next several years.  But they finished at .500 last year and figure to be a middle-of-the pack team again.  The tragic death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura to an offseason automobile accident and the loss of closer Wade Davis to free agency will hamper this team.  But they will still be better than the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox.

 

American League West (2016 order of final standings: Rangers, Mariners, Astros, Angels, A’s)

The Houston Astros were one of the most active teams during the off-season, with the acquisition of veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick to complement a team with some of the best youngsters in the league—Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Alex Bregman.  However, their starting pitching staff needs to return to 2015 form.  In any case, the Astros will move past the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners this year to win their first division title since 2001.  They have depth and versatility on the roster that will be a huge advantage for manager A. J. Hinch during the season.

The Mariners and Rangers will duke it out for second place.  The Mariners get the edge because they have Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, and Kyle Seager powering their offense, although they didn’t get much help from their outfielders.  Last year pitcher Felix Hernandez had an off-year for him.  Look for him to rebound and pair off well with Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of the rotation.

Although the Rangers get ace pitcher Yu Darvish for a full season in 2017, they will fall back to a third-place finish this year.  They have one of the best second basemen in Rougned Odor, but will be lacking in overall power in order to put up a lot of runs.  Future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre seems to be ageless, but expect him to start slowing down.  Having catcher Jonathan Lucroy, acquired at the trade deadline last year, for a full season will be a big improvement at the catching position.

The Los Angeles Angels, despite having the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, can’t seem to find a consistent direction as a team.  Along with the Oakland A’s, who are in a perpetual re-building mode, they will drag up at the bottom of the division.

 

National League East (2016 order of final standings: Nationals, Mets, Marlins, Phillies, Braves)

Dusty Baker was just what the Washington Nationals front office ordered for a new manager last year, when he captured the division title and turned around the attitude of the team.  Outfielder Bryce Harper had an uncharacteristically down season and they still won 95 games to win the division.  The Nationals have another rising superstar on the horizon in Trea Turner, who will play at his natural shortstop position this year.  Two big off-season acquisitions, Adam Eaton and Matt Weiters, strengthen an already good lineup.  Daniel Murphy had a near-MVP season last year; if he can repeat that, along with a revived Harper, the Nationals will be unstoppable on offense.  The Nats have one of the best starting pitching staffs in the league, but they will have an untested closer to start the season.  In any case, they will win 95-96 games again this year to win the division by 6-8 games.

Like the Nationals, the New York Mets are strong in pitching, too.  They feature several young flamethrowers, but the injury bug has bitten a few of them.  Steven Matz is not medically ready to begin the season, while Matt Harvey is coming off a shortened season last year due to surgery for a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.  Zach Wheeler hasn’t pitched since 2014, because of Tommy John surgery.  So the main question for the Mets will be who will be healthy and available throughout the season.  However, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom still anchor the top of the rotation, and they are both big-time pitchers.  Yoenes Cespedes remains the Mets’ best hitter, and two years ago he showed he could practically carry the offense on his back.  He could well do it again.  The Mets will finish in second place, but may not be able to claim a wild-card spot again.

The Miami Marlins were on a seemingly rising path, but the tragic death from a boating accident by its pitching ace and fan-favorite, Jose Fernandez, at the end of last season will take a lot of steam out the club.  Outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich are excellent offensive players, but they aren’t enough by themselves.  Still, the Marlins will likely finish ahead of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, both of whom are 3-4 years into their re-building plans.  Maybe next year one or both of them could be more of a contender, but not now.

 

National League Central (2016 order of final standings: Cubs, Cardinals Pirates, Brewers, Reds)

The Cubs’ organization plan put in place in 2012 by club president Theo Epstein paid off last year with their first World Series championship in 108 years.  Because their team from last year has largely stayed intact, they are favorites to win the NL Central Division and get to their second straight World Series.  Their starting pitching staff headed by John Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks will be a key component in their expected success.  Wade Davis, who was brought in over the winter to replace free-agent Aroldis Chapman, along with Hector Rendon, Koji Uehara, and Mike Montgomery, give them good depth in the bullpen.  The offense is led by sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who have a supporting cast of young aggressive hitters.  Super utility player Ben Zobrist provides them many options in the lineup.  Unless the Cubs get struck by injuries to a number of their players, they will be hard to beat in 2017.  Manager Joe Maddon will find ways to keep the team loose to avoid any major meltdowns.

There will be a close race for second place in the division between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. But the Pirates will finally finish ahead of the Cards by a couple of games, but behind the Cubs by at least 10 games.  With outfielder Andrew McCutchen on the trading block over the winter, it wasn’t clear the Pirates were “all in” for making a run for a playoff spot this year.  They have the best outfield in the game with McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco.  The Bucs have a young home-grown pitching corps, led by Gerrit Cole, which is finally coming into its own.  Their main weakness could be in the bullpen, where they lost Mark Melancon, one of the best closers in the game.  However, they did acquire A. J. Ramos from the Marlins (40 saves in 2016) to offset that loss.  If the Pirates should fall out of contention early in the year, look for McCutchen to be traded during the season.

Last year the Cardinals failed to get into the post-season playoffs for the first time since 2010.  Noted for developing players within their highly-touted farm system, the Cardinals continue to field a team largely comprised of home-grown players.  However, one deficiency is the overall lack of power hitters and run producers.  Catcher Yadier Molina is still one of the best game-callers in the business, but his starting pitching staff presents some uncertainty, with the exception of Carlos Martinez, who assumed the role of ace last year when Adam Wainwright struggled with his control.  Lance Lynn missed the entire season in 2017, while Michael Wacha pitched only 138 innings for the year.

The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers will again finish far behind the rest of the pack.  The Brewers appear to be assembling a team that could be more competitive in a couple of years.

 

National League West (2016 order of final standings: Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres)

The Los Angeles Dodgers will win their fifth consecutive division title this year.  Their biggest off-season deals were the re-signing of relief pitcher Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner, keeping the roster intact from last season.  They did also add Tampa Bay second baseman Logan Forsythe who will play every day and allow aging veteran Chase Utley to become a role player off the bench.  Pitcher Kershaw is still the best pitcher on the planet, and has the same cast as last year surrounding him on the hill.  Corey Seager, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2016, is quickly making his way to become the best shortstop on the planet, too.  The main question for the Dodgers is whether they can ever win a pennant, but that isn’t in the cards for them in 2017 either.

After starting last season as though they were headed toward their usual even-numbered year World Series (having previously won titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014), the San Francisco Giants suffered a meltdown during the second half of the season, losing a lot of late-inning games.  They solved their closer problem with the acquisition of Mark Melancon.  Their starting rotation is the same as last year, headlined by Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto at the top.  They will put up more than their share of wins, but the guys filling the 3rd, 4th, and 5th slots have seen their better days.  The Giants’ offense doesn’t have much power, and that will hurt them in the end.  They may get close to the Dodgers for the division title, but ultimately will fall short again.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last year.  After having such high expectations generated by the acquisition of pitcher Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, they fell flat on their faces.  A season-long injury to outfielder A. J. Pollack didn’t help much either.  The D’backs’ front office had a big turnover during the off-season, and they have first-time manager Torey Lovullo at the helm this year.  So, despite having some very good talent like first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Pollack, expectations this year should be tempered.  Their breakthrough to being a strong contender for the division title will be delayed for at least another year.

There’s a lot of noise coming out of Colorado that suggests the Rockies might be a “sleeper” this year.  They did make some improvements in their roster over the winter, but it still won’t be enough.  However, they will finish ahead of the lackluster San Diego Padres.

 

To recap my projections for the 2017 playoff situation, it’s going to look a lot like last year.  Déjà vu, Yogi.

AL East – Red Sox; AL Central – Indians; AL West – Astros; Wild Cards – Blue Jays and Mariners

AL pennant winner -- Indians

NL East – Nationals; NL Central – Cubs; NL West – Dodgers; Wild Cards – Giants, Pirates

NL pennant winner – Cubs

World Series winner -- Indians

 

Mike Trout is the new Mickey Mantle

There hasn’t been a start of a Major League Baseball career like Mike Trout’s since Albert Pujols’ debut in 2001.  After Pujols’ first few seasons, he was being compared to legendary New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig.  Based on Trout’s first six seasons, the 24-year-old is now drawing comparisons to another Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle.

With both players roaming centerfield, Trout and Mantle are strikingly similar in their athleticism, power, and speed.  They were both 19 years old when they made their debuts.  However, one difference is Mantle was a switch-hitter, maybe the best of all-time.

Trout, who plays for the Los Angeles Angels, has amazingly finished in the top two of the American League MVP voting in each of his first five full seasons, including first-place finishes in 2014 and 2016.  No one has ever done that before.  Trout just keeps getting better each season, showing no signs of approaching his peak yet.  MLB Network analyst Ron Darling may have best described him when he said, “Trout makes the MLB look like Little League.”

Trout is able to beat teams in many ways.  His versatility is evidenced by his leading the American League in numerous offensive categories over his brief career.  These include the leader in runs scored for four seasons, as well as leading the American League in stolen bases (49) in 2012, while averaging 34 a season.  He has led the league circuit in RBI (111) in 2014, while averaging 99 per season.  He has averaged 30 HR per season and has an on-base percentage of .405 for his career.  Plus, he’s one of the best defenders in centerfield.

Trout has become the poster child for the recently popular WAR (Wins Above Replacement) metric, where he has been the overall leader in the American League for five seasons.  One recent WAR analysis has Trout on a trajectory to eventually surpass Babe Ruth, the current all-time record-holder in that statistic.

Mantle played his first major-league season in 1951 and immediately became the heir apparent for the centerfield job of the Yankees, following another Yankee immortal, Joe DiMaggio.

“The Mick” had the luxury of playing for some proficient Yankee teams that won the American League pennant every year during the 1950s, except in 1954 and 1959.  Of course, Mantle was one of the main reasons for their success in winning five World Series during that decade.  Among his accomplishments were two MVP Awards in 1956 and 1957 and a Triple Crown in 1956 which included 52 HR, 130 RBI, and a .353 batting average.  Except for his first season, he was named to the American League All-Star team every season during the decade.

Mantle had four additional stellar seasons during the first half of the 1960s, which included another MVP Award honor, three years as the runner-up for the award, and two more Yankees World Series titles.  He was then beset with a variety of injuries that hampered him the rest of his career that ended at age 36 in 1968.  Mantle was voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1974.

Trout hasn’t been as fortunate as Mantle in terms of playing for post-season teams.  He has appeared in only one playoff series with the Los Angeles Angels who won the AL West Division in 2014, but the team has finished in either 3rd or 4th place in Trout’s other full seasons.

He is in the second year of a five-year deal worth over $138 million, with each of his last three years bringing him a healthy $34M.  Since he will still only be 28 years old in his last contract year, there’s a good chance he could see a change in scenery at that point, particularly if the Angels remain non-competitive in their division.

If Trout can remain healthy for the better part of his career, he could wind up being one of the all-time greats in the game and take his rightful place alongside Mantle in the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown. 

Should MLB Adopt the International Rules for Extra-Inning Games?

If you’ve been watching the World Baseball Classic, you may have seen a couple of games where extra-inning games were played under different rules than Major League Baseball uses during its regular season.

 

Here’s an excerpt of the WBC rule from the MLB website:

 

Extra Innings: For any inning beginning with the 11th inning, the team at bat shall begin the inning with runners on first and second base. The batter who leads off an inning shall continue to be the batter who would lead off the inning in the absence of this extra-innings rule. The runner on first base shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding the batter who leads off the inning. The runner on second base shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding the runner on first base.

 

 

The idea for the rule is that it will increase the chances the game will be ended sooner than normal, by creating higher probability run-scoring situations beginning with the 11th inning.  It’s really not a new concept though, since a modified form of this rule has been in place since 2009 in the WBC (although never used) and also has already been instituted in some international baseball leagues.

 

In addition to prescribed pitch count limits for pitchers, the primary purpose of this extra-innings rule for the WBC is to prevent the over-use of pitchers during the tournament, in a time of the year when major-league pitchers representing the various countries are still trying to get in shape for the regular season.

 

However, it has been suggested Major League Baseball consider adopting a similar rule as a way to speed up games or improve the pace of play in games, which has been a recent emphasis of the MLB Commissioner’s Office.

 

But just how much would this rule actually be used and would it make much of real difference?  Last year, there were 185 extra-inning games, and 110 of those went eleven innings or more.  That’s out of 2,428 total games played during the regular season.  On average, each team played seven games of eleven innings or more during the season.  The Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros had the most occurrences with fourteen each.

 

That doesn’t sound like a lot of affected games, so while it may be a useful on a game-by-game basis for  managers to save some pitchers’ arms, it won’t significantly alter the overall perception by fans that games are shorter or that the speed of the game is increased.

 

However, Major League Baseball has plans to implement the new extra-innings rule on an experimental basis in the low minors this year.

 

Many baseball purists will argue that extra-inning games are some of the most exciting a fan can attend, despite the additional length of the game.  There becomes a sort of “sudden death” mentality at that point in the game—it’s a do-or-die 9th inning situation being repeated until a team prevails with a winning run.  When extra innings are involved, managers are often forced to employ different strategies to make lasting use of their bullpens and bench players.  On occasion when those strategies don’t go as planned, a position player gets called on to pitch an inning or two in desperation, and that usually makes for an interesting story.

 

Some of the most memorable games in baseball history went into extra-innings.

 

In the 2005 World Series between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, Game 3 lasted 14 innings, with the White Sox eventually prevailing, 7-5.  The game, which lasted 5 hours and 41 minutes, was won on Geoff Blum’s dramatic home run and a bases-loaded walk in the top of the 14th inning.

 

The longest major-league game ever played took 8 hours, 6 minutes in a 25-inning contest between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox in 1984.  The game was actually suspended after 17 innings due to an American League curfew rule that didn’t allow an inning to start after 12:59am.  The game was resumed the next day and completed when the White Sox’ Harold Baines hit a home run to end the extended game with a score of 7-6.

 

However the record for most innings ever played in a single professional game is 33, when the minor-league Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings played on June 22-23, 1981. The game lasted over eight hours, although all but 18 minutes were played on the first day.  Pawtucket eventually won, 3-2.  Two future Hall of Fame players, Cal Ripken Jr. (Rochester) and Wade Boggs (Pawtucket), played in the historic game.

 

Another out-of-the-box idea has been bandied about for settling extra-inning games in a timely fashion, as well as adding more excitement to the game.  It involves the use of a home run derby contest after the ninth inning of a tie game, where each team puts up one or two players to slug out a win-loss decision for the game.  Just think, if that were done, baseball statisticians might be headed toward yet another sabermetric--number of derby home runs per extra inning (note the sarcasm).

 

It’s not clear that any change in rules for extra-inning games would be viewed as a real improvement, but it is clear that Major League Baseball is intent on trying to spice up the game for the next generation of fans.

1936 Jesuit HS Baseball Team a Talented Bunch

In 2003 The Times-Picayune ranked the best high school baseball teams of all time from the New Orleans area and selected the 1936 Jesuit Blue Jays as Number 1.  Taking a detailed look at the make-up of the team revealed that eleven (eight on the 1st team, three on the 2nd team) of the Blue Jays’ ballplayers made the All-Prep Team selected by the newspaper in 1936 for its annual recognition of the best high school players in New Orleans.  Furthermore, seven of the players eventually took up professional baseball careers, including three who reached the major-league level.

Jesuit won the Louisiana state baseball championship in 1936, their fifth of what would become seven consecutive titles.  After going undefeated during their eight regular season games that year, Jesuit also swept their opponents in the playoffs, holding teams from Byrd, Warren Easton, and Ouachita scoreless.

By almost any standard, whether it be one of yesteryear or today, the number of highly talented players from a single high school team like this Blue Jay squad is rather extraordinary.

The baseball landscape in the 1930s and 1940s was indeed very different when compared to today.  Back then, a combination of factors created a higher level of interest by players from the local ranks to pursue professional baseball.  An expanding minor-league system by Organized Baseball, a shortage of professional players during WWII years, and the popularity of the New Orleans Pelicans minor-league team all contributed to the situation.  With its semi-pro leagues also playing ball during typically mild winters, New Orleans was a city of year-round baseball.

In an article in The Times-Picayune on April 9, 1939, it was reported that nearly one hundred of New Orleans’ native sons were playing pro baseball throughout the country.  The Crescent City had become a hotbed for baseball that would last for many years.

Jesuit dominated the city’s prep all-star team in 1936 by supplying eight of the fourteen members named to the first team.  So this collection of players was indeed very special.  In addition to Jesuit, several of the local high schools during that timeframe, including Warren Easton, S. J. Peters, Fortier, and St. Aloysius, were also turning out baseball players capable of playing at the professional level.

Here’s a run-down of the entire 1936 Blue Jay roster and their accomplishments in amateur and professional careers.

Gernon Brown, the Jesuit baseball coach, was in his sixth season at the helm of the club.  Like many of his players, he received All-Prep team honors as “coach of the year.”  During Brown’s tenure as baseball coach with Jesuit from 1931 to 1953, his teams captured thirteen state championship titles.

First baseman Jerry Burke was an All-Prep selection in 1936 as well as the previous year.

Second baseman Billy Hodgins was also an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936 and went on to play in the minor-leagues from 1937 to 1941.  His first pro season included a stint with Opelousas of the Evangeline League.  He had three seasons with batting averages over .300, while playing in the Indians, Reds and Dodgers organizations.

Shortstop Martin Scaffidi was named to the All-Prep teams in 1935 and 1936.

Third baseman Russell Gildig was an All-Prep selection in 1935, 1936, and 1937.  He played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1938 and 1939, when he batted .301 for Mobile and Caruthersville.  After a four-year absence from baseball, he attempted a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1944, hitting .278 in 27 games.

Left-fielder Connie Ryan was a sophomore on the 1936 Blue Jay team and was named to the All-Prep teams that year and in 1937 as a shortstop.  He was the first athlete to receive a full baseball scholarship at LSU, where he played his freshman season before signing a professional contract in 1940 with the Atlanta Crackers.  The infielder made his major-league debut with the New York Giants in 1942 and went on to a 12-year major-league career that ended in 1954.  He made the National League all-star team in 1944 with the Boston Braves and appeared in the 1948 World Series with them.  Ryan later coached in the majors for several teams and served as an interim manager for the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers.  Ryan’s full biography can be viewed at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/991f2a43.

Center-fielder Charlie Gilbert was selected to the 1936 All-Prep team, his third of four years achieving the honor.  He was the son of Larry Gilbert Sr., former major-league player and manager of the New Orleans Pelicans from 1923 to 1938.  Young Gilbert’s professional debut occurred with Nashville in 1939, where his father was then the manager.  He was touted as the greatest 20-year-old outfielder the Southern Association had ever produced.  However, his major-league career didn’t live up to his billing as a prospect.  He made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, when he hit .246 in 57 games.  He spent parts of the next three seasons as a backup player with the Chicago Cubs, before joining the Navy during World War II.  He played two more seasons after the war, split between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, and then played his last pro season with Nashville in 1948, when he hit 42 home runs and batted .362.  His two brothers, Larry Jr. and Tookie, also played baseball for Jesuit and had professional careers.

Right-fielder George Digby made the All-Prep teams in 1935 and 1936.  He was a high school baseball coach in New Orleans when the Boston Red Sox signed his star pitcher Dick Callahan in 1944.  The Red Sox then offered Digby a job as a professional scout, and he continued in that role for 50 years, followed by a stint as a baseball consultant for another 14 years.  He is credited with signing 53 major- league ballplayers, the most notable one being Hall of Famer Wade Boggs.  Digby was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008, and the organization’s annual scouting award is named after him.

Catcher John “Fats” Dantonio was an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936.  He was initially signed to a pro contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938 and was a teammate of future Hall of Famer Stan Musial in Springfield, MO in 1940.  He and Musial would develop a life-long friendship from that experience.  Dantonio was promoted to the New Orleans Pelicans in 1942, when he batted .256, and then he .hit 299 for them 1943, although his play was limited to part-time duty (only playing in home games) because he was also holding a defense-related job in the New Orleans shipyards.  He made his major-league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944, but appeared in only three games with them that year.  He returned to the Dodgers in 1945, hitting .250 in 47 games, but ultimately lost his major-league roster spot.  He played three more minor-league seasons, including one in New Orleans.  Dantonio’s full biography can be viewed at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/65a7919c.

Pitcher Dave Hecker was an All-Prep selection in 1936 and 1937.

Pitcher Malcolm Plaeger was an All-Prep selection in 1936 and 1937.

Pitcher Jesse Danna was an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936.  He was the winning pitcher for the Blue Jays against Ouachita in the 1936 state title game.  He played at LSU before signing a pro contract in 1942.  Danna pitched four full seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans during 1942 and 1946, when he won a total of 65 games.  He finished his minor-league career in 1949 with a total of 114 victories, but never played in the major leagues.

Allen Heidingsfelder was a member of the 1937 All-Prep team as an outfielder.

Harold Burke played in 1935 and 1936.

Larry Stumpf played in 1936 and was an All-Prep selection in 1937 as a first-baseman.

Gustave “Shorty” Heintz rounded out the squad in 1936.

Lloyd “Hap” Glaudi was team manager of the Jesuit baseball squad from 1932 to 1936.  He is better remembered for his long career as a sportswriter and a radio/TV sportscaster in New Orleans.

An extensive list of New Orleans area high school players who went on to play at the college and professional levels can be viewed at http://www.neworleansbaseball.com/articles/richardcuicchi.html.

Family Ties Flourishing in Baseball: Washington Nationals

This is the seventh in a series of reviews that will take a look at family relationships in each of the thirty major-league organizations.

Baseball has more family relationships than any other professional sport.  They existed in the earliest days of the sport in the 1870s, and they are abundant in today’s game, perhaps more so than ever before.  Baseball has been called a “generational” sport for several reasons.  One of them is that multiple generations of families have been active in the game--grandfathers, fathers, sons, and brothers.  And now even some great-grandsons are starting to show up on rosters.  Uncles, nephews, cousins and in-laws are part of the extended family of baseball relatives, too.

Baseball bloodlines aren’t limited to just the players.  Family trees with a baseball background have commonly included managers, coaches, scouts, owners, executives, front office personnel, umpires, and broadcasters, as well.

The heritage of the Washington Nationals started with the Montreal Expos, its predecessor prior to the franchise’s move to Washington for the 2005 season.  The Expos were filled with examples of players and non-players that had relatives in baseball.  Some of the more noteworthy ones include:

Andre Dawson is arguably the best player in the Expos’ history.  In his eleven seasons with them, he compiled 225 home runs, 838 RBI, and 253 stolen bases, while hitting .280.  He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1977.  In 1987 with the Chicago Cubs, he led the National League in home runs and RBI as the league’s MVP.  Dawson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.  He is currently a special assistant with the Miami Marlins.  He is the nephew of Theodore Taylor, who played one minor league season in 1950.

Delino DeShields Sr., a speedy infielder, got his major league start with the Expos in 1990 when he was runner-up as the league’s Rookie of the Year.  In his 13-year career, he stole 464 bases and collected over 1,500 hits.  His son, Delino Jr., was the first-round pick of the Houston Astros in 2010 and completed his second major-league season with the Texas Rangers last year as an outfielder.

Vladimir Guerrero played eight seasons with the Expos from 1996 to 2003.  He had a career batting average of .323 with the Expos, while hitting 234 home runs and 702 RBI.  Over the course of his 16-year career, the outfielder hit .318 to go along with 449 home runs and 1,496 RBI.  Guerrero was nearly elected the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2017, when he garnered 71.7% of the votes.  Guerrero’s brother, Wilton, played alongside his brother at Montreal from 1998 to 2000 and went on to have an eight-year career, compiling a .282 batting average.  Another brother, Julio, played in the Red Sox minor-league system from 1998 to 2001.  Vladimir’s son, also named Vladimir, made his professional debut as a 17-year-old with the Toronto Blue Jays organization last year.  His nephew, Gabriel, reached the Triple-A level in the Diamondbacks organization last year.

Joe Kerrigan pitched two of his four major-league seasons as a relief pitcher with the Expos.  He went on to have a long career as a pitching coach for five major-league seasons.  Kerrigan managed the Boston Red Sox for part of the 2001 season.  Joe’s son, Joe, was infielder in the Red Sox minor-leagues from 1999 to 2001, followed by two seasons in the independent leagues.  Joe’s brother, Thomas, played in the Philadelphia Phillies organization from 1963 to 1964.

Tim Raines had a Baseball Hall of Fame career that included thirteen seasons with the Expos.  He led the National League in stolen bases in four consecutive seasons while playing with the Expos.  Raines currently ranks 5th on the all-time stolen base leaders.  During his 23-year major-league career, the outfielder batted .294 and was named to seven all-star teams.  Tim’s son, Tim Jr., played parts of three major-league seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.  In 2001, the Raines father-son combo became the second in history to play on the same major-league team.  Tim’s brother, Ned, played in the minors from 1978 to 1980.

Tim Wallach was one of the longest-tenured Expos players, logging thirteen seasons from 1980 to 1992.  With the Expos, he hit 204 home runs and 905 RBI.  He was a five-time all-star and three-time Gold Glove winner as a third baseman.  Tim was the bench coach for the Miami Marlins in 2016.  Tim has three sons who pursued professional baseball careers: Chad is currently in the Cincinnati Reds organization; Brett last played in 2015 in the independent leagues; and Matt last played in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in 2013.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, below are some highlights of baseball relatives in the Nationals organization during 2016.

Stephen Drew played as a backup infielder with the Nationals last season, his 11th in the majors.  The shortstop is one of three brothers to be drafted in the first round of the MLB Draft.  Stephen was the 2004 pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  His brother, J. D., was twice drafted in the first round, in 1997 by the Philadelphia Phillies and 1998 by the St. Louis Cardinals.  J. D. was a member of the 2007 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and wound up playing in fourteen major-league seasons as an outfielder.  Stephen’s brother, Tim, was the first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1997.  He pitched in parts of five seasons with three different teams.

Bryce Harper was one of the most highly-touted prospects ever to enter the major leagues.  As a 19-year-old, he made his major-league debut with the Nationals in 2012 and won National League Rookie of the Year honors.  He was voted the NL MVP in 2015 and already has four all-star selections under his belt.  His brother, Bryan, is a relief pitcher in the Nationals organization, splitting last season between Triple-A Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg.

Daniel Murphy turned in the best season of his career in his first year with the Nationals in 2016.  He was runner-up in the National League MVP Award voting based on his 25 home runs, 104 RBI, and .347 batting average.  He had an historic post-season in 2015 with seven home runs in helping the New York Mets to the World Series.  Daniel’s brother, John, was an outfielder in the Twins organization from 2012 to 2014.

Wilson Ramos had career highs in his seventh season with the Nationals last year.  He hit 22 home runs, 80 RBI and .307 average.is seventh with the team.  He was selected to the all-star team and collected the Silver Slugger Award for National League catchers.  However, Wilson tore his ACL in September. He was granted free agency and signed with Tampa Bay Rays over the winter.  Wilson’s brother, David, is a relief pitcher in the Nationals farm system, while his brother, Natanael, is a catcher in the Mets organization.

Joe Ross finished with a 7-4 record in 19 starts with the Nationals last year.  The 23-year-old right-hander had been a first-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2011.  His brother, Tyson, missed practically all of the 2016 season with the San Diego Padres due to shoulder problems, after having been their best pitcher the two previous seasons.  Tyson was signed by the Texas Rangers as a free agent during the offseason.

Jayson Werth was in this sixth year of a seven-year contract with the Nationals last year, when he hit 21 home runs and 69 RBI.  He part of a three-generation family of ballplayers from his mother’s side of the family.  His grandfather, Dick “Ducky” Schofield, was a major-league utility infielder from 1953 to 1971, primarily with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.  Jayson’s uncle, Dick Schofield, was a 14-year major-league shortstop, with twelve of his seasons playing for the California Angels.  He is the stepson of Dennis Werth, a first baseman who played parts of four major-league seasons from 1979 to 1982 with the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals.  Jayson’s father, Jeff Gowan, played a minor league season in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1978.

The Nationals’ pipeline of baseball relatives includes several top minor league prospects whose relatives played professionally, several of them with famous last names in baseball.

Cody Dent, in his fourth seasons with the Nationals farm system, is the son of Bucky Dent, who hit the dramatic three-run home run for the New York Yankees in the 1978 American League East tie-breaker win against the Boston Red Sox.

Cutter Dykstra, an outfielder with Washington’s Double-A Harrisburg affiliate last year, is the son of Lenny Dykstra, the scrappy outfielder of the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and a three-time all-star, and the brother of Luke Dykstra, an infielder currently in the Atlanta Braves organization.

Carter Kieboom, the Nationals’ first-round draft pick last year, is the brother of Spencer Kieboom who made his major-league debut with the Nats in 2016.

Jaron Long, a pitcher at the Triple-A level for the Nationals last season, is the son of Kevin Long, who is the hitting coach for the New York Mets.

Ryan Ripken, who completed his third minor-league season with the Nationals in 2016, is the son of Cal Ripken Jr., the Hall of Fame shortstop of the Baltimore Orioles.  He is the nephew of Billy Ripken, former major league infielder from 1987 to 1998 and the grandson of former Orioles coach and manager, Cal Ripken Sr.

Mariano Rivera III was the fourth-round pick of the Nationals in 2015.  Last year he pitched in 39 games for Single-A Hagerstown, recording five wins and eight saves.  He is the son of Mariano Rivera, the legendary relief pitcher of the New York Yankees who retired in 2013.

Matt Skole was an infielder with the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate Syracuse in 2016, when he hit 24 home runs and 78 RBI.  He is the brother of Jake Skole, an outfielder in the New York Yankees farm system, and the grandson of Tom Skole, who played in the St. Louis Browns organization in 1951-1952.

The 2016 Nationals had their share of baseball relatives in the dugout and front office, too.

Dusty Baker spent his first year as the Nationals manager last season, after twenty years of managing the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds.  He also played nineteen seasons in the majors.  While managing the Giants during the 2002 World Series, Dusty’s son, Darren, was a batboy who was swept up by the Giants’ J. T. Snow to avoid a collision at home plate where another Giants base-runner was in the process of scoring.  Darren is now playing baseball at the University of California.

Bob Boone is a senior advisor to the Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo.  He was a major-league catcher for nineteen years (1972-1990), including four all-star and seven Gold Glove Award seasons.  Bob managed in the majors for six seasons, splitting his time between the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds.  Two of Bob’s sons, Bret and Aaron, had lengthy major league careers as infielders which included all-star seasons, while another son, Matt, played seven seasons in the minors.  Bob’s father, Ray, was a major league infielder from 1948 to 1960, including all-star seasons in 1954 and 1956.

Billy Gardner Jr. was the manager of the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate Syracuse in 2016.  He has been a minor-league coach and manager since 1990 with numerous organizations.  His father, Billy Gardner Sr., was a major-league player for ten seasons and a manager for six seasons, primarily with the Minnesota Twins.

Mike Maddux was in his first season as the Nationals pitching coach last year, after seven years in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers.  He had a 15-year career as a pitcher with nine different teams.  He is the brother of Greg Maddux, the Hall of Fame pitcher who won 355 career games and four Cy Young awards.

Kasey McKeon was the Nationals’ director of player procurement last season.  He previously played in the minors from 1989 to 1991 and held positions in scouting and player development for several major-league organizations.  His father is former major-league manager and executive Jack McKeon.  At age 72, he managed the Florida Marlins to a World Series title in 2003.  Kasey’s brother-in-law is former major-league pitcher Greg Booker.  Kasey is the nephew of Bill McKeon, former minor league player and a major-league scout.  He is the uncle of Zach Booker, a minor-league player from 2007 to 2011.

Calvin Minasian was the minor-league clubhouse and equipment manager for the Nationals last year.  His father, Zach Sr. had been the equipment manager in the Texas Rangers organization for over twenty years.  His brother, Zach Jr. is a scouting executive in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, while brother Perry was a scouting executive in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.  Altogether, the Minasian family has over 90 years of service in professional baseball.

Sam Narron was a minor league coach in the Nationals organization last year, and he comes from a family with an extensive background in baseball.  His father, Samuel “Rooster” Narron, played in the minors in 1967 and 1969 with the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles organizations.  His grandfather, Sam, played briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals in parts of three seasons between 1935 and 1943.  His uncle, Milton, played in the New York Giants’ farm system from 1946 to 1951.  Sam’s cousin, Jerry, was a major league player, coach, and manager in over forty years in the game.  His cousin, Johnny, is currently a minor league coordinator in the Los Angeles Angels organization, having previously been a major-league coach for Cincinnati, Texas, and Milwaukee.  His cousin, Connor, was a fifth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2010 and played five seasons in the Orioles and Brewers organizations.

Mike Rizzo is currently the General Manager and President of Baseball Operations for the Nationals.  He has had a long career in scouting, as has his father, Phillip, who is currently a special advisor to Mike. Mike’s grandfather, Vito, also had a background in baseball scouting.

Chris Speier was the bench coach for the Nationals last year.  He played in the infield for five major-league teams during 1971 to 1989 and was selected an all-star three times.  His son, Justin, was a major-league middle relief pitcher from 1998 to 2009.  His nephew, Gabe, is currently a pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.

 

Baseball’s Relatives Website

The entire list of 2016 active major and minor league players and non-players can be retrieved at:

https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/2016-family-ties/

 

Hoping for a Yankee Resurgence, Again

For the last four seasons, I’ve gone into spring training hoping the New York Yankees have shored up their lineup enough to contend for the division title.  But the last four seasons only resulted in major disappointments.  Guess what?  I’m right back there hoping again this year.

Yankee GM Brian Cashman accomplished a rather dramatic makeover of the team last year.  Gone are aging veterans Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, each of whom were among the best in the game in his heyday.  They were among the last remnants of the days when the Yankees would routinely go out and spend whatever money they needed to in order to acquire the best available free agents.  Perhaps more importantly for Cashman, also gone are the big dollars the Yankees were paying them.

Cashman’s moves also unloaded two of the game’s top relievers, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom were instrumental in their respective team’s drive to the World Series last fall.  Those deals had a lot of Yankee fans scratching their heads.  When Miller and Chapman were combined with Dellin Betances in the Yankees bullpen, the trio of flamethrowers was truly a “lights out” staff, able to cover up the weaknesses in the Yankees’ starting rotation.

So, what’s the basis for my excitement again this spring?

The Yanks have a new corps of young players who have the potential to get the Yankees back into being perennial contenders for the division title.  The Yankees’ farm system has been criticized for rarely producing new stars since the mid-1990s with their “Core Four” consisting of Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte.  But recently their player development organization has produced a number of newcomers who have shown what the future may hold for the Yankees.  Additionally, in trading away the big-name players last year, they picked up a bevy of prospects from other teams, perhaps not major-league ready yet, but on the cusp of making the jump to the big leagues.

Catcher Gary Sanchez leads the way for the Yankees’ optimism Yankees.  He put together one of the most exciting rookie seasons in the history of the game last year.  In only 53 games last season, Sanchez banged out 20 home runs and 42 RBI, while compiling a .299 batting average.  He finished second in the voting for the Rookie of the Year Award.  After the trade deadline last season, when many people thought the Yankees had cashed in their chips for the year, Sanchez almost single-handedly kept them in contention for a wild-card spot, before losing six of their last seven games.  The big question for 2017 is whether Sanchez can continue his success over a full season.  Will pitchers figure him out and make adjustments to pitch around his strengths?

In addition to Sanchez, home-grown youngsters Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin will be competing for starting jobs.  Bird missed all of last season due to injury; but if his 2015 season (11 HR, 31 RBI in 46 games) is any indication, he could very well be the regular first baseman. 

Judge, a big 6-foot-7, 275 pound outfielder, made a big splash in his major-league debut last year, getting seven hits in his first five games, including two towering home runs.  His physique and power is reminiscent of a major leaguer from the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Howard, who also put up some big power numbers.  Judge wears uniform Number 99, and Yankee fans are hoping his RBI numbers in 2017 will approach the number on the back of his jersey.

Austin could wind up being a valuable utility player at first base, in the outfield, and as a designated hitter.  Like Sanchez and Judge, he showed some power in his brief stint on the major-league roster last year.

The Yankees have “veterans” Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro anchoring the middle of the infield.  In fact, both were still only 26 years old last year, but now have five and seven major-league years, respectively, under their belts.  In coming to the Yankees from Arizona in 2015, Gregorius faced the risk of being a major disappointment as Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop.  But he has responded well and been a steadying presence in the lineup.  Plus, he did his part with the offense last season with an uncharacteristic (for him) 20 homers and 70 RBI.  Castro had been a three-time all-star with the Chicago Cubs before coming to the Yankees last year.  He also didn’t disappoint fans with his 20 home runs and 71 RBI in 2016.

The true veterans in the Yankee lineup will be outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, both 33 years old this year.  Ellsbury’s performance really hasn’t measured up to the big-dollar, long-term contract he signed with the Yankees after the 2013 season, as he hasn’t been as effective in getting on base and stealing bases with the Yankees as he did with his former Boston Red Sox team.  Gardner has been a serviceable player during his career with the Yankees.  If the outfield becomes crowded with the blossoming youngsters, Gardner could become expendable and be put on the trading block later in the season.

Cashman’s re-signing of Chapman for 2017 automatically puts the Yanks’ bullpen back into the elite category again, even without Miller.  If Yankee starting pitchers can get the team six innings of solid pitching with a lead, there will generally be a good chance Chapman and Betances can shut the door on their opponents in the late innings.

But there’s the rub; that’s a big “if” with respect to the Yankee starting pitchers.  The starting rotation could likely wind up being the Achilles heel of the team.  It was last year, and the Yankees’ front office did nothing during the off-season to change it for the start of 2017.

There’s no question Masahiro Tanaka is a legitimate ace.  He finished with a 14-3 record and 3.07 ERA, but his strikeouts per nine innings are almost two less than his rookie season in 2014.  He suffered arm problems in the second half of 2014, but elected not to have surgery.  Consequently, his innings pitched have been limited to compensate.  The Yankees desperately need him to stay healthy.  Sixteen-year veteran CC Sabathia, once the ace of the staff, has struggled in the last three seasons, since he’s lost significant velocity on his pitches.  However, during his last six outings last year, he seemed to have figured out how to pitch effectively at lower speeds, as his ERA dropped by almost half of the previous months.

Right-handed starter Michael Pineda took a step backwards last year.  He typically gave up too many runs early in his games and put the Yankees in a frequent position to have to play catch-up ball.  He’s an intimidating hard-thrower (averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings), but he needs to pitch further into his games.  Luis Severino is one of the Yankees’ top home-grown pitchers, but after he lost his first six decisions last year he was sent back to the minors.  When he returned for the last two months of the season as both a starter and reliever, he showed improvement.  The question for Severino is whether he has matured enough to take the Number 4 slot in the rotation.  Chad Green and Adam Warren will fight for the fifth slot.  However, the overall depth of the starters will be a problem.  It’s puzzling that the Yankees didn’t go to the free-agent market over the winter to add some depth.  It’s not apparent there is another arm from the farm system ready to step into a big league role.

On the free-agent front, the Yankees did add two pieces.  Former St. Louis Cardinal Matt Holliday was signed to a one-year deal.  He’s a good pickup, since he brings some veteran leadership, and if healthy will add some more pop in the lineup. 

But when the Yankees also signed free-agent slugger Chris Carter right before spring training, it was perplexing why he was added.  It appeared they already had enough versatility among their current position players, and it didn’t look like they would have a power shortage.  However, Carter was a 40-home run guy last year, but he also brings a ton of strikeouts (led the American League with 206).  Presumably, he will be used primarily as designated hitter.  Perhaps GM Cashman is using him as a hedge against one of the younger players not living up to expectations or as a contingency in case of injuries.  The only saving grace is that the Yankees didn’t have to pay much for him ($3.5 million).  Maybe Cashman will use him as trade bait for another pitcher later into the season when another club is looking to add some home runs.

Cashman made some great decisions last year in the make-over of his club.  Yankees fans will have a different experience with this younger club.  They’ll have to show some patience, but they should also be excited about the prospects of a contending team now and into the future.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the Yankees were referred to as the “Bronx Bombers,” with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, and rest of the cast of powerful hitters.  We could be looking at the “Baby Bombers” over the next few seasons.  I surely hope so.

Black History Month: Impactful African-Americans in Baseball

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey deservedly get most of the credit for overcoming the obstacles that prevented African-American players from participating in Major League Baseball.  Robinson’s story is well-chronicled with regard to the trials and hardships he endured on his route to breaking the color barrier in the sport in 1947.  In addition to Robinson, however, there have been a number of other key African-American individuals who played critical roles throughout the history of baseball.

In observance of February as Black History Month, following is a review of several notable African-American figures, including players, executives, managers, and umpires, who made a lasting impact on the game.

While Robinson changed who was allowed to play professional baseball, it was Curt Flood who significantly changed the game from a business perspective, affecting both owners and players.  Flood challenged the fairness of baseball’s reserve clause by refusing to be traded by his team in 1969.  He took his position to court and was ultimately unsuccessful after a final ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court.  However, his cause became a rallying point for other players that eventually led to free agency for players after they had fulfilled their contracts with their teams.  Flood was black-balled by major-league owners after the court ruling, and it effectively ended his career.  He had been a productive player, a three-time all-star and winner of five Gold Glove Awards.  But his legacy will primarily be remembered for his actions off the field.  Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine professional baseball without player free agency.

Rube Foster was instrumental in forming the Negro National League in 1920.  In fact, Jackie Robinson first played in the Negro Leagues before integrating the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Most of the early blacks who followed Robinson into the big leagues also got their start in the Negro Leagues.  Based on his pioneering career as a player, manager, and executive, Foster became known as the “father of Black Baseball.  His contributions were recognized by his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

Satchel Paige was a legendary player in the Negro Leagues from 1927 to 1947, winning over 160 games as a pitcher.  Before he was eligible to play in the majors, he often competed in exhibition games with black teams against all-star teams comprised of all-white major league players—and his teams frequently won.  He finally got his chance to play in the big leagues in 1948 at age 41, including an appearance in the World Series with Cleveland.  He was still playing in the majors at age 46.  Paige was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, only the second African-American after Robinson.  His election effectively gave credence to the other black ballplayers who starred in the Negro Leagues, and numerous players from the Negro Leagues subsequently followed him with inductions into the Hall.

Willie Mays made his major-league debut in 1951 with the New York Giants, capturing Rookie of the Year honors.  After missing nearly two seasons due to military service, he rivalled for the attention of New York City fans with Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers, until the Giants’ and Dodgers’ franchises moved to California.  The three players were often compared to each other, since they were in their early-to-mid 20s.  They all played centerfield, and all three were among the best offensive players at the time.  Mays, the only African-American of the trio, developed into a popular star, on par with the other two, despite the fact that integration had still not fully penetrated the big leagues.  Mays’ infectious personality and zest for the game would serve him well in being one of the most popular players in the history of the sport.  Mays went on to have a Hall of Fame career that included 20 all-star seasons and two MVP awards.

Pumpsie Green was thirteen years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  Green took his place in baseball history by becoming the first African-American to play for the Boston Red Sox, an astonishing twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s historic debut in 1947.  Boston was the last major-league team to integrate, as its owner, Tom Yawkey, had a questionable record on race relations at the time.  Green had been to spring training with the Red Sox in his debut season and he was required to stay in different hotels than his teammates when they travelled in the South.  Green wound up playing a total of thirteen pro seasons, five of them in the majors.

Hank Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth’s long-standing career record of 714 home runs in early 1974.  Amid the fanfare of his approaching the historic record, the event did not come without Aaron having to endure hate mail, including threats to his life, because of bigotry towards his African-American ethnicity.  Even though he and his family were understandably troubled by the situation, Aaron was commended for handling it in a quiet, professional manner.  Many journalists and celebrities, including Babe Ruth’s widow, provided public support for him.  Aaron played 23 seasons and still holds the all-time record for RBI and total bases.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first time on the ballot in 1982.

Frank Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first black manager in 1975 when he was still playing for the Cleveland Indians.  He went on to manage in the big leagues for 16 years with four different teams.  He paved the way for future black managers such as Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, Willie Randolph, and Ron Washington.  Robinson had a Hall of Fame career as a player, which included a MVP Award in both leagues and a Triple Crown title in 1966 with the Baltimore Orioles.  Robinson has long been well-respected within the baseball community and is considered one of Major League Baseball’s foremost ambassadors.

Emmett Ashford was the pioneer for African-American umpires by becoming the first black in Organized Baseball in 1951.  However, it took fifteen more seasons before he broke the color barrier for umpires in the major-leagues.  The 5-foot-7 arbiter, noted for his karate-like chop behind the plate to signal strikes, was popular among fans.  Following his retirement as an umpire in 1970, he worked in public relations for the MLB Commissioner’s Office.

Bill Lucas was the first African-American executive to hold general manager duties in Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Braves.  After a six-year minor-league playing career in the Braves organization, he went to work in their front office, starting out in sales and promotions and eventually working his way into the job as vice president of player development in 1977.  However, after forty years, major-league front offices remain an area in the baseball industry where African-Americans have yet to receive significant opportunities to make an impact.

Each of these gentlemen made historic accomplishments in baseball, paving the way for other blacks to follow them in their respective roles.  Many of these accomplishments can be traced back to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues.  His impact is probably best exemplified by the fact that every team has retired his uniform Number 42.  Furthermore, all major-league teams honor Robinson each April by having every player, manager, coach and umpire wear his uniform number on the anniversary date of his major-league debut.

Looking Ahead to the New Baseball Season

Baseball’s Hot Stove season officially comes to an end when pitchers and catchers report to major league spring training camps in Florida and Arizona this week.  Looking back to 2016, it’s hard to imagine there will be a more dramatic World Series this year.  We’ll miss Big Papi and Vince Scully who provided baseball fans tons of thrills over the years.  We saw newly-minted stars like Cory Seager and Gary Sanchez emerge in the game.  What will the 2017 season hold for us?  Here are a few things to watch for.

During the off-season, several key players found new homes.  It will be interesting to see how they impact their new teams.  Will Edwin Encarnacion be the big bat the Cleveland Indians were missing last year?  Will the Red Sox’s addition of Chris Sales to their pitching staff, which by the way already includes two Cy Young Award winners, make them unbeatable?  The Yankees essentially rented out closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs last year, and he helped them gain World Series championship rings.  As he returns to the Yankees this season, can he do it again?

Several teams made changes in managers over the winter in the hopes of moving their teams in a new direction.  Tory Lovullo gets his first shot at the helm of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team whose enormous potential for 2016 went unrealized.  Bud Black returns in a managerial role with the Colorado Rockies, after having been the skipper of the San Diego Padres from 2007 to 2015.  Rick Renteria takes over the reins of the Chicago White Sox, who traded several of their veterans for a new crop of prospects.  None of these teams are likely to be relevant in 2017, but can these managers set a new course for the future?

The latest crop of rookies offer some hope for a few struggling teams.  Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is somewhat of a sleeper for the San Diego Padres.  He was a late bloomer coming out of college, but had a breakout year in the minors last season.  If his eleven games in a late-season call-up is any indication (4 homers and 11 RBI), he will be someone to watch.  Philadelphia Phillies shortstop J. P. Crawford, unlike Renfroe, has been on top prospects lists since he got out of high school.  A very athletic player, he will get a shot on a team that still needs a lot of help rebuilding its roster.  In dealing away several of its veterans, the White Sox picked up two of the top pitching prospects in the game, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech.  Don’t be surprised to find them in the White Sox starting rotation sometime during the season.  In his brief stint in 2016, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes demonstrated he will find a spot in an already crowded rotation.

The Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals suffered severe setbacks to their pitching staffs with the tragic deaths of Jose Fernandez in a boating accident late last season and Yordany Ventura in an automobile accident over the winter.  Both teams will be hard-pressed to replace them in the short-term, affecting their ability to be playoff contenders.

The Atlanta Braves began re-building their team of the future a couple of years ago, to coincide with their move into their new stadium in 2017.  They stocked up on prospects, particularly their pitching, but it’s not looking like they will actually be competitive for another couple more years.  However, their rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson appears to be major-league ready now, and figures to be the face of the franchise.

Several of the top major-league players had disappointing or injury-plagued seasons in 2016.  Their ability to effectively rebound this season could be the difference in their teams being a contender.  Tops on the list is Bryce Harper.  After his MVP season in 2015, his offensive production was considerably down for him.  Thanks to newcomer Daniel Murphy the Washington Nationals still managed to win the East Division, but didn’t advance past the first round of the playoffs.

Similarly, Dallas Keuchel was the Cy Young Award winner in 2015 for the Houston Astros, but a shoulder problem kept him from turning another good season last year.  He is key to the Astros being able to return to the playoffs.  Michael Brantley of the Cleveland Indians missed the entire season except for eleven games, due to shoulder surgery.  Even though the Indians acquired Encarnacion to bolster the lineup, the Indians will also need Brantley back on the field to repeat as division champs.

The Mets’ Matt Harvey was affected by a health condition called thoracic outlet syndrome, which contributed to his losing four of his fourteen decisions.  Surgery caused him to miss the rest of the season after July 4.  The Mets need him to have rebound year in order to compete with the Nationals for the division title.  Other players looking for comeback seasons include the Diamondbacks’ Shelby Miller, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, and Oakland’s Sonny Gray.

Gary Sanchez had one of the most remarkable seasons ever for a rookie in 2016.  In only 53 games, mostly during the last two months of the year for the Yankees, Sanchez slammed 20 home runs and drove in 42 runs.  A lot of baseball folks are wondering if he is the real deal or just another flash in the pan.  The Yankees have a long legacy of outstanding catchers, including Dickey, Berra, Howard, Munson and Posada.  Yankees fans are hoping Sanchez is the next in the line of backstops to lead the Yankees to World Series titles.

The ageless Bartolo Colon, pitching in a staff of twenty-something-year-olds, was instrumental in the New York Mets’s resurgence in the past two seasons.  Now in his twentieth major league season, Colon (actually 44 years old this season) is now pitching for the Atlanta Braves, hoping to bring the same magic there.

Ryan Braun, Brian Dozier, and Andrew McCutchen were among a handful of players who were the subject of trade talks during the winter, but nothing ever happened.  Don’t be surprised to see them on the trading block sometime during the season.  Each of them could be just the player a prospective team is looking for to keep them in contention.

Which teams are going to be the new contenders for the World Series this year?  I’ll provide my picks for division winners and wild card teams as spring training draws to a close in March.  Stay tuned.

Former Jesuit and UNO Star Giavotella to Play for Italy in WBC

Johnny Giavotella has played at all levels of baseball in his young 29 years, and he will soon add one more to the list.  The New Orleans area native has committed to play for Team Italy in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, in what will be the fourth year of the international competition.

Giavotella prepped at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, where he was a member of a Louisiana 5A State Championship team.  He then went on to star for the University of New Orleans.  In his sophomore year, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2007 Sun Belt Conference Tournament won by UNO.  As a junior he hit .354 with 12 home runs, 56 RBI and 19 stolen bases.

He was the second-round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals in 2008, making his major-league debut with the Royals three years later.  For four years, he split time between the Royals and their Omaha Triple-A affiliate.  The second baseman was the recipient of the 2011 George Brett Award as the Royals organization’s top hitter and was named Omaha’s Player of the Year.  In his most active season with the Royals in 2012, he appeared in 53 games. After the 2014 season, Giavotella was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.

Giavotella played for the Angels as their regular second baseman, but then lost his starting job late last season, due to his declining offensive production.  The Angels then decided to go in a different direction at second base, and he was granted free agency after the season.  He recently signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

Giavotella is eligible to play for Team Italy by virtue of his Italian heritage.  In addition to native-born players, the countries participating in the WBC are allowed to augment their rosters with non-resident players who are descendants of immigrants from those countries.

He is hoping to extend the improvement Team Italy enjoyed in the last WBC competition in 2013, when they finally got out of the first round pool play for the first time with a surprising defeat of Mexico.  In the two previous WBC tournaments in 2006 and 2009, Team Italy was able to win only a single game in the first rounds.

Giavotella will join fellow major leaguers on the Italian team, including a couple of veterans of WBC competition, Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Drew Butera of the Kansas City Royals.

Other major leaguers who have already committed to play this year for Team Italy are Chris Colabello (Indians), Brandon Nimmo (Mets) and Daniel Descalso (Cardinals).  Team Italy organizers are also hoping to sign up additional players like Andrew Benintendi (Red Sox), Joey Gallo (Rangers) and Alex Liddi (Mexican League), although the rosters won’t be finalized for a couple more weeks.

The manager of Team Italy is Marco Mazzieri.  He has been the manager of several Italian national teams since 2007, including their entry in the 2013 WBC.  Hall of Famer Mike Piazza has been designated as a coach on the team.  Piazza actually played for Italy in the inaugural WBC tournament in 2006.

The 2017 WBC starts first-round pool play on March 9.  Italy will compete in Pool D in Jalisco, Mexico, where other participants will include Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Three other first-round pools will be played in Miami (Pool C), Tokyo (Pool B) and Seoul (Pool A). The teams that advance out of the first-round will play semi-final elimination games in San Diego (hosting winners from Pools C and D) and Toyko (hosting winners from Pools A and B).  The final championship round will be played in Los Angeles.  Team USA will be competing in Pool C.

Francisco Cervelli credits his participation in the 2009 WBC for Italy with opening the door for him to secure a major league roster spot with the New York Yankees.  Perhaps a solid showing by Giavotella in this year’s installment of the international competition can help him land on the big-league roster with the Orioles this season.

Family Ties Flourishing in Baseball: New York Yankees

This is the first of a series of reviews that will take a look at family relationships in each major league organization.

Baseball has more family relationships than any other professional sport.  They existed in the earliest days of the sport in the 1870s, and they are abundant in today’s game, perhaps more so than ever before.  Baseball has been called a “generational” sport for several reasons.  One of them is that multiple generations of families have been active in the game--grandfathers, fathers, sons, and brothers.  And now even some great-grandsons are starting to show up on rosters.  Uncles, nephews, cousins and in-laws are part of the extended family of baseball relatives, too.

Baseball bloodlines aren’t limited to just the players.  Family trees with a baseball background have commonly included managers, coaches, scouts, owners, executives, front office personnel, umpires, and broadcasters, as well.

Indeed, families with a heritage of baseball are similar to those with military, medical, jurisprudence, and agricultural backgrounds.  Their professions are often passed down from one generation to the next.  Likewise, professional baseball fathers generally want their sons to follow in their footsteps.  Brothers grow up pushing each other to excel on the diamond.  Once one brother gets drafted by a major league team, then it’s often the case his brother will try to follow.

A look back in history shows many fascinating stories about baseball families.  For example:

  • the Hairston family, which included a major league father (Sam), three sons (two in the majors—John and Jerry Sr.), and five grandsons (two in the majors—Jerry Jr. and Scott), collectively had professional careers that spanned from 1945 to 2014.

  • three Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty, and Jesus) played for the San Francisco Giants in the same game in 1963.  The trio had two cousins who followed them in the big leagues, and one of the trio, Felipe, also had four sons to play professionally.

  • the Boyer brood included seven brothers that played professionally, including three major leaguers (Cloyd, Ken, and Clete).  They then produced three sons who played in the minors.

Numerous players of the 1960s New York Yankees teams had offspring who wound up playing professional baseball.  Follow the link below to an article entitled “Sons of the 1960s Bronx Bombers Had Big Shoes to Fill.”

https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/sons-of-the-1960s-bronx-bombers-had-big-shoes-to-fill/

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, here are some highlights of baseball relatives in the New York Yankees organization during 2016.

Brian McCann completed his third season as the Yankees catcher, after seven all-star seasons with the Atlanta Braves during 2005-2013.  He was traded to the Houston Astros during the off-season.  His brother, Brad, was a minor league first baseman in the Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals organizations during 2004-2007.  McCann’s father, Howard, was drafted (8th round) by the Minnesota Twins in 1974, but did not sign.  He later played one season in the independent leagues.

Austin Romine got the most playing time in his five-year career with the Yankees in 2016, serving as a backup to Brian McCann.  But now that Gary Sanchez has taken over the starting catcher’s job, Romine will likely continue as a reserve.  Romine is in one of those rare families that had a father and a brother in major-league baseball.  His father, Kevin, was a major league outfielder in the Red Sox organization from 1985 to 1991, when he was also a backup player to regulars like Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, and Mike Greenwell.  His brother, Andrew, was perhaps the ultimate utility player last season for the Detroit Tigers, as he played every position except catcher.

Mason Williams is a 24-year-old outfielder who played sparingly in his second season with the Yankees.  He doesn’t hit for much power, but uses his speed well on the bases and in the outfield.  He is the grandson of Walt Williams, who played in the outfield from 1964 to 1975, primarily with the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “No Neck”, he made his major-league debut as a 20-year-old with the Houston Colt .45s.  He was a career .270 hitter, and logged two seasons with the Yankees before wrapping up his career.

Dustin Ackley was starting his second year with the Yankees in 2016, but his season was cut short in late May due to injury.  The outfielder/first baseman had been a regular with the Seattle Mariners after being a first-round draft pick (second overall) in 2009.  He is the son of John Ackley, a third-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1979, who never made it out of the minors.

Aaron Hicks played his first season with the Yankees in 2016 after three seasons with the Minnesota Twins.  Hicks was primarily a starter in the outfield alongside Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.  He batted a meager .217 with 8 HR and 31 RBI.  Hicks is the son of Joseph Hicks, who reached the Double-A level with the San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals organizations before retiring in 1981.

Kirby Yates.  Yates was acquired by the Yankees before the 2016 season to fill a middle relief role in their bullpen.  In his third major league season, he made 41 appearances while averaging almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings.  However, he posted an ineffective 5.23 ERA and WHIP of 1.452.  Yates signed with the Los Angeles Angels for the 2017 season.  His brother, Tyler, was a major-league relief pitcher for five seasons during 2004-2009.  He had a career 12-17 record with the Braves, Mets, and Pirates.

Chasen Shreve.  He was another middle relief pitcher for the Yankees who struggled in 2016, after posting a fine season the year before, including a 6-2 record and 3.09 ERA.  He has a brother, Colby, who pitched in the Philadelphia Phillies organization from 2010 to 2013.  Both of the brothers were drafted from College of Southern Nevada.

Several other Yankee players, who briefly appeared on the major-league roster during 2016, had relatives that played in the major leagues:  Eric Young Jr. (son of Eric Young Sr.), Donovan Solano (brother of Jhonatan Solano), and Ike Davis (son of Ron Davis, a former Yankee)

The Yankees’ pipeline of baseball relatives includes several top prospects whose relatives were former major-league all-stars:  Dante Bichette Jr. (son of Dante Bichette Sr.), Jose Mesa Jr. (son of Jose Mesa Sr.), and Michael O’Neill (nephew of Paul O’Neill).

The Yankees had a number of personnel filling non-playing roles in the organization during 2016.

Brothers Hal and Hank Steinbrenner are the principal owners of the Yankees, having taken over for their legendary father, George Steinbrenner, following his death in 2010.

Tony Pena completed his 11th season as coach for the Yankees, having served as both a base coach and bench coach under managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.  Pena was manager of the Kansas City Royals during 2002-2005.  He also had an 18-year major league career that included five all-star seasons.  He has two sons that have played in the majors:  Tony Francisco Pena was a shortstop who played from 2006 to 2009 in the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Royals organizations; and Francisco Antonio Pena is currently a catcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization.  Pena also had a brother, Ramon, who pitched briefly with the Detroit Tigers in 1989.

Brothers Lou and Rob Cucuzza have been long-time clubhouse and equipment managers at Yankee Stadium.  They previously served with their father, Lou Sr., who also had an extensive career in similar capacities with the Yankees.

Kyle Arnsberg is a coach in the Yankees’ minor league system.  He is the son of former Yankees major league player Brad Arnsberg, who is now a minor league coordinator in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.

Mark Littlefield is a trainer in the Yankees organization.  He is the brother of David Littlefield, currently an executive in the Detroit Tigers organization, and Scott Littlefield, currently a scout in the Texas Rangers organization.

Ken Singleton is currently a broadcaster for the Yankees.  He previously had a 15-year major-league playing career with the Montreal Expos and Baltimore Orioles.  His son, Justin, played for six seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, reaching the Triple-A level.

 

Baseball’s Relatives Website

The entire list of 2016 active major and minor league players and non-players can be retrieved at:

https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/2016-family-ties/

 

Team USA Expecting Different Results in World Baseball Classic

The baseball community is starting to hear a buzz and excitement about the upcoming World Baseball Classic in early March.  The tournament of 16 international teams usually gets a lot of attention, particularly from the Latin American countries, but this year’s Team USA roster has got many observers thinking the American baseballers can finally break through to the championship round.  There appears to be a renewed mindset by major-league players to put a top-notch team on the field.

Team USA has yet to get out of the semifinal round of the tournament in the three years (2006, 2009 and 2013) of the tournament.  For the past two tournaments, there was a general perception the American team was not putting its best players on the roster.  While Major League Baseball has been a strong supporter of the event, it has left the decision of filling roster spots to the individual players.  However, the owners and agents often discouraged their star players from participating, for fear of their not being fully prepared to start the regular season in April or, in the worst case, suffering a season-ending injury during the WBC games.

The preliminary roster being assembled for Team USA has many folks feeling different about the team’s prospect for getting into the championship round this year.  Head-liners who have already committed include All-Star and MVP-caliber players such as Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Ian Kinsler, Daniel Murphy, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Christian Yelich.  The pitching staff will include Marcus Stroman, Chris Archer, Tanner Roark and Andrew Miller.  Max Scherzer had been previously committed, before deciding to withdraw due to a stress fracture on his ring finger, but now there are reports of Clayton Kershaw and David Price being added to the staff.

The WBC was originally conceived to be a comparable event to the World Cup for soccer and the Olympics for track and field, swimming, and gymnastics, bringing the world’s best teams and athletes together for head-to-head, tournament-style competition, where nationalism would be a huge factor in the competitive spirit among the teams.  However, the WBC tournament has yet to actually achieve the equivalent status and reputation as those other international events.  Some of the shortfall has been due to the way the United States has disregarded the role of the international play to decide a world champion.  After all, baseball has historically been thought of as America’s game, and it’s had its own “World Series” for over 100 years, despite the absence of representative teams from other countries.

Another significant issue in the USA’s reluctance to fully embrace the tournament has been its timing.  The spring season is not really the best time because of interference with players’ normal training preparation for the regular season.  A fall season tournament, following the World Series, draws concerns for ample suitable weather for the three weeks of the tournament and the players’ reluctance to extend their already long seasons.

Stiff completion for Team USA will come from historically strong teams from Japan, Venezuela, and Dominican Republic, whose teams combine the best of their national players with major leaguers from their countries.  The USA will play in the Pool C first-round against Dominican Republic, Canada and Columbia.  Dominican Republic, the defending WBC champion, will again feature such high-powered major-league hitters as Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre.  Canada will be led by major-leaguers Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman and Russell Martin, who has said he wants to play shortstop, versus his usual catcher position.  Retired pitchers Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne have indicated a desire to be named to the Canadian team, although they have not pitched professionally since 2013 and 2008, respectively.  So it’s not clear how serious of a contender they will be.  Columbia is projected to be the weakest team in the pool, since the current number of major leaguers from the country is relatively small.  Major league pitcher Jose Quintana will be the best player on its team.

Pool C games start on March 9 in Miami.  The other three first-round pools will be played in Seoul, Korea (A), Tokyo (B), and Jalisco, Mexico (D).  The second-round games will be played in Tokyo and San Diego beginning March 12, with the final championship round being played in Los Angeles starting March 20.

Team USA’s manager this year is Jim Leyland, the former major league manager with the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers.  He will have a star-studded lineup to work with, one that should draw renewed interest of American fans.  Perhaps this is the year the American team ends its championship drought in WBC competition, reclaims its dominance on the international stage, and provides a boost to the popularity and appeal of the tournament.

Rangers' Adrian Beltre Quietly Going About Hall of Fame Career

As I read more about the pros and cons of the current candidates for the upcoming 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, I got to thinking about some of the Hall’s future aspirants who will be eligible a few years down the road.  One name that popped up was current Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre.  He doesn’t generally come to the top of mind when thinking about the game’s stellar third basemen, but a careful study of his career shows he has been quietly putting up strong numbers warranting serious consideration for his future induction to the hallowed hall in Cooperstown.

Beltre, who turns 38 years of age in April, is entering his twentieth season as a major leaguer.  Yes, doing the quick math, it means he got an early start on his career at age 19 in 1998.  Now, when most veteran ballplayers are on the down-side of their careers at his age, Beltre keeps hacking away, compiling career numbers that put him among the top players in history in several categories.

Beltre was a relatively late-bloomer as a star player, and consequently he didn’t garner as much attention during the first half of his career.  Also, as a native of Dominican Republic, he didn’t get many opportunities to become a high-profile player with the national media.  Consequently, he’s primarily been playing in the shadows of other big-name teammates and opponents.

Beltre is only 58 hits from reaching the sure-fire Hall of Fame standard of 3,000 career hits.  He’s 55 home runs away from 500 career home runs.  The only players in history to have achieved both of these milestones can be counted on one hand:  Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro.  Some people might be thinking, “I don’t remember Beltre putting up those kinds of numbers.”  Well, he just quietly went about his business.

In more contemporary measures, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 90.2, which is second only to Albert Pujols among active players and currently ranks him 65th on the all-time list.  Defensively, he still dazzles as a third baseman, capturing his fifth Gold Glove Award last year.

His best year during his first twelve seasons occurred when he put up an MVP-type season in 2004 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  He slammed a league-leading 48 home runs and drove in 128 runs, while posting a .334 batting average.  He finished as a runner-up to Barry Bonds in the MVP Award voting.

The Texas Rangers had won their first AL pennant in 2010, but lost to the San Francisco Giants in five games.  They signed 32-year-old Beltre to a five-year contract before the 2011 season, when he helped put them back into the 2012 Series in which they came within one pitch of winning the championship.  Since joining the Rangers, he has been the cornerstone of the team’s offense and has been in the Top 7 of the American League MVP voting four times.  In a time when major league general managers are shying away from long-term contracts with players in their 30s, Beltre is a prime example of one that has actually paid off for the team.

About the only thing Beltre is missing in his career is a World Series ring.

On a Rangers roster whose average age is almost ten years younger than his, Beltre doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.  Last year he led a power-laden team with 32 home runs and 104 RBI.  He still ranks among the top third basemen, trailing only a few young studs like Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson.  The World Series ring is still not out of the question, since the Rangers are expected to be among the best teams again.

 If Beltre were to play until age 40, which is entirely possible, he would become eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2024.  Even without specifically knowing who else would be first-time eligible players that year, he will almost surely be at the top of the list for induction.  Then he won’t be in anyone’s shadow any more.

Bud Selig's Election to the Hall of Fame Could Impact Future Voting

Something significant happened in December that could start to affect the voting for candidates on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.  Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was elected by the Today’s Game Era Committee as a member of the 2017 class of Hall of Fame inductees. So, why would his election have an impact?

The issue of how baseball writers who cast Hall of Fame ballots should deal with player candidates that are admitted or suspected PED users is as controversial as ever.  Neither Major League Baseball nor the Baseball Hall of Fame has given any guidance to the voters on how they should treat these players.  Consequently, there’s been a mixed bag of results to date.

Let’s take a look back at how Hall of Fame voters have dealt with the issue up until now.

Mark McGwire (after 10 years) and Rafael Palmeiro (after four years) have completely fallen off the ballot after not being able to garner the required number of votes.  It was evident voters were absolutely influenced by McGwire ultimately admitting to his PED use, while Palmeiro actually tested positive during his last season as a player after denying before a congressional investigative committee that he had never used PEDs.

However, in the past few years there appears to be some softening of the opinions of the baseball writers, as well as the baseball analyst community in general.

Suspected PED users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have gradually increased their votes such that they each received votes on 44-45% of the ballots in 2016.  Although never failing a drug test, the cloud of suspected PED use affected Mike Piazza votes, until he was finally elected last year on his fourth ballot.  Jeff Bagwell, who has been similarly affected by the suspicion of PED use, appears to be poised for election this year, as he came extremely close last year with 71% of the votes (75% is the minimum).  Presumably, the difference in these four players and McGwire/Palmeiro is that there was never any definitive proof or admission of their use.

Bud Selig’s recent election to the Hall may be another signal that players in the PED era will get increased consideration in the future.  Some observers maintain that actual or implied PED users on the ballot shouldn’t be excluded any further, since the PED era occurred under Selig’s watch as commissioner.  They argue that the view of Selig shouldn’t be separated from the view of any players on this issue.  Of course, hard-liners on the PED issue counter that Selig shouldn’t have been elected in any case.  While Selig has publicly made statements that he was not aware of the prevalence of players using PEDs prior to drug testing being instituted, it’s hard to imagine that he was innocently out of touch with what was happening during that time.

Two new entrants on the ballot this year may be the next test of how the Hall’s official voters will treat the PED issue going forward and whether Selig’s election has done anything that would alter their stance toward actual or implied PED users.  Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez are appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2017, and both carry some PED baggage.

Ramirez failed drug tests twice in the waning years of his career, while Rodriguez falls into the category of suspected user by being linked to Jose Canseco, who wrote a tell-all book about his experience with steroid use.  Both players certainly have enough credentials to be elected, if not on the first ballot, then soon afterwards.

So what’s my “fantasy” Hall of Fame ballot going to look like this year?

To recap last year, I voted for Ken Griffey Jr., Piazza, Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Tim Raines, Gary Sheffield, and Curt Schilling. 

With Griffey and Piazza gaining induction last year, that opens up two more slots for new players on my ballot.  I’m going to stick with my remaining eight carryovers from 2016.  Even though Lee Smith (34.1%) and Gary Sheffield (11.6%) lagged behind other players in the voting last year, I’m staying the course with them.

Lee Smith doesn’t get the attention he deserves because he didn’t have significant post-season appearances, plus relief pitchers generally seem to draw the short straw in the voting when compared to other position players.  However, he finished in the Top 5 for the Cy Young Award in three seasons and he’s third on the all-time saves list.  2017 is Lee Smith’s final year of eligibility.

Gary Sheffield probably suffers from not being identified with one specific team during his career. In fact, he played for eight different clubs during his 22 seasons.  But it didn’t seem to matter what team he played for, since he was in the Top 10 for the MVP Award in six seasons.  He was a 12-time All-Star and captured five Silver Slugger awards.

It appears that Bagwell (71.6%), Hoffman (67.3%) and Raines (69.8%) have a good chance to be elected in 2017, based on last year’s results.

For my two new open slots, I’m voting for Ivan Rodriguez and another first-time player on the ballot, Vladimir Guerrero.

So, why Rodriguez and not Manny Ramirez?  I have drawn the line personally on the PED issue that “suspected” use is not sufficient enough reason for excluding a player (Rodriguez’s case) and that failing a drug test is sufficient reason (Ramirez’s case).

Furthermore, I take the position that before Major League Baseball instituted drug testing for PEDs, there should be no reason to automatically exclude players for consideration.  Hence, Bonds and Clemens still have my votes.  We should recall that amphetamine pills and cortisone shots were never on baseball’s “illegal use” list, yet were actually “performance enhancing” because their use contributed to many players being able to minimize the effects of pain and wear and tear on the body, so that they could play every day.  Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax was a prime example during the last few years of his career in the 1960s.

I like Rodriguez because he was a solid, all-around player as a hitter and a fielder.  The 1999 American League MVP collected 2,844 hits while compiling a .296 career average. He hit 311 home runs and 1,332 RBI.  He earned a record 13 Gold Gloves during his 21 seasons.  He appeared in more games (2,427) as a catcher than anyone in history.

Guerrero was a feared hitter during a 16-year career that included a .318 batting average, 449 home runs and 1,496 RBI.  The outfielder posted ten seasons with at least 100 RBI.  The 2004 American League MVP was in the Top 6 of MVP voting in five additional seasons.  He was noted for his strong throwing arm from right field.

Jorge Posada is another key first-timer on the ballot this year, but I put both Rodriguez and Guerrero records well ahead of the former Yankee catcher’s.

The Hall of Fame Class of 2017 will be announced on January 18.  Stay tuned to see how the baseball writers will react on this year’s ballots.

New Orleanian Rusty Staub Part of Historic Lineup in 1963

Baseball fans were generally amazed when the Chicago Cubs’ lineup included a bunch of twenty-something-year-old players in their historic run for the World Series title during this past post-season.  Indeed Major League Baseball has become a young man’s game, but the Houston Colt .45s took this to an extreme back in 1963 when they fielded a youthful, all-rookie team on September 27, 1963.  New Orleans native Rusty Staub, only a year removed from Jesuit High School, was part of that momentous lineup.

A combination of factors, which would probably never happen in today’s environment, contributed to the odd occurrence then.  Nonetheless it was one of the most unique games in baseball history.  The players in today’s game of baseball seem to be getting younger and younger each year.  But that Houston team in 1963 fielded the youngest lineup of all time.  The Colt .45s, Houston’s nickname before they became the Astros in 1965, inserted a rookie at each of the nine starting positions in the lineup.

In only their second season of existence in the National League, Houston was a struggling franchise on and off the field.  They were playing their home games in a small stadium in an area of Houston where humidity and mosquitos prevailed during most of its night games.  Attendance at their home games for the month of September had been hovering around four thousand fans, so the team’s front office management decided to deploy this unique lineup as a promotional ploy to boost attendance.

Houston was able to pull off this feat by taking advantage of late-season player call-ups when major league rosters could be expanded beyond the normal twenty-five player limit after September 1.  The Colt .45s were going nowhere anyway, since they were a whopping 35 games out of first place.  Although it was a dismal season, they were actually not in last place in the National League—that was reserved for the New York Mets, another league expansion team in 1962, who were 49 games behind the league-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

During most of the season, the regular lineup of the Colt .45s had included of a number of “also-rans” who had been acquired by Houston in the National League expansion draft before their inaugural season in 1962.  Aging Colt .45s players like Bob Lillis, Pete Runnels, Johnny Logan, and Don McMahon had been pretty decent players earlier in their careers, but they were well past their prime in 1963.

Here’s a run-down of Houston’s starting lineup of rookies on that historic day in September.

1B – Rusty Staub was 19 years old, only one year out of Jesuit High School where he was a schoolboy phenom in baseball.  After being recruited out of high school by all sixteen major league clubs, Staub eventually signed for a $100,000 bonus with the expansion Houston club.  He had made his major league debut in April and thus had put in a full season with the Colt .45s which qualified him as the “veteran” of this bunch.

2B – Joe Morgan was 19 years old in his first pro season.  He was promoted from Single-A to the major league club.

SS – Sonny Jackson was 18 years old, making his major league debut on September 27.  Like Morgan, he had been advanced from the Single-A level.

3B – Glenn Vaughan was 19 year old.  1963 turned out to be his only major league campaign, and he was out of baseball altogether after the 1964 season.

LF – Brock Davis was 19 years old in only his first pro season. He had started the 1963 season with the Colt .45s in April, but was later demoted at the end of June.

CF – Jimmy Wynn, at 21 years old, was the elder statesman of this lineup, in terms of age.  He had made his major league debut with the Colt .45s on July 10.

RF – Aaron Pointer was 21 years old (only a month younger than Wynn), but he was actually playing in his third pro season in the minors before being called up.

C – Jerry Grote was 20 years old, playing in his first pro season after attending Trinity University for a years.

P – Jay Dahl was the real “newbie” of the bunch at only 17 years old.  His starting assignment on September 27 turned out to be his only major league appearance of his career.  He pitched in only one more pro season before being out of baseball altogether.

This lineup had collectively played in a total of 261 major league games prior to the game on September 27, with Staub and Wynn claiming 214 of those.  In all, the Colt .45s fielded fifteen rookies in the game.  Ernie Fazio was the first non-rookie to appear in the game for the Colt .45s when he entered as a defensive replacement in the top of the 6th inning.

The Colt .45s wound up losing the game to the New York Mets, 10-3.  Dahl pitched only 2 2/3 innings before being yanked.  He yielded seven runs to the sixteen batters he faced.  Morgan, Staub, Wynn, and Vaughan accounted for eight of Houston’s eleven hits in the game.  Morgan’s triple was the only extra-base hit for the Colt .45s.  The last-place Mets banged out fifteen hits against five Houston pitchers that included three additional rookies besides Dahl.  Despite the marketing objective of the game, only 5,802 fans were in attendance.

Several of those young Houston players went on to have noteworthy major league careers.  Morgan made his mark as part of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in the 1970s and was eventually elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Staub collected 2,716 career hits, including over 500 at each of four different teams.  Staub was an all-star in six of his 23 years.  Wynn, who later became popularly known as “The Toy Cannon,” slammed 291 home runs during his 15-year career which included three all-star seasons.

Although younger players largely dominate big league baseball today, we won’t likely see this type of exploit of a team’s lineup again, even if there is a future major league franchise expansion.  Furthermore, current league rules regarding free agency eligibility discourage major league clubs from promoting rookies before they are truly major-league-ready.

However, for this one day in Houston in 1963, youth reigned like never before and probably never will again.

A Busy Year for a Job with No Pay

I just finished updates of my comprehensive database of baseball’s family relationships for the 2016 season, and I got to thinking about all the other baseball-related research and writing I did this past year.  It’s been one of my busiest years.  My wife Mary says I really haven’t retired—I just got another job for which I don’t get paid now.

Writing the blog posts for The Tenth Inning website is one of my favorite weekly activities.  Sometimes it was a struggle coming up with a good topic (you may have noticed), but I’m proud to say I didn’t miss a week this year in getting a post published.  My favorite topics are ones where I am able to take a current event in major league baseball and put it in the context of a piece of baseball history from years ago.  2017 will mark my fifth year of maintaining the blog.

Another of my ongoing efforts is the update of a database of New Orleans area baseball players who went on to play at the college and professional levels.  Since I’m not originally from New Orleans, I find it fascinating to discover information about the older players from the area.  I get quite a few inputs from people writing me about their own or a relative’s baseball career, when they find it missing from my list which is posted on the internet.  Consequently, I’ve learned a lot about New Orleans baseball history in the process.  My list currently numbers over 1,350 players, from the early 1900s to the present.  The latest list of New Orleans players can be retrieved at http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.

As I mentioned above, I also maintain a database of baseball’s family relationships, as an extension of my book Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives which was published in 2012.  At that time, the book identified over 3, 500 players with relatives.  Through expansion of the scope of players now included and updates from seasons since the book, I now have identified over 7,000 players, representing over 11,000 relationships.  I get most of my new updates each year by poring through the biographical information in all thirty Major League Baseball team media guides.

I maintain another website, Baseball’s Relatives, where I post my current Family Ties lists of players, as well as periodically post articles about current baseball relatives from other writers across the country.  Here is the link to that website with my recently completed lists for the 2016 season: https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/.

My ultimate goal is to implement a publicly accessible database (versus the static lists I now post on Baseball’s Relatives) of my baseball relationships information.  I’ve developed a technical specification for a web-based application that would allow baseball enthusiasts to query my database via the internet.  Now I just need to find someone to develop and implement the app cheaply.

My involvement in the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) BioProject and Games Project expanded this year.  In the past, I have written biographies for former major league players Fats Dantonio and Scooter Tucker.  Dantonio’s bio has already been published in the SABR book Who’s on First: Replacement Players in WWII, while Tucker’s is slated for inclusion in a pending SABR book on the 1995 Cleveland Indians.  I’ve written the game account of Jerry Reuss’ one-hitter in 1965 for the Houston Astros which will be included in a planned SABR book about the greatest games in the Houston Astrodome.

Each of these SABR projects is a collaborative effort with other SABR members.  The publication process includes rigorous fact-checking and editorial review steps.  Each project involves extensive research, usually requiring searches of old magazines and newspapers from the related time period to find source material.  However, getting to interview the major league players for the biographies is a real treat for me.

In 2016, I wrote the bio of Ivan de Jesus for a pending SABR book about the top major league players from Puerto Rico.

As part of the Games Project, I also wrote game accounts for Boo Ferriss’ first eight major league games as a 1945 Boston Red Sox rookie, all of which he won.  I wrote accounts of two St. Louis Cardinals World Series games in 1928 and a game in 1948 in which Cardinals pitcher Harry Brecheen pitched a near perfect game.  These three stories will become part of a planned SABR book about the greatest games in St. Louis’ old Sportsman’s Park.

For next year, I am already committed to write the biography of Stan Javier for a book about the greatest MLB players from the Dominican Republic.  Additionally, I am on point to write two game accounts for a planned book about the greatest games in Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field, as well as two related to the greatest games in New York Mets history.

My currently published work for the BioProject and Games Project can be found at http://sabr.org/richard-cuicchi/.

Another project I assisted with this year came through a request from a fellow SABR member in Texas.  He is writing a book about the minor league Dixie Series, which was an inter-league post-season playoff between the first-place teams of the Southern Association and Texas League from the 1920s to the 1950s.  The New Orleans Pelicans minor league team was a participant in those post-season games for a number of years.  So I helped this gentleman research those games by going through The Times-Picayune newspaper archives to find relevant articles he could reference in the book.

Besides my blog on The Tenth Inning, I use Twitter (@thetenthinning) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Tenth-Inning/492137224155014) to extend the reach of my work.  A number of my blog posts have been published by SportsNOLA.com, a local New Orleans-based website that covers all sports in the metro area.

I’ve had a lot of fun with all the research and writing activities this year.  They allowed me to stay current with today’s game of baseball, both locally and nationally, as well as expand my knowledge of the history and lore of this great sport.  Plus it’s mostly kept me out of trouble with my wife.  However, I’m glad I didn’t have to do this as a full-time paid job.  I think I would have had many a starving day.

 

Baseball's Old-Timers Still Impacting the Game Through Their Descendants

Harmon Killebrew.  Carl Yastrzemski.  Bob Feller.  Bill Mazeroski.  They were among some of the greatest stars of yesteryear.  Although they hung up their cleats several decades ago, they are still impacting the game of baseball today.  But that lasting impact has been through their descendants, who have followed in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers, and are currently active within the same sport.

The game is filled with abundant examples of family ties.  In 2016, there were over 700 players in the majors and minors who have a relative in baseball.  Furthermore, there were over 800 managers, coaches, scouts, executives, and front office personnel who had a relative in baseball.  As expected, many of them currently playing are brothers or sons of current or recent baseball players, managers or coaches.  But one might be surprised to know how many are also players whose grandfathers, great uncles, or great-grandfathers donned the uniform and spikes many years before them.

For these families, baseball has been a profession, not unlike families with multiple generations of doctors, lawyers, farmers, or military servicemen.  Moreover, the roles of the relatives extend beyond the playing field to include jobs like broadcasters, umpires, groundskeepers, clubhouse personnel, and front office positions.

Baseball became a lifelong profession for many players who were able to translate their skills and experience on the field to post-playing careers as managers, coaches, scouts, and player development executives.  Hence, it was only natural they would encourage their sons and grandsons to follow in their footsteps in some aspect of the sport, even if not as a player.  Now we are seeing examples of daughters of baseball professionals pursuing careers in the sport.

There are many examples of fathers who got their chance to player minor league baseball following high school or college, but were never quite good enough to land a spot on a major league roster.  So they wound up fulfilling their own dream by encouraging their sons at an early age to pursue a professional career.

Then there are cases where a father or grandfather had a substantial major league career and their son or grandson was drafted by a major league organization, usually in a late round as a courtesy pick, because the son or grandson didn’t actually project to have the skills of a potential major leaguer.  The draftee usually doesn’t wound up pursuing a pro career.

An over-arching factor for many of these family relationships in baseball is the strong loyalty or preference within the baseball community to hire and promote family members.  Again, similar to families of lawyers and doctors, the baseball pedigree of a father, uncle, or grandfather is often a consideration by hiring organizations, because they know the family’s history and background.

Scanning the current list of active players, as well as people in non-playing roles within the game (such as managers, coaches, scouts, and front-office personnel), shows some interesting baseball backgrounds.

The great-great nephew of legendary player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, from the infamous Chicago “Black Sox” scandal team which threw the 1919 World Series, is currently a prospect in the Texas Rangers organization.  His name is also Joe Jackson, and he was a fifth-round draft selection of the Rangers in 2013.

Related to another famous event in baseball history, Kyle Gaedele played in an independent league in 2016, after having spent four seasons in the San Diego Padres organization.  Kyle is the great-nephew of Eddie Gaedel, the legendary midget who appeared in a game for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 as a stunt by then-owner Bill Veeck.

Garland Buckeye pitched in the majors for five seasons during 1918 to 1928.  He is the great-grandfather of current Boston Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz, as well as Drew’s brother, Stu, who appeared in three major league games in 2012.  The brothers attained big league status even though their father, Michael, and uncle, Patrick, weren’t successful in landing a spot on a major league roster after having brief careers in the minor in the 1980s.

Charlie Culberson, who currently plays in the infield for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the grandson of Leon Culberson, who largely got his opportunity to play in the majors for the Boston Red Sox during World War II when Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio were in the military service.  In the 1946 World Series with the Red Sox, Culberson was involved as the outfielder in the play in which the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter made his dramatic “mad dash” from first base to score on a hit that won Game 7 of the Series.  The elder Culberson also had a brother who played pro baseball in 1947.

Mickey Moniak was the first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016.  His grandfather, Bill Moniak, played briefly in the Boston Red Sox minor league organization, where he received batting tips from the great hitter Ted Williams.

Bill Freehan and Al Kaline were all-star teammates in the 1960s and 1970s with the Detroit Tigers.  Their grandsons also pursued major league careers with the Tigers organization after attending college.  Freehan’s grandson, Blaise Salter, is a current minor leaguer, while Kaline’s grandson, Colin Kaline, was a former prospect.

There have only been a handful of families in major league history with three generations (grandfather, son, and grandson) of major league players, including the Bells, Boones, Hairstons and Colemans.  However, there have been numerous families over the years that have come close to achieving this distinction.

For example, Ryan Ripen is currently playing in the minors with the Washington Nationals organization.  He is the son of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and grandson of Cal Ripken Sr., who managed Baltimore Orioles teams in the 1980s that included his sons Cal Jr. and Billy.  As a side note, Ryan’s teammates with minor league club in Hagerstown included Mariano Rivera III and Cody Dent, sons of former majors Mariano Rivera and Bucky Dent, respectively.  Ryan’s brother, Patrick, is currently playing for North Carolina State University.

Joey Fregosi Jr. was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2016, and he is the son of Jim Fregosi Jr., currently a special assistant with the Houston Astros.  Joey’s grandfather, Jim Fregosi Sr., was a six-time all-star as a major league player and a manager for fifteen seasons with the Angels, Phillies, White Sox, and Blue Jays.

Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell is part of a three-generation baseball family.  His father, Thomas Farrell, pitched briefly in the minors for the Cleveland Indians in the mid-‘50s.  John, himself, pitched in eight seasons in the majors before pursuing a career in coaching and managing.  John’s three sons carried on the baseball heritage for the Farrell family.  Luke pitched at the Triple-A level in 2016 for the Kansas City Royals organization, while Jeremy currently serves as a minor league coach in the Chicago Cubs organization.  A third son, Shane, was a late-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, but never played professionally.  Instead, he has continued his baseball career as a scout in the Cubs organization.

Multi-generation baseball families are filled with examples that extend beyond the playing field.

The MacPhail family could easily make a claim for being the “first family” of baseball, but not because of their play on the diamond.  Instead, they have supplied baseball with executives for four generations.  Andy MacPhail, current president of the Philadelphia Phillies, is a third-generation family member.  He now has two sons, Drew and Reed, who are working their way through professional baseball in staff positions.  Andy’s father was Lee MacPhail Jr., the former president of the American League and executive in the Yankees and Orioles organizations.  Andy’s grandfather was Larry MacPhail, who was a part-owner and executive of the New York Yankees and a general manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds organizations.  Andy’s brothers, Bill and Lee III also held front-office positions in pro baseball.  His nephew, Lee IV, currently works in the front office for the Seattle Mariners.  Larry and Lee Jr. are the only father-son combinations in Baseball’s Hall of Fame who did not play the game.

Jack Dunn IV also comes from a long line of players, owners, and executives who had involvement with the Baltimore Orioles for over one hundred years.  He is currently a limited partner in the ownership group of the Orioles.  His great grandfather, Jack Dunn Sr., played in the major leagues from 1897 to 1904 and then wound up owning and managing the Baltimore Orioles when it was one of the premier minor league franchises in the early 1900s.  His grandfather, Jack Dunn Jr., briefly played for the Orioles teams during 1914 to 1919.  His father, Jack III, was the long-time traveling secretary for the Orioles after it had become a major league franchise.

Roger Bossard is a third-generation groundskeeper with the Chicago White Sox.  His father and grandfather also held the same position with the Chicago White Sox.  Roger’s son, Brandon, may break the chain of groundskeepers, however, by becoming a major league player.  He was drafted by the White Sox in 2016.  The Cucuzza family, including Lou Sr. and his two sons, have managed New York Yankee clubhouses and equipment rooms since the 1980s.

Chip Caray is a third-generation broadcaster, following his father Skip, with the Braves, and grandfather Harry who had a long career with the Cardinals, White Sox and Cubs.  Chip’s half-brother, Josh, is currently a broadcaster for a Tampa Bay Rays minor league team.

Although no longer active, the Runge family (Ed, Paul, and Brian) provided three generations of major league umpires.  In 2016, brothers Bill and Tim Welke were active umpires, while Brian Gorman and Hunter Wendelstadt are second-generation umpires.  Umpire Jim Wolf is the brother of former major league player Randy Wolf, and John Hirschbeck’s brother, Mark, was a major league umpire until recently.

In the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft, Trey Griffey was drafted in the 24th round by the Seattle Mariners, although he had not played baseball since he was a youth.  Trey is the son of Ken Griffey Jr., a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 2016, and is the grandson of Ken Griffey Sr., a veteran of nineteen seasons in the majors.  Trey’s draft selection was actually a special tribute to Griffey Jr, who wore uniform number 24 while playing for the Mariners, since Trey currently plays college football at the University of Arizona.

After over 140 years of professional baseball, women still have not substantially penetrated the sport.  However, one significant event involving women occurred in 2016, when Amanda Hopkins was hired as a professional scout by the Seattle Mariners organization.  Her interests in baseball stemmed from her father Ron, who has been a scout and executive for several major league organizations and is currently a special assistant for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Amanda’s brother, Ross, was a 40th round selection of the Cincinnati Reds in 2007, but didn’t sign a professional contract.

Lauren Holland is a front-office executive with the Atlanta Braves.  Her father, John, is the clubhouse manager for the Braves.

A few other women have helped break the gender barrier in baseball through their marriage to men who come from baseball families.  One current example is Katie Haas, a front-office executive for the Boston Red Sox.  Her husband, Danny Haas, is a special assistant for the Baltimore Orioles after having been a player and coach.  Danny is one of several members of the Haas family which has been involved in baseball since the 1950s.

Professional baseball has more family relationships than any sport in the United States. This season demonstrated that this trend is definitely continuing.

It Would be a Mistake if the Pirates Traded Andrew McCutchen

It’s been rumored since last season that the Pittsburgh Pirates were putting its premier outfielder, Andrew McCutchen, on the trading block.  Now, during the Hot Stove season, the rumors about a pending trade are hotter than ever.  Many observers think it’s a foregone conclusion that McCutchen will be dealt by the Pirates in order to shore up their pitching and get some young prospects in return.  Plus, the Pirates have historically been a modest-payroll team and aren’t likely to shell out the big bucks McCutchen could command in order to retain him.

Of course, Pirates fans are rightfully bummed out by the potential of a deal.  After all, McCutchen is the face of the team.  He’s been the backbone of the club since he broke into the big leagues in 2009.  He was MVP of the National League in 2013, while finishing in the top five in three other seasons.  He’s a five-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner.  He turned 30 years old in October and has yet to spend any time on the disabled list during his eight major league seasons.

McCutchen is currently signed with the Pirates through the 2017 season, with the Pirates having a club option for an additional year.  The Pirates’ primary motive for dealing him now is they figure his value is greater than it would be one or two years later.  They apparently aren’t interested in giving McCutchen a four or five year contract renewal, probably at a premium price, when he is 32 years old.

However, at some point, one has to ask whether it would be a wise decision for the Pirates to let McCutchen go.  Will they, in fact, be better off without him in their attempt to win a Central Division title

Playing in a strong division with the perennially tough St. Louis Cardinals, McCutchen got the Pirates into a wild card spot for three consecutive seasons during 2013 and 2015.  Only once in those three seasons did they advance to the Division Championship Series.  With the World Series champion Chicago Cubs franchise now on the rise, it will get even harder for the Pirates to claim a playoff spot unless the Cardinals or the Cubs experience a down year.

Players like McCutchen don’t come along that often.  He is to the Pirates what Derek Jeter was to the New York Yankees.  Of course, the Yankees were in a much different financial situation to retain Jeter over his career than the Pirates are with McCutchen.  But you’ve got to believe the Yankees realized early on the value Jeter brought, both on the field and in the clubhouse.  He was the glue that allowed the Yankees to mix and match other players around him.  McCutchen brings the same effect to the Pirates.  Without “Cutch,” who’s going to do that for the Pirates going forward?  Not anyone on the current roster.

Besides the intangibles McCutchen brings to the table, he’s still an offensive force on the field.  While he won’t probably won’t lead the league in home runs or RBI (he’s typically good for 25 home runs and 85 RBI), he’s a high on-base percentage (OBP) guy and he does offer enough of a threat to protect other sluggers in the lineup.

He had a below-average season (for him) last year.  The Pirates put him second in the batting order for much of the season, with the thinking that his high OBP would create increased run-scoring opportunities.  But that strategy didn’t work out like expected, since both his OBP and power numbers declined when batting second.  His WAR (Wins Above Replacement) went negative last year, compared to being in the range of 5.0 to 8.0 during his all-star seasons.

It’s not expected that McCutchen’s performance will continue to drop off, although the Pirates seem to be taking no chances by shopping him around now.  The Pirates have highly touted outfield prospect Austin Meadows coming up through their farm system as a potential replacement for McCutchen, although that seems to be at least a year away based on Meadows’ progression through the minors.

Many major league clubs are shying away from offering players contract extensions costing in excess of $120 million for 4-5 years, once the players get into their 30s.  Perhaps the biggest example of this was when Cardinals let Albert Pujols get away after the 2011 season at age 31, after he essentially posted a Hall of Fame career in only his first eleven seasons.  Practically everyone thought the Cardinals were crazy at the time.  However, it turned out to be the right decision for the Cardinals, as Pujols’ performance suffered a dramatic decline with his new team (Los Angeles Angels), although admittedly he became beset by injuries.

The Pirates are fearing a similar situation like Pujols or are thinking about other recent players, like Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, where the acquiring clubs overpaid for the production they ultimately received.

But I believe the Pirates’ situation is different.  Without McCutchen, the Pirates will likely become just another also-ran team, possibly returning to their losing ways that plagued the franchise from 1993 to 2012.  With him, as well as with much-needed pitching upgrades, they can stay relevant and put up a good fight against the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.

The Pirates’ ownership should ignore the Pujols, Crawford and Ellsbury cases.  They should buck the trend of other teams and just show McCutchen the money when his current contract ends.

Remembrances of the Man Named "Boo"

For the most part, my past blog posts have dealt with subjects of baseball history or one of the latest current events in the major leagues.  Every once in a while, I’ve addressed a topic of a personal nature, and this week is one of those times.

Dave “Boo” Ferriss died at age 94 on November 24.  I was very fortunate to have known him, as countless others can also claim.

First, some background on Boo.  His nickname originated from his effort as a toddler to get his older brother’s attention.  His attempt to say “brother” came out as “Boo,” and he forever became attached with the name.

Boo was a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox from 1945 to 1951.  His first two seasons with the Red Sox were historic, as he won a total of 46 games and helped lead them to a World Series appearance in 1946.  In 1947 he hurt his arm, which effectively ended his playing career.  After unsuccessfully trying to regain his pitching form, he became the pitching coach for the Red Sox from 1955 to 1959.  Despite his shortened career, he was named to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2002.

Following his professional career as a player and coach, Boo stayed in baseball as the head coach for then Division II Delta State University, where his teams won 629 games over 26 seasons.  He had a legendary career there, too, as his teams won numerous conference championships, often defeated Division I opponents throughout the Southeast, and went to a couple of Division II College World Series.  He produced countless players that went on to play professional baseball or became coaches themselves.

Growing up in the same little Mississippi Delta town of Shaw where Boo was born, I first became aware of him when he came to talk to my Little League team.  He had just completed his time as the pitching coach for the Red Sox.  One can imagine the impression he made on a wide-eyed eight-year-old who had played with the likes of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio.

My other early recollections and encounters with Boo were mostly by coincidence.  He signed my high school team’s star pitcher to an athletic scholarship at Mississippi State University, where Boo briefly worked as an assistant athletic director.  My mother called on Boo to write a letter of recommendation for my acceptance into Mississippi State.  When I coached a 13-14-year-old baseball team from my home town during a summer league, he stopped by our practice field one day to offer some pitching tips to our best pitcher, who would later become an All-American pitcher for Boo at Delta State.

It wasn’t until almost 25 years later that I began to fully understand the impact Boo had in his few years of major league baseball and his coaching success at Delta State.  By this time, my interest in baseball history had significantly grown, and I re-introduced myself to him by corresponding with him about his accomplishments in baseball.  Boo faithfully responded to each of my inquiries, and in turn he would often send me copies of news clippings about his past Delta State teams and former players and his participation in his post-career appearances with the Boston Red Sox organization.  Periodically, I would send him lists of new baseball books, magazines, and newspaper articles that referenced his career.  At one point, Boo told me, “I think you know more about my career than I do myself.”

As time went on, I was the recipient of his friendship in ways other than through baseball.  I would get calls from Boo asking how my family had fared during hurricanes that affected or threatened the New Orleans area where I lived.  He sent letters of condolence when my parents passed away.  He and his wife, Miriam, would graciously welcome me for visits when I went back to the Mississippi Delta area.  Once on a Sunday afternoon, he took my family on a personally-narrated tour of the Boo Ferriss Museum on the Delta State campus.  But this was how he treated everyone, always demonstrating personal care and interest.

When I was writing my book, Family Ties, about baseball’s relatives, Boo offered words of encouragement to this first-time author.  After I had finally completed it, I enlisted his help with the publicity aspects of the book publishing.  In his endorsement, his comments included “…it’s (Family Ties) a jewel.  He’s a walking encyclopedia of baseball.”  That really boosted my confidence to continue my baseball research and writing.

One of my special research interests was, in fact, Boo’s career with the Red Sox.  I have written several articles about Boo that related current major league events to similar events and accomplishments from his career seventy years ago.  Furthermore, I had collected over one hundred original press and wire photos of Boo from his playing days in the 1940s, and I wound up making copies of them and assimilating them into a “scrapbook” covering his Red Sox career.  When I presented it to Boo last year, he commented that there were some photos in it that he had never seen.  And he added in his usual humble manner, “It’s time now for you to start writing about someone else.”

I didn’t exactly heed his advice, when earlier this year I researched and wrote game accounts of Boo’s first eight major league games, all of which he won and which also included 22 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings to start his career.

What I learned about Boo in my research efforts was how much of a national sensation he had been at the start of his career.  Having been discharged from the Army Air Corps in February 1945 due to problems from asthma, he had literally come out of nowhere to play for the Red Sox in 1945.  His prior professional experience consisted of only 130 innings of minor league ball in 1942.  At first, many baseball pundits thought his fantastic start in 1945 was a fluke, since the rosters of the major league teams had been depleted of its regular players due to World War II.  But he proved his detractors to be wrong when he won 21 games that year and then 25 the next season, when all the regular players had returned from military service.  Boo’s popularity soared, as he appeared in advertisements for Gillette, Wheaties, Chesterfield, Hood’s Ice Cream, Tip-Top Bread, and others.  Collier’s, LIFE Magazine, Baseball Digest, and The Sporting News were magazines of the day that featured stories about his early success.

Despite all this notoriety, one would never learn this from Boo himself.  He tended to downplay his significance in major league history.  He often referred to his star teammates (Williams, Pesky, Doerr, and DiMaggio) as “the big guys,” never putting himself in the same category as them, probably because his career was cut short in relation to their respective long, productive careers.  But make no mistake, he was as impactful as any player in the major leagues in 1945 and 1946.

Boo is widely known for the lasting relationships he built with his players at Delta State.  I’ve had the opportunity to run across several of them in my baseball research activities.  Without exception, they all related how much they admired the man and the influence he made on their lives, long after their playing days had ended.  I can attest to his being one of the most genuine persons and consummate gentlemen there ever was.

Boo’s going to be missed by a lot of people.  Me included.

Corey and Kyle Seager Among the Best Big-League Brother Combos

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager was the unanimous choice for National League Rookie of the Year last week during the post-season honors announcements by The Baseball Writers’ Association of America.  The 21-year-old shortstop has already made his impact on major league baseball and appears to be poised among its stars for years to come.

However, Corey Seager is not the only one from his family who’s currently making an impact at the big league level.  His older brother, Kyle, is the third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, and together they form one of the best big league brother combos in recent years.  Kyle just completed his sixth major league season and was an All-Star selection in 2014, but doesn’t get much notoriety because he’s played on a non-contending team in a relatively small market.  In 2016, Kyle posted 30 home runs and 99 RBI, while hitting for a .278 average.  He has averaged 21 home runs per year.

Corey put up some impressive numbers in his first full major league season in 2016, in which he also finished third in the National League’s MVP voting.  He slammed 26 home runs while driving in 72 runs.  A left-handed hitter, Seager posted a slash line of .365/.512/.877 for on-base/slugging/on-base-plus-slugging percentages.  He was a key factor in the Dodgers’ claiming the National League West Division title this year.

Among other current brothers who have seen big league action are Oswaldo and Orlando Arcia, Gavin and Garin Cecchini, John and Jordan Danks, Travis and Chase d’Arnaud, Tyler and Erik Goeddel, Caleb and Corban Joseph, Donovan and Jhonatan Solano, Austin and Andrew Romine, Joe and Tyson Ross, Justin and Melvin Upton, Patrick and Chris Valaika, and Rickie and Jemile Weeks.

Looking back in baseball history, some of the more notable major league brother include names like DiMaggio, Boyer, Alou, Alomar, Brett, Hairston, Molina, Niekro, and Perry.

Of course, Joe was the most famous of the DiMaggio brothers, since he was major star with the New York Yankees in the 1930s and 1940s.  However, his brothers Dominic and Vince also had All-Star seasons.  Ken and Clete Boyer were contemporary third basemen and competed against each other in the 1964 World Series.

Brothers Matty, Jesus, and Felipe Alou actually played in the same outfield for the San Francisco Giants in 1963.  They are the only trio of brothers in baseball history to each compile over 1,000 hits in their careers.  Brothers Jose, Bengie, and Yadier Molina were all major league catchers, and each of them plyed for a World Series championship team.

Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston were the major league sons of Jerry Hairston Sr., who also had a brother, John, who played in the majors.  The Hairstons are only one of four three-generation baseball families to ever play major league baseball.

Joe and Phil Niekro won more games (539) than any other brother combination in major league history, followed by Gaylord and Jim Perry (529).

Corey and Kyle Seager have another brother, Justin, who is in his fourth season of professional baseball.  To date, the 24-year-old brother has struggled offensively at the Class A level and doesn’t appear to be on a solid path yet to join his brothers in the majors.

Baseball is in good hands for years to come with the likes of the Seagers, who join other young stars such as Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Gary Sanchez, Addison Russell, and Matt Harvey, as the latest stars of the game.

5 Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

For some baseball fans, the baseball season ended with the last out of Game 7 of the World Series.  Cubs fans will particularly take time to savor the offseason with their team’s dramatic win over the Cleveland Indians.  They waited 108 years for a World Series title and figure they can take a few months off before starting to think about the 2017 season.

However, for other die-hard fans the season never ends--it just rolls into the next, particularly for those whose teams didn’t fare so well during this past campaign and are already anxiously looking forward to the next season.

As the Hot Stove season gets under way, major league teams are looking for value at a reasonable price as they try to re-shape their rosters.  Some will be looking for the premier player who can make a speedy impact, at whatever cost in dollars or prospects, to help put them into immediate contention for a playoff berth.  Teams who were on the fringe of making the playoffs in 2016 are trying to decide whether their current rosters are close enough to make a run at the playoffs in 2017, or will require fundamental roster changes to be able to effectively compete a few years later.

Here are my top five topics for the offseason.

1.  Will the Cubs repeat in 2017?

Prognosticators are already making the Chicago Cubs the favorites for next year.  We know they can, but will they?  After all, no team has won back-to-back World Series since the 1999-2000 New York Yankees.

The consensus among baseball analysts is that the Cubs are built for the long-term.  They have a core of position players who will be under contract control for the next 4-5 years.  Their current starting pitching staff, comprised of veteran players, will remain intact because they are also under control for the next couple of years.

The Cubs stand to lose ace reliever Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Dexter Fowler in free agency.  It could be argued that Chapman’s acquisition at the July trade deadline last year was the move that cinched their chances for a World Series title.  The Cubs would serve themselves well by re-signing Chapman.  Otherwise, they need to go after Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon, other top relievers on the market.

The Cubs have a crowded outfield with their young prospects, but not necessarily ones who can replace Fowler, one of the better leadoff batters in the league.  The Cubs need to answer where slugger Kyle Schwarber fits in the makeup of lineup and whether under-performing outfielder Jacob Heyward continues to be part of the starting lineup, even though they paid dearly to get him for the 2016 season.

If the Cubs decide to replace Fowler or Chapman outside of free agency, they have a bevy of minor-league prospects and young major leaguers to offer in a trade.  But don’t be surprised if Schwarber, one of the unexpected heroes of the World Series, is one of those young players.

The Cubs’ strongest competition will likely come from the St. Louis Cardinals within their division.  The Cards missed the playoffs this year for the first time in six seasons.  But expect them to bounce back in 2017, since they have a solidly built organization that largely refreshes itself from within its strong player development system.  2016 playoff teams, including the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Los Angeles Dodgers, should continue to compete for the pennant, as well as the San Francisco Giants.

2.  Who’s going to replace Big Papi in the Red Sox lineup?

In reality, no one will ever replace the beloved Ortiz, who retired at the end of the season.  He’s right up there with Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski as being among the all-time great Red Sox players.

David Ortiz served the Red Sox well for fourteen season as a feared designated hitter who delivered seemingly countless wins with his clutch hitting.  What are the Red Sox thinking about in replacing him?

There are several “big bopper” sluggers on the free agent market, including Blue Jays hitters Jose Batista and Edwin Encarnacion, the Orioles’ Mark Trumbo, and the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes.  However, none of them are left-handed hitters like Ortiz, and each of them would come at a relatively steep price.  The Red Sox had Cespedes for part of the 2014 season and decided not to re-sign him after that season.  Would they take another shot at him?  Bautista may be on the down-side of this career at 36 years of age.  With Trumbo, who led the American League with 47 home runs in 2016, you also get a lot of strikeouts.  Encarnacion is probably the most attractive of these candidates as Big Papi’s replacement.

Another approach is to move first baseman Hanley Ramirez to the DH spot.  Ramirez had a spectacular comeback season this year, and first base is not his natural position anyway.  So finding a replacement for Ramirez at first base might be easier than acquiring a DH of the caliber of Ortiz.

3.  How will teams upgrade their starting pitching staffs with the shortage of top-flight starters available through free agency?

Good pitchers are always in demand and major league clubs are always looking to upgrade their staffs.  However, those clubs in the hunt for new pitchers this offseason won’t find many candidates on the free agent market.

Jeremy Hellickson and Rich Hill are among the few veteran pitchers who will be on the free agent market, but they are not exactly top of the rotation type of pitchers that many teams can use.

Therefore, general managers will need to be really creative in putting together deals to acquire top-of-the-line starters, but those deals will cost some of their top prospects.  Some clubs will resort to data analytics to identify quality pitchers who are on the cusp of making a breakthrough, but won’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg to acquire.

The teams most in need of starting pitcher upgrades, in order to stay relevant in the playoff picture, include the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Houston Astros.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who are several years away from being one of those contending teams, have a history of developing solid, young pitchers.  The Rays are thought to be ready to part with some of them, as they look to add more offense to their roster.  Chris Archer would be the prize among those Rays’ arms.  If all of the New York Mets’ young guns are expected to be healthy for 2017, they could put one or more of them on the market to also fill some gaps in their roster.

4.  Are the Dodgers trying to win a World Series or they satisfied with just being a perennial playoff team?

For the past four seasons, the Dodgers have won the National League West Division, as well as in six of the last nine seasons.  But they seem to come up short in making the big step to the Fall Classic.  They haven’t made a World Series appearance since 1988.

The Dodgers always seem to be a few players short of being able to take them to the top.  This season they lacked middle relief pitchers and needed another big bat in the lineup.

They have the resources to re-make their roster without a complete overhaul like the Cubs and Astros have done in recent years.  It begs the question of whether the Dodgers ownership and front office management are satisfied with just getting to the big dance, but not necessarily taking home the trophy as the best dancer.  Certainly, they have the financial resources to go out and get the talent they need to win National League pennants.

So what do the Dodgers need to do over the winter?  They almost certainly face the prospect of losing third baseman Justin Turner, pitcher Rich Hill, and closer Kenley Jansen, who are all eligible for free agency.  They are not deep in those positions and thus need to retain them or find suitable replacements.  The Dodgers need a long-term solution at second base.  Current second baseman Chase Utley could be a good utility player for them, but lacks the bat as a starter to help the club.  They desperately need a formidable power hitter to augment Corey Seager, one of the best young hitters in the game.  The Dodgers made some bad decisions with pitchers Brandon Mc McCarthy and Brett Anderson and should just move on without them.  They should cut bait with controversial outfielder Yasiel Puig as well.

5. Is the Yankees’ new catcher Gary Sanchez for real?

Sanchez amazed the baseball world last season by hitting 20 home runs and 42 RBI in only 53 games, following his August 3rd call-up by the Yankees.

Is he a temporary flash in the pan, like Joe Charboneau of the Cleveland Indians in 1980, or is he a legitimate upcoming star, like a Bryce Harper or Mike Trout?  Once Sanchez plays a full season, will pitchers catch on to him and learn how to exploit his weaknesses?  How will he hold up under the stress of a full 162-game schedule?

The Yankees avoided the temptation to rush the 23-year-old Sanchez to the majors, as he has been on their top prospects list for the last five years.  The wait initially appears to have paid off.  He’s part of a youth movement by the Yankees to restore the team to its winning ways of the past.  He and his young teammates are being called the “Baby Bombers,” as a take-off of the historic Bronx Bombers of the 1920s and 1930s.

Yankees fans are hoping Sanchez will be in the mold of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada, the long line of stellar catchers who played significant roles in the Yankees franchise’s 27 World Championships.

The player trade and free agency frenzy has already started (ageless pitcher Bartolo Colon was signed by the Atlanta Braves) and will reach its crescendo during the upcoming winter baseball meeting and the few weeks following it.  If last year is any indicator, hold on to your seats.

 


 

 

Kluber's Bid for Third Win in the World Series Was a Long Shot

Before the World Series started, Cleveland Indians’ manager Terry Francona had announced he would start his ace pitcher Corey Kluber three times if the Series went the full seven games.  It was a tall order for the 30-year-old right-hander, since it meant he would have only three days’ rest between his second and third starts.  The last time a pitcher drew three starts in a World Series was in 2001, when Curt Schilling took the hill for the Arizona Diamondbacks against the New York Yankees.

Francona’s decision about Kluber was driven by the fact his pitching staff was without two of his regular starters, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, during the post-season due to injuries suffered during the regular season.  Francona managed to avoid the shortage problem, when the Indians surprisingly swept Boston in three games in the division championship series and then handily defeated Toronto in five games in the league championship.

The American League Cy Young Award winner in 2014, Kluber led all Indians’ pitchers with 18 wins during the 2016 regular season, helping the Indians to their first Central Division title since 2007.  Then in his first-ever post-season start, he won Game 2 of the ALDS by tossing seven scoreless innings against a good Red Sox team.  He drew the starting assignment in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays and turned in another gem with 6 1/3 scoreless innings to capture the win.  However, in his ALCS Game 4 start, Kluber took the loss by giving up two runs in five innings, as the Blue Jays won their only game of the series, 7-1.

Kluber got the starting nod in Game 1 of the World Series against the Cubs, which the Indians won, 6-0.  He responded with a six scoreless innings that included nine strikeouts, eight in the first three innings, which set a World Series record.  Despite his outstanding performance through six innings, Francona replaced Kluber with reliever Andrew Miller, thereby saving more pitches for Game4.

With the Indians ahead in the Series, 2-1, Kluber started Game 4 on three days’ rest and turned in another sterling performance.  He picked up his second win of the Series, yielding only one run in six innings pitched and striking out six batters.  Kluber kept the Indians hitters off-balance with his wide variety of pitches.  Kluber’s victory gave the Indians a commanding 3-games-to-1 lead over the favored Cubs.

However, the resilient Cubs resurrected themselves with wins in Game 5 and 6, creating their third consecutive winner-take-all scenario in Game 7.

Francona indeed followed his script of needing to use Kluber for three games.  With his start in Game 7, Kluber was chasing individual World Series immortality, as the Indians team was chasing its first World Series championship since 1948.

Fatigue and familiarity became Kluber’s adversaries in Game 7.  Pitching again with only three days’ rest, he wasn’t as sharp as he was in his two previous games.  Plus, the Cubs’ batters finally adjusted to his breaking pitches.  Perhaps Dexter Fowler’s leadoff home run in the top of the first inning portended the trouble he would he would run into.  Kluber wound up giving up four earned runs, including another solo home run in the top of the fifth inning, after which he exited the game for reliever Andrew Miller.  The Indians eventually tied up the game in the eighth inning, getting Kluber off the hook for a losing decision, but eventually the lost the deciding game in the tenth inning.

The last pitcher to start and win three World Series games was Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers in   1968.  Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals had accomplished the feat the year before.  Remarkably, both of them pitched three complete games in those Series.

Since the league division series was instituted by Major League Baseball in 1969, only two pitchers, in addition to Schilling, have started three games in a World Series—Luis Tiant in 1975 and Bruce Hurst in 1986.

In 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson was the last pitcher to win three games in a World Series, although his third win came through an heroic relief appearance in Game 7 after getting starts in Games 2 and 6.

Kluber really can’t be faulted for his failure to put away the Cubs for a third time in the Series.  In some respects, Francona didn’t put him in a position to be successful in the final game.  However, it was Francona’s best option, and he was hoping his ace could pull off a rare hat trick on the baseball diamond.

Was this the Greatest World Series Ever?

“Greatest ever” is an often over-used label applied to today’s sports teams, athletes, games and individual plays.  In the post-game chatter following Wednesday night’s World Series finale, that label was getting bandied about to describe the Chicago Cubs’ defeat of the Cleveland Indians in the Fall Classic.  In this case, there was good reason.  Both franchises certainly had a lot at stake, trying to break long streaks of having not won a World Series.  The historical background of the event and the drama that unfolded over the seven games were indeed worthy of putting this World Series among the best, if not the absolute best, ever played.

Prior to this year, one could argue the greatest World Series was the 1991 Minnesota Twins victory over the Atlanta Braves, when it came down to a similar Game 7 extra-inning game.  The 1961 Pittsburgh Pirates’ improbable win over the New York Yankees, with Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning grand slam in Game 7, also certainly ranks at the top of many fans’ list of greatest World Series.  And there are a few others.

What this Series had going for it was the matchup of two teams that had the longest stretches since their last World Series championships--the Cubs hadn’t won since 1908 and the Indians hadn’t prevailed since 1948.  Long-suffering fans of both teams were desperate for wins.  The legendary Cubs’ “curses” involving a billy goat, a black cat, and Cubs fan Steve Bartman were still on the minds of many of those fans.

The Cubs were favored to win the World Series, since they were in first place practically the entire season and wound up with the best record in all of baseball; plus they had defeated two formidable teams, the Giants and the Dodgers, to punch their World Series ticket.  The Indians had surprised everyone by getting past the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in relatively easy fashion in the preceding playoff series.  It appeared as though a Hollywood script was being played out for the Cubs to finally break the supposed curses that had superficially plagued them since 1945.

When the Indians jumped to a 3-1 lead over the Cubs after four games, they appeared to be poised to finally get their championship and keep the Cubs’ curses Cubs alive for at least another year.  But the Cubbies fought back to even the Series in Games 5 and 6.

Game 7 turned out to be a thriller late in the game, which was interrupted by a 17-minute rain delay after a 6-6 tie in the ninth inning but then ended in the tenth.

Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber started his third game in the Series as part of a plan outlined by Manager Terry Francona to compensate for his shortage of healthy starting pitchers.  Kluber won his first two outings with masterful performances, but his fatigue and familiarity by Cubs hitters caused him to exit the game with no outs in the fifth inning after giving up four runs.

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks was yanked by Manager Joe Maddon with two outs in the fifth inning, leading 5-2.

Throughout the Series, both managers had been quick to pull their starters (none of them had pitched beyond six innings), going to their bullpens earlier than normal in regular-season games.  But in this game, that strategy didn’t work too well.

The Indians tied the game at 6-6 with three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning off of Cubs reliever Aroldis Chapman, who had been their shut-down reliever in Games 2, 5, and 6.  Fans were beginning to wonder if Chapman would be the cause of the Cubs’ next disastrous curse.

After a scoreless 9th inning, the game was halted due to rain.  Ironically, it was Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward who called his teammates together during the break in the game to get them re-focused, since Heyward had been benched by Maddon in earlier Series games because he was struggling at the plate.

The Cubs rebounded with two runs in the top of the 10th and the Indians were able to respond with only a single run in the bottom of the inning, thus ending the game, 8-7.

The Cubs had an improbable task to bounce back from a 3-1 deficit to capture the World Series.  They were the first team since the Kansas City Royals in 1985 to do so.  Perhaps it was destiny that the Cubs would win their first championship in 108 years, since there are (can you believe it?) 108 double-stitches on a major-league baseball.

What does the future hold for the Cubs?  The core of young Cubs players will likely be intact for the next four to five years because they are early in their contract terms. In years past, the renowned infield of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance was representative of the early Cubs teams that made four World Series appearances in early 1900s.  Now, they’ve been supplanted by this year’s infield combo of Bryant and Russell-to-Baez-to-Rizzo.  The Cubs don’t appear to be just a one-year wonder.  In fact, they have already been predicted as the favorite to represent the National League in the 2017 World Series.

Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, is the brilliant architect of this team.  As a 27-year-old general manager of the Boston Red Sox, he built a club that broke the Red Sox’s “Curse of the Bambino” by winning the 2004 World Series.  (Babe Ruth was unpopularly sold to the New York Yankees after helping the Red Sox win the World Series in 1918.)  When Epstein left Boston for Chicago after the 2011 season, he went on a mission to repeat his success on the North Side of Chicago.  He developed a blueprint for executing a complete make-over of the roster over the next few years that included signing his own bevy of draft picks and a few choice free agents.  The rebuilt team came together in 2015, making the playoffs and positioning themselves for a run at the division title this year.  Consequently, Epstein has now appropriately gained a reputation as the “curse breaker.”

The Cubs had become known as “lovable losers” over the years due to their inability to get back to a World Series.  The Cubs’ long-awaited victory is a lifetime memorable event.  Their fans are now able to cross off an item on their bucket list—to see the Cubs finally win a World Series.  Now, there should be no more apprehension about billy goats and black cats.  And even Steve Bartman, the object of the Cubs’ curse in 2003 when he interfered with a Cubs outfielder’s attempt to catch a flyball in the stands during the playoffs, should now be off the hook with the Cubs franchise.

The Indians should be celebrated for their season as well.  They weren’t expected to win in the playoffs, much less make a World Series appearance.  Terry Francona, who produced two World Series titles with Epstein in Boston, probably earned himself an eventual place in the Baseball Hall of Fame even though his team didn’t win this Series.  However, the Indians’ World Series drought still remains.  Let’s hope their 69 years doesn’t turn into 108.

Was this greatest ever World Series?  Probably so, even if only because of its historical significance.  But the games offered some interesting strategies and individual performances that kept fans tuned in throughout the Series.  In any case, the Flying W flag can stay hoisted until the start of next season.  For now, there’s joy in Wrigleyville.

Everybody is a Cubs Fan Now

Chicago Cubs fans are noted for being among the most loyal in baseball.  The true die-hards have to be admired for sticking with the club despite not experiencing a championship team in over a hundred years.

But now the Cubs’ pursuit of a World Series title has brought still more fans out of the woodwork. People who don’t even follow baseball at all, much less a specific team, are now pulling for the Cubbies to win their first World Series title since 1908.  But that’s okay--this is great for major league baseball.

The Cubs ended the regular season with the best record in baseball this year, winning 103 games and beating their closest division rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, by 17 ½ games.  Most of these fair-weather fans were oblivious to that finish, until the Cubs starting winning games in the playoffs.

A case in point.  My wife can’t be classified as a baseball fan, although she will occasionally watch baseball games on TV with me and has accompanied me to numerous live baseball games.  Once she even weathered six games in four days with me at Spring Training in Florida few years ago.  But she doesn’t normally claim a favorite major league team and couldn’t have named one player on the Cubs roster before the playoffs.  But all of a sudden now, she’s interested in how the Cubs are doing on a daily basis.  She’s now familiar with names like Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant, Andrew Miller, and the latest headliner, Kyle Schwarber.

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a bunch more people like my wife who have jumped on the Cubs bandwagon since the playoffs started.  It’s cool to be a Cubs fan right now.  Everybody likes to pull for the team trying to rise to the top.

Certainly, you would expect the people in Chicago to be fervent Cubs fans.  The Wrigley Field experience is like no other in baseball, except maybe Fenway Park in Boston.  In recent years the Blackhawks are the only sports team in the city that’s experienced a championship.  The other pro teams in Chi-town haven’t had much success.  The Bears haven’t practically had a good team since Mike Ditka was “Da Coach,” and Michael Jordan has been long gone from the Bulls.  There’s some competition from the White Sox on Chicago’s South Side, but not really.  So the Cubs’ resurgence in the last couple of years has the city clamoring to see all the curses broken that have supposedly plagued the Cubs.

Back in the early days of cable TV, the Chicago Cubs gained a national following even though they were mostly a mediocre team.  All 162 of the Cubs’ games were broadcast each season by superstation WGN which became one of the favorite channels in countless households across the country back then.  A lot of kids grew up on Cubs baseball with Harry Caray as its broadcaster.  Now, a lot of those kids are adults who remember the lean years and are anxious to finally be rewarded for their loyalty during all those lean seasons.

Cubs followers are witnessing something their parents and grandparents were never fortunate enough to see during their lifetimes.  The ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field turns red in October, but most Cubs fans don’t know that because the Cubs have rarely played in October.

Perhaps the Cubs’ success and attention this season, even if they don’t win the World Series, will keep some of their new-found fans for years to come.  And there’ll be even more people singing the popular “Go, Cubs, Go.”

Teen-Ager Ken Brett's Improbable Emergence in the 1967 World Series

Twenty-year-old Los Angeles Dodger Julio Urias made history last week by becoming the youngest pitcher to start a post-season game.  The Dodgers hurler, who made his major-league debut in 2015, didn’t get past the fourth inning against his Chicago Cubs opponent, but it was still nonetheless a significant event for such a young, relatively inexperienced player.

Turning the calendar back almost fifty years, another young stud pitcher had an improbable post-season appearance.  Ken Brett of the Boston Red Sox made two relief appearances in the 1967 World Series, when it was only 21 days after he had turned 19-years-old.  He had made his regular season major-league debut only eleven days earlier.  Most young, aspiring baseball players are still dreaming of being successful in professional baseball, much less actually playing in baseball’s biggest showcase.

Brett was a first-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1966, shortly after his graduation from high school.  He was called up by the Red Sox in September 1967 after winning 14 games and posting a 1.95 ERA in the minors.  A hard-throwing left-hander, he impressed veteran major leaguers who compared him to established fire-ballers of the day such as Sandy Koufax and Sam McDowell.  Brett made his major league debut on September 27 when he pitched two innings against the Cleveland Indians.

When Brett joined the Red Sox in 1967, they were embroiled in one of the most exciting pennant races ever.  They wound up beating out Detroit and Minnesota by one game to win the American League title, but Brett hadn’t initially been expected to be on the World Series roster.  However, a spot opened up for Brett when a late-season arm injury sidelined Sparky Lyle, and Bill Landis was called up for military service.

The Red Sox faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, a repeat match of the two teams in 1946.  With the Cardinals leading the Series 2-1, Brett saw his first action in Game Four, becoming the youngest pitcher to ever make a World Series appearance.  The Cardinals were holding a decisive 6-0 lead, when Brett entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning, as the fifth Red Sox pitcher of the game.  He allowed only one baserunner in retiring the Cardinals with no runs.

The Red Sox evened the Series with victories in the next two games, setting up a showdown in Game Seven.  However, the Cardinals took an early lead they never relinquished.  Brett got another appearance in the ninth inning when he came into the game with the bases loaded and two outs and induced a groundout to end the inning.

Brett appeared to be headed for a promising major-league career.  However, two weeks after the Series, he began a six-month tour of duty in the Army, as the Vietnam War was well underway.  When he returned to baseball following his military service in 1968, he injured his elbow, perhaps trying to come back too soon after his layoff.  The injury plagued him for the rest of his career.

He never did reach his full potential, even though he played in fourteen major-league seasons.  He finished his career with an 83-85 won-lost record and 3.93 ERA in 349 games.  He wound up playing for ten different major-league teams, with his best season coming in 1974 with Pittsburgh when he was selected for the National League All-Star Team.  Brett retired from baseball in 1981 at age 32.

Ken Brett was the older brother of George Brett, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Kansas City Royals from 1973 to 1993.  They had two brothers, John and Bobby, who played briefly in the minor leagues.

Here are a few more World Series trivia items regarding players’ ages.  The youngest player ever to appear in a World Series was third baseman Freddie Lindstrom, who was 18 years, 10 months and 13 days, in 1924 with the New York Giants.  Andruw Jones was the Atlanta Braves’ starting centerfielder in the 1996 World Series at 19 years, 5 month, and 28 days.  He batted .400 and hit two home runs in his first Series.  Don Gullett was slightly older (19 years, 6 months, and 2 days) than Brett when he made his first of three World Series relief appearances in 1970 with the Cincinnati Reds.

Boo Ferriss Captured Nation's Attention as Red Sox Rookie in 1945

I’ve previously written about some of the accomplishments of Dave “Boo” Ferriss as the “phenom” pitcher who won 21 games for the Boston Red Sox in 1945.  He turned in another sensational season in 1946, when he won 25 games in helping the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series since 1918.  His debut in the big-leagues back then would be analogous to the initial seasons of current-day major-league stars like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Jose Fernandez, and Matt Harvey.  Unfortunately, Ferriss’s major league career was cut short due to an arm injury suffered in 1947.

Ferriss is a native of Shaw, MS, and most Mississippians know him as the legendary coach of Delta State University (Cleveland, MS) whose teams won over 650 games.  He is a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and the Ferriss Trophy, named in his honor, is awarded each year to the top college baseball player in Mississippi.

And while many also know that Ferriss was a former major-league pitcher, they may not be aware of the impact the 23-year-old ex-G. I. had on the baseball world when he emerged to play for the Red Sox in 1945.

As part of the Games Project of Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), I researched and authored accounts of Ferriss’s historic first eight games at the start of his major league career.  Each of the articles has now been published on SABR’s website and can be viewed at http://sabr.org/author/richard-cuicchi.

When doing the background work to prepare for writing the SABR game accounts, I found some really interesting tidbits about Ferriss’s first season, illustrating that he truly became a national sensation.

  • Ferriss literally came out of nowhere when he joined the Red Sox in April 1945.  Before his call-up, his professional baseball career had consisted of only 130 inning in the Class B minors in 1942.  When he was discharged from the Army Air Corp in February 1945 due to an asthma condition, he was expected to return to the minors to resume his baseball career.  But after the Red Sox lost their first eight games of the season, his minor-league manager recommended the Red Sox take a serious look at him.

 

  • Remarkably, Ferriss won the first eight starts of his career.  His winning streak included 22 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, then an American League record.  He hurled eight complete games, including four shutouts.  His sixth start was a splendid one-hitter, but then he yielded a whopping 14 hits in his eighth start.  When later major leaguers such as Fernando Valenzeula in the 1980s and Josh Beckett in the 2000s were approaching extended consecutive win performances, Ferriss’s name would come up as having set the bar in the 1945.  He was relevant then and is still relevant seventy years later.

 

  • In addition to his pitching heroics, Ferriss was pretty adept at hitting, too.  He got three hits in his first game, setting the stage for Red Sox manager Joe Cronin to frequently use him as a pinch-hitter when he wasn’t pitching.  Including his eight pinch-hit appearances, Ferriss sported a .419 batting average after he won that eighth game.  The Boston newspapers started comparing him to another former Red Sox pitcher who also hit pretty well—Babe Ruth.

 

 

  • Ferriss pitched right-handed, but batted left-handed.  However, he was also ambidextrous, having actually played semi-pro baseball games throwing with both hands.  He would often be seen working out at first base before Red Sox games as a left-hander, but he never did pitch in the majors as a left-hander.  When the major league all-star teams were being formed in 1945, one sportswriter suggested Ferriss be selected so that he could pitch three innings as a right-hander, play first base left-handed for three innings, and then play three innings in the outfield, a position he played while in the service.

 

 

  • Because of Ferriss’s popularity, the Boston newspapers frequently recorded much of his activities on and off the field.  One of the articles about him featured “a day in the life” of Ferriss that even included a photo of him arising from sleep at his boarding house room.  He was often the subject of baseball cartoons and caricatures that were used by the newspapers to depict Red Sox game results.

 

 

  • Although it’s not likely he had an agent then, Ferriss did his share of endorsements.  He could be seen in printed advertisements for Wheaties cereal, Gillette razor blades, Hood’s ice cream, Tip-Top bread, Chesterfield cigarettes, and Raytheon air humidifiers.  I’m not sure that current Red Sox superstar, David “Big Papi” Ortiz, could even match that wide array of product endorsements in today’s marketing world.

 

 

  • Some baseball pundits thought Ferriss’s improbable start of his career was a fluke, surmising that he was beating second-rate teams filled with replacement players, since most of the regular baseball players were still serving in World War II in 1945.  Ferriss proved the critics wrong when he won 25 games in 1946, when all the major league teams’ rosters were restored.

Those people fortunate enough to be able to talk to Ferriss about his playing career know he never considered himself as one of the stars of the Red Sox.  He usually refers to his Red Sox teammates that had more substantial careers--players like Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr-- as the “big guys,” but he never includes himself in that distinguished group.  That reflects the humbleness that is just one of the trademarks of his high personal character for which he became so well-known over the years.

But you can bet, for his first couple of seasons with the Red Sox, in the eyes of baseball fans back then, Ferriss was indeed one of the “big guys.”

It Must Be the Post-Season - Madbum is Putting Up Zeroes Again

Madison Bumgarner did it again.  The left-handed pitcher hurled a complete-game shutout last Tuesday against the New York Mets to win the National League wild-card game, helping the San Francisco Giants advance further into the playoffs.  He’s making a habit of this.

This “habit” involves pitching scoreless innings in critical, winner-take-all games for the Giants.  With Tuesday’s outing, the 27-year-old has now thrown 23 consecutive innings without giving up a run in post-season games that had implications for winning or going home a loser.  His streak started back in 2014, when he threw a 4-hit shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game.  Then after winning Games 1 and 5 (with another shutout) against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, he came back on only two days’ rest  to finish Game 7 with five scoreless innings in relief, leading the Giants to their third World Series in five years.

Altogether, he has a total of six post-season starts without allowing a run, tying him with Tom Glavine for the most in a post-season career.  Among those starts, he has thrown three complete-game shutouts, putting him in the rare company of Mordecai Brown, Whitey Ford, and Josh Beckett as major-league pitchers to have accomplished this.  They are surpassed only by Christy Mathewson, who posted four shutouts.

Consequently, Bumgarner’s career to date could convincingly be defined solely by his post-season performances.  Including his victory last week against the Mets, he has a won-lost record of 8-3 and 1.94 ERA in 15 post-season appearances, while helping the Giants to three World Series championships and possibly a fourth this year.  His post-season performance can be compared to Curt Schilling, who gets serious Hall of Fame consideration largely because of his superior results in that part of his career.

At 6-feet-5 and 250 pounds, the country-boy from North Carolina is a “Paul Bunyan” among today’s pitchers.  He has an intimidation factor that is reminiscent of former Hall of Fame pitchers Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson.  Bumgarner’s not afraid to stare down opposing players and apparently even umpires.  The fiery Bumgarner had an epic episode with home plate umpire Joe West in late September that lasted almost twenty seconds over a controversial call of balls and strikes.  No one else could get away with that without getting tossed from the game.

Bumgarner has a couple of contemporaries, Clayton Kershaw and David Price, who are often described as being among the elite pitchers in the game today.  Their regular season accomplishments are indeed outstanding, but their post-season performances in big games are pale compared to Bumgarner’s.

Madbum is next expected to face the Chicago Cubs in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.  He will have a tall order to repeat his recent wild-card performance against a potent Cubs offense.  But if he is successful and the Giants are still in the hunt for a series win, you can bet Bumgarner will make himself available again in a potential Game 4 or 5.  That’s just what he does, and he does it pretty darn well.

Red Sox vs. Cubs: A Dream World Series in the Making

Red Sox vs. Cubs.  Now that would be a dream matchup for Major League Baseball’s World Series this year.

They have two of the most storied franchises in baseball history.  Both have had long droughts for championship seasons in their past, although the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino and have made a dramatic turnaround in the past dozen years with three World Series championships.  Now the Cubs are on the verge of making a similar turnaround, looking to break their own Curse of the Billy Goat.

The Cubs finished the regular season with the most wins in the major leagues, 103.  They handily won the National League Central Division by 17 1/2 games over the St. Louis Cardinals for their first division title since 2008.

The Red Sox had a tougher time winning the American League East Division.  They were in a scuffle with the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles practically all season, finally finishing four games ahead of them.  The Red Sox won eleven consecutive games in the middle-to-end of September that were crucial to keeping them in first place.  However, during the past five seasons, it’s been feast or famine for the Red Sox, with last-place finishes in 2012, 2014, and 2015 and first-place finishes in 2013 and now in 2016.

After so many years of being ridiculed by the baseball world for its losing ways, the Chicago Cubs have finally turned around their fortunes such that they are favored to win the National League pennant and advance to the World Series this year.  The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1909, and their last World Series occurred in 1945 when they lost to the Detroit Tigers.  The ill-famed Curse of the Billy Goat began during that Series when a Chicago tavern owner attending a Series game with a billy goat was asked to remove the animal from the game because of its odor.  Upon his exit from the stadium, the tavern owner allegedly declared the Cubs would never win any more.

Until about a dozen years ago the Boston Red Sox were in a similar situation as the Cubs.  While they had won American League pennants in 1945, 1967 and 1975, their last World Series win occurred in 1918.  That happened to be the last year Babe Ruth played for the Red Sox, with whom he helped win three World Series, before he was unpopularly sold by the Red Sox to the rival New York Yankees prior to the 1919 season.  Boston fans believed that sale put a wicked curse on the team.

Theo Epstein is given credit for architecting the Red Sox club that won its first World Series in 2004 after an 86-year drought.  The front-office executive has been with the Cubs since 2012, when he completely dismantled the club and re-built it into the contender they are today.  In the meantime, Cubs fans suffered through three last-place finishes in their division, in addition to two more prior to Epstein’s arrival.

Epstein has the Cubs now where the Red Sox were in 2004.  They finally seem to be poised with winning teams for several years to come.  Some observers say that if the Cubs were to win a World Series under Epstein’s leadership, he would get an automatic election into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, for having turned around both of the once-dismal franchises.

The Red Sox and Cubs both enjoy a nice mixture of veterans and younger players.  But it is clear in both cases their youth has put them in position to be contenders for a World Series championship this season, as well as having them poised to continue their winning ways for years to come.

The Red Sox have an American League MVP candidate in 23-year-old outfielder Mookie Betts, currently in only his second full season at the major-league level.  He’s already a complete player with the bat, on the bases, and in the field.  Betts is complemented by a cadre of other exciting young position players in Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, Brock Holt, and Travis Shaw.  Of course, the backbone of the squad is still their clubhouse leaders and team favorites, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.  The 40-years-old Ortiz is still knocking the ball around like his younger teammates.  Pedroia is still the gritty player he was since he was Rookie of the Year in 2007.

The Cubs have their own upstart MVP candidate in the National League in third baseman Kris Bryant, who is playing in only his second major-league season.  His biggest rival for the MVP honors may be his own teammate, Anthony Rizzo.  Both have similar offensive numbers with 30+ home runs, 100+ RBI, and batting averages over .290.  The Cubs also have their own core of young players, around which the team has been architected by Epstein, including Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Wilson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber, who’s actually missed this season due to injury.

The Red Sox reckon they will have to get past the Texas Rangers in the American League to claim a World Series berth.  The Rangers have been in first-place in the AL West Division since May 29.  They added veterans Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Lucroy, and Carlos Gomez at the trade deadline to solidify its offense.  The Rangers will have home-field advantage through the playoffs, because they have the best overall record in the league.

The Cubs’ stiffest competition in the National League playoffs will likely come from the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants.  The Dodgers managed to survive without its ace Clayton Kershaw during July and August, but he appears to be at full strength now.  Starting pitcher Kenta Maeda did a credible job in the Number 1 slot in the rotation while Kershaw was out.  The Dodgers are led on offense by NL Rookie of the Year shoo-in Corey Seager.  Since this is an even-numbered year the Giants can’t be discarded easily, as they have won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014.

If the Cubs and Red Sox can indeed get to the World Series, it will make for a great media event.  TV ratings figure to be off the chart.  It seems like everyone is a Cubs fan, now that they are a contending team again.  Red Sox Nation is as strong as ever.  In Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, the two oldest major-league stadiums, there couldn’t be any better venues for the games.

There will be several other interesting background stories to the Series.  Big Papi, who announced his retirement after the 2016 season, will have his last hurrah extended.  Cub players Jon Lester and David Ross will face their former Red Sox teammates with whom they won the World Series in 2013.  Cubs manager Joe Maddon will only add to his “cult following” through a World Series appearance with the Cubs.

It’s practically a certainty there will be a lot of excitement and drama if these two teams do, in fact, make it to the World Series.  I, for one, would love to see it happen.

Yankee Fans Have Good Reason to be Excited about Gary Sanchez

If someone had told you before the season had started that a major-league catcher would hit 20 homes and bat over .300 for the season, you’d probably say that would make for a pretty good season, probably even worthy of an All-Star selection.

Incredibly, Gary Sanchez, the rising rookie star of the New York Yankees, currently has 19 home runs, 38 RBI and is batting .330, but he’s done that in only 46 games through games of September 24.  There hasn’t been a start like that for a rookie position player in quite some time.

Sanchez was brought up to the major-league team on August 3, at about the same time the Yankees unloaded its top players in relief pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and its top slugger, Carlos Beltran at the major-league trade deadline. The team received a slew of top prospects in return, who heavily figure to be in their future plans.  Not too long after, Alex Rodriguez retired.  Mark Teixera had also announced the 2016 season would be his last.  At the time, Yankees fans feared the team had cashed in its chips for the current season, not expecting to be relevant during the last two months of the season.

In many respects, Sanchez’s promotion to the big-league club, along with a few other top farm hands, was an acknowledgement that the Yankees were indeed looking to the future.  Little did they expect that Sanchez would be leading the team into the final weeks of the season, still with a mathematical chance at a wild-card berth in the post-season.  In all likelihood, the Yankees won’t get that wild-card spot, but they have indeed been relevant in the overall league standings as play winds down.  Sanchez can claim a lot of the responsibility for the situation.

Sanchez has been a top prospect for the Yankees almost since he first broke into pro baseball as a 17-year-old in 2010.  Some baseball analysts have said it has taken him longer than expected to reach the big-leagues.  And that may be partially true, but Yankee player development executives has been wise in letting him fully develop.  And the initial results occurring now are proof of that.

Brian McCann, a seven-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves and the regular catcher for the Yankees the past three seasons, recently commented that he thought Sanchez was the best catching prospect he had ever seen.  That may be a stretch, since Sanchez has yet to perform over a full season, but that’s still a lofty comment from a well-respected player like McCann.  In fact, Sanchez will be taking McCann’s job as full-time catcher for the Yankees next season.

Naturally, debate has emerged about whether Sanchez’s play in only the last two months is sufficient for his being named the Rookie of the Year in the American League.  Many feel that because he hasn’t performed over a longer time during the season, he shouldn’t be considered, as compared to rookie candidates Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers and Tyler Naquin of the Cleveland Indians. Their performances have been more representative of a broader season.  Until Sanchez began his meteoric rise in home runs, Fulmer, a pitcher who has helped keep the Tigers in contention, was the front-runner for the rookie honors.  And, indeed, he may still win it.  But if Sanchez slams a couple more home runs during the last days of the season, there’s a strong case for him to take home the trophy.

In any case, there is a precedent for a rookie performance similar to Sanchez’s resulting in a Rookie of the Year selection.  In 1959 Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants was called up on July 30 and proceeded to hit 13 home runs and 39 RBI while hitting for a .354 average.  He accomplished his feat in 59 games, and was rewarded with National League Rookie of the Year honors.

Yankee history includes a somewhat similar case to Sanchez’s, when rookie Kevin Mass hit 21 home runs in 79 games from June 29 to October 3 in 1990.  However, looking back on his extraordinary year, Maas’s accomplishment didn’t have nearly the impact on the overall Yankee team performance that season.

Yankee fans have good reason to be optimistic about its future, if Sanchez can sustain his performance next year and beyond.  The club has had a good look at some of its other rookies they brought up late in the season, such as Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin, who hit back-to-back home runs in their major-league debuts.  Judge went on to produce seven RBI in his first nine games.  The Yankees also have Greg Bird, who hit eleven home runs in 46 games as a rookie last season, but missed this season due to injury.  These guys have already acquired the nickname, “Baby Bombers,” as a take-off of the legendary Bronx Bomber teams that began in the early 1920s featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

History shows that Yankee backstops have been key to their dynasty teams.  The first was catcher Wally Schang, who contributed to three World Series beginning in 1921.  Bill Dickey was the Yankee catcher from 1929 to 1943, winning seven of eight World Series appearances.  Yogi Berra became the regular catcher in 1947 and held the job until 1960.  During that time, he was a participant in eleven World Series, winning eight of them.  Elston Howard supplanted Berra as the regular Yankee catcher in 1961 and helped the team win two of four consecutive World Series appearances.  Thurman Munson played in three Yankee World Series during the 1970s, winning two.  Most recently, Jorge Posada, one of the famed Yankee “Core Fore” of the late 1990s and 2000s, played on four World Series championship teams.

Yankee fans would like nothing more than Sanchez becoming the next in the line of elite Yankee catchers leading them to more World Series championships.

Unique Hall of Fame Experience Fulfills Personal Bucket List Item

Two weeks ago the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown launched its initial release of PASTIME (Public Archive System To Interact with the Museum Electronically).  The new system represents an enormous digitization project to make the archives of the Hall’s Museum and Library accessible to the general public through the internet.  There are currently more than three million library items, 250,000 unique photos and 40,000 three-dimensional artifacts housed at the Hall of Fame.  According to the PASTIME website, a new group of Hall of Fame materials will be accessible every two weeks.

The initial PASTIME release contains images of ten scrapbooks that Babe Ruth’s agent, Christy Walsh, kept for the legendary player.  The scrapbooks contained news clippings of the Babe’s playing days, but also had other items from his personal life, including letters, photos, and telegrams.  The Hall of Fame has hit a home run with this new capability.  Check it out at http://collection.baseballhall.org/.

I had the unique opportunity to do five days of volunteer work at the Hall of Fame last week.  It was something that had been on my bucket list for some time now, and I was finally able to arrange it with the nice folks at the Hall.  It turns out my assignment was to do some triage on thousands of digital images of HOF player photos, categorizing them into several pixel sizes, as one of the preliminary steps to eventually make them available through PASTIME.

My task was actually pretty mundane, but it did afford the unique opportunity to view photos of Hall of Famers I would have not otherwise seen.  Of course, the older the player, the older the photo was, and it was fascinating to see the older baseball uniforms and stadiums.  Most of the photos expectedly consisted of portraits, action photos or group shots of the players, but often intermixed were a number of candid, non-baseball shots of some of the players.  For example, Look Magazine did a feature on Joe DiMaggio during his playing days, and one of the photos showed DiMaggio and his young son, both dressed in full Yankee uniform and posing together as batters.  Another showed Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in goofy-looking farm-like dresses and hats munching on ears of corn.  With no caption associated with this particular photo, one can only imagine how these baseball stars got roped into that scene.

Another interesting aspect of my assignment was getting to sit in the Giamatti Research Center in the Hall of Fame while performing my work.  The center is open to the public by appointment and with the assistance of librarians allows physical access to most of the items in the Library, including books, magazines, media guides, yearbooks, record books, scrapbooks, video and audio tapes, microfilm, photos, scorecards, and ticket stubs.  The Library also maintains a file on each player who appeared in the major-leagues, which contains photos and news articles accumulated over their careers.

Most of these items are stored in temperature-controlled rooms and are handled with gloves to prevent wear, tear and deterioration.  Thus, one can understand why PASTIME is such a critical project to the Hall of Fame—to open up the Library’s artifacts to a wider audience of baseball researchers, students, and fans who won’t have to physically go to Cooperstown to view them.

While sitting in the research center, I overheard conversations from several walk-ins who came in for assistance.  Practically no question went unanswered by the center’s expert librarian/researcher during the entire week.  One of the more interesting ones was whether former New York Yankee Lou Gehrig signed his autographs left-handed or right-handed.  The librarian indeed found the answer by accessing photos of Gehrig, showing several of him signing right-handed, even though he batted and threw left-handed as a player.  In another situation, an elderly couple came in asking to see any materials the Library had about their son, who had played briefly in the major-leagues.  It turned out there wasn’t much information in his player file maintained by the Library, to which the mother then good-humoredly remarked, “I guess our son won’t have an induction plaque in the Hall any time soon.”

All of the exhibits in the Hall of Fame are truly impressive.  One of the newest ones is titled “Whole New Ballgame.”  It explores the cultural impacts of the game since the 1970s.  However, practically every aspect of the long history of the game is captured and presented in an entertaining and educational fashion for both hard-core and casual baseball fans.

For me, it was equally intriguing to get a first-hand, behind-the-scenes view of the vast resources of the Museum and Library.  I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.

Five Things Baseball Will Miss When Big Papi Retires

David Ortiz is winding his 20-year career in spectacular fashion for the Boston Red Sox, as he helps them contend for the American League East Division title.  Prior to the season he had announced the 2016 campaign would be his last hurrah.  Baseball’s going to sorely miss Big Papi, as he’s affectionately been called since 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.  He’s been a force on and off the diamond while representing the Red Sox.

Reflecting back on his highly productive and popular career, there have been several aspects of Ortiz’s game that his teammates and his admiring fans have come to rely on.  His absence next year will create a huge void that won’t be easily filled.  Here are five things that will likely be missed about Ortiz.

1 -- Ortiz plays the game with a child-like exuberance.  Bringing joy to the game has been one of his missions in life.  His ever-present, glowing smile has become infectious over the years.  He could often be seen before games bantering with kids in the stands, as well as clowning with his teammates.  In a sport that has become dominated by the business of baseball, Ortiz always looked like he was having fun on the field.  He seemed to be a little-leaguer in a big-league uniform.  Only Ortiz could get away with taking a selfie with President Obama during the Red Sox’s visit to the White House.

2 – Ortiz became the face of the Red Sox through his performances on the field and his irresistible personality.  He made it a priority to be accessible to fans and the media.  He immersed himself into the Boston community, and when his now famous expletive-ridden phrase became part of the rallying cry of the city following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, he was seen as one of the leaders of the Boston Strong movement for the recovery of the city.  His popularity as one of the all-time great Red Sox players is probably exceeded only by the legendary Ted Williams.  That would put him ahead of such Red Sox heroes as Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Pedro Martinez.

3 – On the field, Ortiz is best known for his clutch-hitting heroics, including numerous walk-off hits in critical games.  He seemed to have a knack for rising to the occasion at the right time.  The best illustration of this was his performance in the 2004 post-season.  He hit a game-ending homer in the 10th inning to complete a first-round sweep of the Anaheim Angels.  In the ALCS against the New York Yankees, Ortiz hit a home run in the 12th inning to win Game 4, and then he singled in the 14th inning to win Game 5.  There were many more occasions like this, when he saved the Red Sox from the jaws of defeat.

4 – Sometimes overlooked is Ortiz’s mentorship of Latino players.  He was always the first to welcome new Latino players to the Red Sox, especially those from the Dominican Republic, his home country.  He often took them under his wing to help them get acclimated to the big-league environment.  His influence extended beyond the Red Sox team, as Latino opponents even sought him out for advice on baseball matters and life in general.

5 –Through both his play and off-field conduct, Ortiz has proven that he is a leader of this team.  He has an innate ability to connect with his teammates.  He’s the one who calls the team meetings when things are going rough.  He’s the guy that keeps them loose and helps them navigate through the difficulties of a long season.  His deep passion for the game has a way of rubbing off on his teammates.  Some people will argue that Ortiz’s teammate, Dustin Pedroia, is the Red Sox’s team leader because of his gritty-style of play.  But there’s no mistaking Ortiz is the “go-to” guy inside the clubhouse.

Ortiz’s career accomplishments are the makings of a future Hall of Fame player.  He’s been on three World Series championship teams.  His 534 home runs are 18th on the all-time list, while he’s 22nd on the list with 1,748 RBI.  Those are Ted Williams-like numbers.  Ortiz has been the most impactful designated hitter of all time.  Perhaps the only knock against him is that he didn’t play a lot of games as a position player.

He’s played so well this year (with 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI), that he’s being questioned about whether he should stick around for another season.  Ortiz insists he’s not changing his mind.  Especially if he could manage to get the Red Sox to a World Series again.  That would be the icing on the cake for his career.

Ortiz ranks as one of the most influential players in the sport.  The beloved figure, with his unique Big Papi character, will be sadly missed by all fans, not just the Red Sox Nation.  Probably the only people who won’t miss him will be his New York Yankee opponents.

Tim Tebow Makes Improbable Bid to Play Pro Baseball

Former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow is back in the headlines again, but this time it’s not for another attempt to catch on with an NFL team.  On Tuesday he attended a workout at the University of Southern California campus, where scouts from 28 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams watched him take batting and fielding practice and then bat in a “live” hitting situation.  However, it’s a long shot whether he can land a contract with a major-league organization, since he hasn’t played competitive baseball since high school.

Tebow last played in NFL regular season games in 2012 with the New York Jets.  Since then, he has continued to pursue a roster spot in the NFL with pre-season tryouts with the New England Patriots in 2013 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015.  Since his original signing with the Denver Broncos in 2010, he has struggled with transitioning from one of the greatest college football players in history at the University of Florida to the pro game.  He did manage to lead the Broncos to the playoffs in his rookie season, but his football career plummeted after that.

Tebow’s baseball quest isn’t unprecedented for NFL players.  Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are the most noteworthy examples of pro football players who also excelled at the diamond game.  However, one big difference from Tebow’s situation is that Jackson and Sanders were stars at the college baseball level, in addition to their gridiron prowess.  Furthermore, Jackson and Sanders played in the major leagues soon after their college careers, at ages 23 and 21, respectively, while Tebow is currently 29 years old.

Other former NFL players who played in the major-leagues include Brian Jordan and Drew Henson. 

Jordan was a defensive back with the Atlanta Falcons for three seasons while also playing minor league baseball.  But then he secured a permanent major-league roster spot with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992 and wound up dropping football.  Jordan played fifteen major-league seasons, including an all-star season with the Atlanta Braves in 1999.

Henson was a highly-touted high school football and baseball player, drafted by the New York Yankees in the 3rd round in 1998.  He played minor league baseball in the Yankees organization while also playing quarterback at the University of Michigan.  But he initially chose baseball as his career after college, eventually making brief appearances with the Yankees in 2002 and 2003.  However, he subsequently turned to football again, making backup quarterback appearances with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions in 2004 and 2008.

Michael Jordan, the NBA’s all-time greatest player, attempted to play professional baseball in 1994 for the Chicago White Sox organization, after leading the Chicago Bulls to three NBA championships.  His relatively poor performance was proof that skills and experience in one professional sport, even for a superior player, don’t automatically mean an athlete can apply them successfully in a different sport.  Jordan’s hitting was a struggle in his lone baseball season, posting a meager .202 batting average, although, he did manage to steal 30 bases.

It’s a rare breed that can excel in two professional sports.  Obviously, the athleticism of Jackson, Sanders, Jordan and, to a lesser degree, Henson allowed them to reach the pinnacle of both pro sports.  Jackson became a power hitter, while also being able to run down fly balls in the outfield.  Sanders used his tremendous speed and quickness on the base paths to be disruptive to opponents.

It’s really unknown yet whether Tebow’s skills can be applied to baseball at a high level.  In his hitting workout at USC, the results were mixed.  The left-handed batter managed to hit several balls over the fence during two rounds of batting practice.  He then moved to live hitting for three “innings” against two former major league pitchers, when he almost hit a real home run after experiencing several strikeouts.

Tebow was an all-state baseball player while in high school in Florida.  However, despite his athleticism, he lacks the critical baseball experience and instincts, usually acquired at college and minor league levels, to allow him to rapidly advance through baseball’s minor league system to the big-leagues.  If he can’t do that within a couple of years, he’ll be too old to be a viable player for most major league clubs.

What Tebow does have going for him is his high personal character and team-oriented approach.  Despite his lack of success in the NFL, he seems to have an endless popularity among sports fans who appreciate his college days.  On Wednesday he received an offer to play for a team in the Atlantic League, an independent professional baseball league.  That is likely his best chance to test and develop his baseball skills.  Former NBA player Tracy McGrady tried that approach unsuccessfully a couple of years ago, after deciding he wanted to pursue his dream of a baseball career.

One thing’s for sure though.  Tebow would be a big draw for whatever team or organization he would play for, and that would keep him in the public eye a bit longer--something he’s not able to do through football right now.

KC Royals Poised for a September Run

In one of my blog posts earlier in the spring, I dubbed the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals the “New Yankees,” because they had made two consecutive World Series appearances and appeared to be primed to continue that run in 2016.  But up until a month ago, they were playing nothing like the legendary teams of the storied Yankee franchise.

On July 31 the Royals were twelve games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians.  They were being pretty much written off as being unable to return to the playoffs this season.  However, in the month of August, the Royals have an 18-7 record through Saturday, clawing back 5 ½ games in the standings against the first-place Indians.  In a stretch from August 14 to August 23, the Royals ran off nine consecutive wins.

A look at the Royals’ season show some interesting facts:

  • The Royals’ home field has been very kind to the team this season.  They are 40-21 at home, while posting a 27-41 record on the road.

  • During their impressive month of August, they’ve allowed only 71 runs so far, compared to an average of 127 for May, June and July.  For the season, the Royals trail only Toronto in runs allowed in the American League.

  • The Royals have a 34-17 record against their division opponents.

Never known for having a high-powered offense, the Royals have scored the fewest runs and hit the fewest home runs in the league.  Only the Oakland A’s are worse than the Royals in On Base + Slugging Percentage (OPS).

Their pitching has been the component that has put the team into contention again.  Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy have been the mainstays in the starting rotation, accounting for eight of their wins in August.  In the bullpen, closer Wade Davis has been on the Disabled List for the month of August, requiring bullpen mate Kelvin Herrera to step into the closer role.  Herrera has responded with nine saves in August, while Joakim Soria has been effective in middle relief.

Despite their winning trend, in reality the Royals are playing for a wild-card spot.  They won’t likely overtake the Indians for the division title, unless Terry Francona’s charges have a severe meltdown in the final month.  But the Royals could possibly overtake the Detroit Tigers, currently two games ahead of the Royals in the division.

In the remaining games of the schedule the Royals have a period between September 5th and 19th, where they face Minnesota, Chicago, and Oakland, teams against which they have a 21-7 record this season.  However, the crucial part of their schedule includes two 3-game series against both the Indians and Tigers.

Going into the final month of the season, the Royals seem to be playing with a “can’t lose” mentality.  What they have on their side is the winning culture of the past two seasons.  This team has that valuable experience to draw on.  Royals manager Ned Yost has proven in the past that he knows how to get the most out of a team that doesn’t have big superstars to rely on.  They will win because they will scratch and claw out a few runs and rely on solid pitching to keep them close in games.

Certainly, that’s wasn’t the Yankee way of the past Bronx Bomber teams.  But it just might be good enough to get the Royals into the playoffs again.

Farewell to Turner Field

This past weekend I had a chance to attend an Atlanta Braves games at their home Turner Field.  One might ask what’s so special about that, since the Braves have one of the worst teams in baseball this year.

Well, in about 45 days, Turner Field will no longer be the site of any more Braves games, because the organization is building a new stadium for the 2017 season in Cobb County, in the suburbs northwest of Atlanta.  Although in use for only its 20th season, the Braves are moving from the stadium’s current location which they believed constrained fan attendance because of the insufficient parking space, the park being ¾ mile from the rapid transit system, and the severe traffic congestion around that area.

Turner Field was originally built for the 1996 Summer Olympics.  The Braves first occupied the stadium for the 1997 season.  It is actually a relatively new facility, being younger than fourteen of Major League Baseball's other 29 stadiums.

In the twenty years since Turner Field opened for baseball, the Braves have won ten division titles and made two additional playoff appearances.  Even though the Braves never won a World Series during that timeframe, Braves Nation got to see some very competitive teams.  Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, as well as future Hall of Fame infielder Chipper Jones, were the team’s stars during most of those championship years.

However, this year’s version of the Braves is a far cry from the teams of the previous 19 years.  They’ve won only 45 games this year, worst in the major leagues.  In my blog post of May 22nd, I discussed how Braves management started dismantling the team in 2014, unloading their best players for a slew of new prospects from which they would ideally rebuild a competitive team in time for opening the new stadium in 2017.  Whether that team actually comes to fruition is highly debatable.  2018 might be more reasonable expectation.

Dansby Swanson, the overall Number 1 draft pick of 2015 whom the Braves acquired in one of their trades over last off-season, appears to be targeted as the new face of the Braves.  He made his major league debut last week, in only his second pro season.  Braves fans are hoping Swanson will become the new Chipper Jones.

It turns out the Braves lost to the Washington Nationals in Saturday night’s game, 11-9.  The game appeared to be a runaway win for the Nationals, since they held an 11-4 lead at the end of the 7th inning.  But the Braves’ bats came alive in the last three innings to finally make the game interesting. 

Besides getting to see one more baseball game at historic Turner Field, the other thing that was special about going to the game was my wife and I were able to attend with two of my daughters, Molly and Joni, and their families, including two grandsons, Gavin and Jackson.  The boys got the thrill of their short lives when they were able to walk on the stadium field as part of the Braves’ “Mother-Son Parade” promotion that night.  But my little granddaughter, Olivia, one-upped the boys when Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark picked her out of a bunch of screaming kids in the stands to give her a baseball during batting practice before the game.  That was a pretty awesome to see them enjoy the experience.

Maybe a new stadium next year will indeed change the Braves’ fortunes.  Turner Field is slated for conversion into a football stadium for Georgia State University, so all the historic memories of those Braves teams will eventually fade away.  But they did have a good run in that stadium.

Baseball: The Short, Hefty, and Really Tall Can Still Play This Game

Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers had his season cut short last week due to herniated disks in his neck, and consequently will be out for the remainder of the 2016 season.  Baseball analysts speculated that Fielder’s condition would likely end his career.  Some of the earliest recollections of Fielder are as a chubby 12-year-old slamming home runs while taking batting practice with his major league dad, Cecil Fielder.  When Prince grew up, he remained a hefty guy and didn’t necessarily strike the appearance of a professional baseball player.  But he could still hit the long ball.

Fielder, at 5’ 11” and 275 pounds, is representative of quite a few other baseball players, past and present, one might not guess could be a star in the game, because of what appears to be a non-athletic body type for the sport.

Pitcher Bartolo Colon is frequently ribbed by his New York Mets teammates because he can’t run very fast when running to first base on ground balls.  But there are two big factors that contribute to his situation—he is 43 years old but, probably more significantly, he is seriously overweight at 285 pounds, while standing only 5’ 11” tall.  Despite his physique, Colon is still an effective starting pitcher on the Mets team that features several young flame-throwers in their rotation.

Little Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros is another physical phenomenon in the big-leagues today.  Except he’s not a big-body type like Fielder and Colon.  Altuve measures in at 5’6” and 165 pounds, one of the smallest players in the majors.  However, this Mighty Mite’s bat speaks as loudly as the largest sluggers in baseball.  The four-time all-star is on a pace for his third consecutive 200-hit season and has new-found power with 19 home runs so far this season.

Altuve is similar in build to Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who’s just a tad bigger than Altuve.  However, the diminutive Red Sox all-star seems to generate as much torque in his swing, when he turns on an inside fastball, as anyone else in baseball.

Because of his 6’ 6”, 265-pound size, Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins looks like he could start as a tight end for most NFL teams or as a power forward on NBA teams.  His athleticism in baseball is off the chart for such a big guy, as he runs like a deer and plays a solid defense in right field in addition to being a power hitter.  The slugger has registered the longest home run of the 2016 season so far, a monstrous 501-foot blast.

A recent major league rookie, New York Yankee Aaron Judge has a similar physique as Stanton.  The 6’ 7”, 275 pound outfielder slugged a home run in his first major-league at-bat and appears might be another athletic stud like Stanton.

A look back in baseball history reveals similar stories of players who didn’t fit the traditional model of professional athletes because of their atypical body types.  Yet their size or physique didn’t inhibit their ability to be highly successful in the sport.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Baltimore’s Luis “Little Louie” Aparicio and New York’s Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto were small shortstops, 5’ 9” and 5’ 6”, respectively, yet they managed to have Hall of Fame careers.  By comparison, their eventual successors at their positions, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Derek Jeter, were 6’ 4” and 6’ 3”.  There’s a classic photo of Rizzuto and Jeter together at pre-game ceremony honoring Rizzuto at Yankee Stadium.  Jeter, with his arm around Rizzuto, easily dwarfs the little guy.

Another shortstop, Freddie Patek of the Kansas City Royals, was one of the shortest players in baseball history at 5’ 5”, yet he put up a successful 14-year career which included three all-star selections in the 1970s.  His nickname was appropriately “The Flea.”

San Francisco Giants relief pitcher, Stu Miller, was once staggered on the mound by a big wind gust in the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park, resulting in a balk.  The little hurler only weighed 165 pounds.

The New York Yankees’ Ron Guidry was another pitcher with a slight build, weighing in at only 161 pounds, yet he threw like legendary power pitchers Tom Seaver or Bob Gibson, and had one of the nastiest sliders of his day.  Guidry’s Cy Young Award season in 1978 is one of the all-time best pitching performances in baseball, when “Louisiana Lightning” went 25-3, posted a 1.74 ERA, and struck out 248 batters.

Randy Johnson used his 6’ 10” frame to become one of the most feared strikeout pitchers of his era.  His unusual height, coupled with his trademark menacing stare, shook the cleats of more than a few batters.  He posted five Cy Young Award seasons, including four in a row from 1999 to 2002, and finished second on the all-time strikeout list with 4,875.

Other former major-league pitchers suiting up at 6 ‘7” or above included Rick Sutcliffe, Ed Halicki, Mike Smithson, and Tim Stoddard, who was a starting forward on the North Carolina State championship basketball team of 1973-1974.

Major-league first basemen Frank Howard (6’ 8”) and Chuck Connors (6’ 7”) were gigantic players of their eras.  Coincidentally, they both also had been basketball players.  Howard was an All-American basketball player at Ohio State, while Connors played a couple of seasons in the early years of the NBA in the 1940s.  Howard went on to lead the American League in home runs in 1968 and 1970, while Connors eventually left sports to pursue a TV and movie acting career.

Mel Ott and Hack Wilson were two old-time players who didn’t let their size get in the way of Hall of Fame careers.  Ott was only 5’ 9” and 170 pounds, but his batting style employed a high leg-kick to generate his power that led to 511 career home runs, second only to Babe Ruth at the time of his retirement in 1947.  The squatty-bodied Wilson, at 5’ 6” and 190 pounds, led the National League in home runs in four seasons.  His 56 home runs and 191 RBI in 1930 stand out as one of the most prolific offensive performances in history.

However, the most famous major-league player that was physically challenged by his size was Eddie Gaedel, a 3’ 7” midget who made a pinch-hitting appearance in a regular season game for the St. Louis Browns in 1951.  Of course, it was a promotional stunt by Browns owner Bill Veeck, yet Gaedel is still in the official record books by drawing a walk in his only at-bat.

There aren’t any 161-pound players in pro football or any 5’ 5” players in pro basketball these days.  Those sports have evolved such that there is now practically a minimum size requirement to get on the gridiron or hardwood.

But in baseball it still doesn’t seem to matter as much what a player’s body type is.  Consequently, fans get to marvel at the accomplishments of some of the game’s unusual players like Fielder and Altuve, even if they aren’t midgets.

Were the Yankees the Biggest Winner as Big Sellers?

Two weeks ago I wrote about major-league teams that I thought would be the biggest buyers and sellers leading up to the trade deadline on August 1.  I characterized the sellers as those teams packing it in for the season, looking down the road a few years to re-build their rosters.  I figured the New York Yankees would be in that classification.  Indeed they unloaded several of its top-flight stars to the dismay of its fans, but now Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman is having a hard time keeping the smirk off of his face, when he ponders what he got in return.

Apparently Cashman had convinced Yankee ownership that he had a blueprint for the club that meant they might have to sacrifice the rest of the 2016 season, even though the team was still playing above .500 ball and weren’t entirely eliminated from the playoff picture yet.  He got the green light to make the deals he felt were needed.

Cashman has several objectives in mind in re-shaping the team.  The age of the Yankees was of great concern, since they haven’t had ample prospects coming up through their farm system, forcing them to acquire highly-priced free-agents already past their prime years.  Plus, their farm system hasn’t produced a cadre of reliable young arms who can rejuvenate their pitching staff.  Finally, the Yankees need to shed themselves of huge player salaries to which they had previously committed.

Going into the final two weeks of the trade period, Yankee relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were two of the biggest bargaining chips on the table for enticing buyers who had ample top prospects to give up.  It was expected the two relievers would draw tons of attention from bidding clubs, and they didn’t disappoint.  But Cashman didn’t stop there.  He also dealt the Yankees’ best offensive player this year, veteran Carlos Beltran, and starting pitcher Ivan Nova, even though their starting pitching has largely been on the rocks this season.

The Yankees got a ton of players in return.  Four prospects from the Cleveland Indians for Miller.  Three prospects and one current major leaguer from the Chicago Cubs for Chapman.  Three prospects from the Texas Rangers for Beltran.  Two players to be named later from the Pittsburgh Pirates for Nova.

In the list of prospects the Yankees received were five of the Top 100 Prospects named by Baseball America prior to the 2016 season:  outfielder Clint Frazier (#21), shortstop Gleyber Torres (#41), pitcher Dillon Tate (#59), pitcher Justus Sheffield (#69), and outfielder Billy McKinney (#74).  Also traded to the Yankees were five other pitchers and an outfielder.  Only middle reliever Adam Warren from the Cubs, a former Yankee player, has prior major league experience.  Another former Yankee, Tyler Clippard, was acquired in a straight-up deal with the San Diego Padres.

So, how were the Yankees winners in this fire sale?  Except for Warren and Clippard, who will replace Miller and Chapman in the bullpen, none of the high-potential prospects just acquired are major-league ready.  None of the prospects can be expected to give the club a lift during the remainder of this season, maybe not even next season.

Keep in mind that 39-year-old Beltran and Chapman would have been free-agents at the end of this season anyway, so it was in the best interest of the Yankees to get something of value in return now.

36-year-old Yankee first baseman Mark Texiera announced last week his retirement for the end of this season; and today the Yankees announced they will unconditionally release 41-year-old Alex Rodriguez this season and then worked out an agreement to allow him to stay on as a special advisor and instructor for the team through 2017.  35-year-old pitcher CC Sabathia, who has only been marginally effective this season, has a vesting option for 2017 that would pay him $25 million, but the Yankees could use a buyout clause to lessen that expense.  Catcher Brian McCann could be on the trading block in the off-season, while he still commands value in other positions in return.

What’s going to happen over the off-season is that Cashman will execute on his blueprint by flipping several of their new prospects to acquire some of the missing pieces the Yankees need to be immediate contenders in 2017.  At the top of their requirements list is an ace at the top of the rotation and some affordable veteran position players, who can provide offensive punch to replace the high-priced, aging veterans. Shedding some high dollar salaries from the payroll will also help with new acquisitions.

Additionally, several minor league players coming up through the Yankee farm system could be ready for permanent spots on the big-league roster next season.  They include first baseman Greg Bird, outfielder/DH Aaron Judge, and catcher Gary Sanchez, who will compete as replacements for Teixeira, Beltran, and McCann, respectively.

Many would argue the Texas Rangers were the real winners at the trade deadline by scoring Beltran from the Yankees and catcher Jonathan Lucroy from the Milwaukee Brewers.  Some people felt the Yankees waved the white flag on the 2016 season.  Perhaps.  But it would have taken a monumental effort, even with a roster including Beltran, Miller, and Chapman, as well as some divisional opponents to have fallen out of favor with the baseball gods, to get a playoff spot.  But it’s a certainty the Yankee trades have positioned themselves to greatly improve their club for next year and beyond.  That’s a big deal.

Family Experiences Helped Shape Lawton Brothers' Baseball Careers

Marcus and Matt Lawton grew up in a baseball family and then went on to professional careers in the sport.  The brothers from Gulfport, Mississippi, shared their experiences at a luncheon last Friday at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.  The luncheon is part of a series entitled “Our Love Affair with Baseball,” which features weekly speakers with Mississippi ties in baseball.  The museum currently has exhibits containing artifacts and memorabilia from teams and players from the Mississippi Gulf Coast region.

Barry Lyons, a Biloxi native and former major league player, was the host for the luncheon.  As guest curator for the museum’s baseball exhibit, he provided the introductions of the Lawton brothers.  Lyons recalled a 1995 big league game near the end of his career in which he played against Matt, then a rookie, and threw him out attempting to steal second base.

Older brother Marcus was signed out of high school by the New York Mets after being selected in the sixth round of the 1983 Major League Draft.  The outfielder played in the Mets organization until 1989 when he was traded to the New York Yankees.  At 23-years-old, he appeared in ten games with the Yankees before being released.  He played three more seasons in the White Sox, Angels, and Royals organizations before retiring from baseball.

Matt had a more substantial major league career than his brother, as he played twelve seasons in the big leagues, primarily with the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians.  After playing at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he was drafted by the Twins organization in the 13th round in 1991.  He became an American League all-star in 2000 and 2004.

In their luncheon presentations, the brothers talked extensively about growing up in a family where baseball was often the center of attention.  Along with a third brother, they provided their own competition playing in backyard games.  Their recalled attending games played by their father, who was a catcher on local Gulf Coast teams.  As youngsters, they were coached by Leon Farmer, a teammate of their father’s.  Both Marcus and Matt attributed their love for the game to those childhood experiences and family influences.

Marcus offered advice to several segments of the audience.  To the youngsters, he related that “you have to love the game” if you want to play at the highest levels.  He noted that the baseball season is a grind and one has to be ready to play every day, and that takes an unwavering commitment to the game.  His counsel to parents was to allow the kids to decide if they really want to play the sport--that youngsters shouldn’t be pushed into playing and living out their father’s dream.  He admonished high school coaches who tend to discourage today’s youngsters from playing multiple sports.

Marcus also commented about his own career that he literally “saw the world” without having to be in the military.  He said his baseball travels took him to 47 of the 50 states, as well as to Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela.  He said the two biggest highlights of his pro career included his first game at Yankee Stadium, where he was in awe that legendary players such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had graced the diamond; and one of his minor league seasons in which he stole 111 bases, getting thrown out  attempting to steal only a handful of times.

Matt gave credit to his college coach, Cooper Farris, for teaching him the finer aspects of the game.  Having an older brother in pro baseball, Matt felt like his own introduction into the pro ranks was made easier, because he knew what to expect from various facets of the game, both on and off the field.  He related stories about being a Twins teammate of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.  He said Puckett would often take him on shopping sprees.  Matt recalled that Puckett routinely carried large amounts of cash with him in a travel bag, and would often put Matt in charge of taking care of it, which he said made him extremely nervous.

A two-time all-star outfielder, Matt remarked that he reached a point in his playing career when “the game really slowed down” for him, generally meaning it became easier to compete.  But then he suffered a shoulder injury that plagued him the rest of his career, which ended at age 34.

As evidenced by the luncheon’s large audience and the media presence, the Lawton brothers continue to be popular sports figures on the Gulf Coast, where they still maintain close ties to their family roots.

MLB's Buyers and Sellers Reveal Short and Long-Term Strategies

The July trade deadline in Major League Baseball draws out what most of the teams are thinking relative to making a strong run at a playoff berth this season, or just packing the bags now as they look forward to being competitive in the next couple of years.  During this time of the season baseball fans find out who’s in or out for the current pennant races.

Consequently, it’s an exciting time for the teams looking to bolster their lineups, while it’s hard for other baseball fans to understand why their favorite team is actively looking to unload their best players or top prospects.  Diehard fans don’t ever want to give up on their team, while some general managers are forced to face the harsh reality that the current season is lost and begin planning how to reverse their fortunes for next season.

As always, good pitching is in high demand by most teams, while some teams are looking to backfill for injured players or adding another bat to provide some extra punch to their lineup.

The Boston Red Sox set the tone for trade activity in the past two weeks, with selective acquisitions of several pieces to complete their puzzle going into the final stretch of the season.  Brad Ziegler was brought on to backfill for reliever Craig Kimbrel who suffered a season-ending injury.  Drew Pomeranz was acquired for the starting rotation, and veteran infielder Aaron Hill was a good addition as a utility player.

Let’s take a look at who some of the buyers and sellers will be this week, leading up to the trade deadline on July 31.

Sellers

The New York Yankees are one of the most talked about teams at this time of the season, but not particularly for their play on the field.  Rather, it’s because many of the other major league clubs are coveting the Yankees’ three star relief pitchers, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman.  The Yankees are playing .500 ball, but apparently don’t believe they can overcome Baltimore, Boston, and Toronto in their division during the rest of this year and thus are willing to part with one or more of them.  Chapman would likely bring the most value to the Yankees in terms of prospects to build for the future.  His 104-105 mph pitches this past week make for a good audition for the hungry suitors.

Another team in the AL East, Tampa Bay, is likely to join the Yankees as sellers this week.  They are acknowledged for having built some solid young pitching staffs over the past several years.  Their ace this season, Chris Archer, would be highly desirable by several teams needing a late-season boost in their starting pitching.  Matt Moore is another quality starter who will attract attention.  But the most surprising player up for grabs will be the face of the Rays’ franchise, Evan Longoria.  This would devastate Rays fans, as he’s been their only consistent player on offense throughout his career.  However, if they can get high future draft picks or top prospects in return, Rays management would willingly cut the cord on the popular player.

The Colorado Rockies were willing to part with slugger outfielder Carlos Gonzalez last year, but there were no takers for fear of his long-term health situation and his contract situation.  Gonzalez finished last year very strong and has put up an all-star performance this season; so he has erased any health fears.  However, someone would still have to be willing to pick up a hefty contract for 2017.  But he’s still only 30 years old and would be a good fit for several needy teams.

The San Diego Padres did a major overall during the winter of 2014, spending a lot of money acquiring a number of high-profile free agents in an attempt to jump start a team into contention for 2015.  That didn’t work and now they face the situation of having to go back to their farm system and trading for prospects to build up their team.  A week ago, they traded their best pitcher this season, Drew Pomeranz, and are likely to put hurler Andrew Cashner on the trading block as well.  The under-achieving Cashner would be a desirable addition for several teams.  Melvin Upton Jr., who is putting together a solid season after a disastrous one in 2015, is likely to be put on the trading block by the Padres.  They would also like to shed Matt Kemp’s high salary, but there are not likely to be any takers at this time.

The Milwaukee Brewers, under new GM David Stearns, are in re-building mode for the next couple of years, and thus would be willing to make its best player, all-star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, available for the right price.  Although Lucroy has another year on his current Brewers contract in 2017, he would be very affordable to another team and would make for a solid long-term addition.

Buyers

It’s puzzling sometimes when teams that are leading their division are the most active buyers at the trade deadline.  But it’s usually because they recognize some weaknesses in their lineup and want to stay in contention for the playoffs.  That’s currently the case for the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and Texas Rangers.  As it seems to always be the situation, quality pitchers are in high demand by most clubs.

The Cubs reportedly have strong interest in Yankee reliever Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller, as they figure they need to bolster their bullpen.  Either of them would be a huge upgrade over its current closer Hector Rondon.  The Cubs have already made a move in acquiring pitcher Mike Montgomery who could help in the back of their rotation or in middle relief.  The Cubs’ outfield has suffered injuries to several of its outfielders and would welcome someone like the A’s Josh Reddick, who is familiar to Cubs management when he was with Boston several years ago.  The Cubs are currently deep in top prospects as trade bait.

The Giants made a big splash during the off-season to bolster its starting pitching and that has worked.  Now they are similarly looking to stabilize its bullpen, as they have 18 blown saves so far this season.  They have interest in Chapman or Andrew Miller, but would have to give up some high draft picks.

The Rangers have suffered several setbacks in their starting pitching during the first half, although they’ve remarkably managed to stay atop the division.  They would have interest in the Chicago White Sox top pitcher, Chris Sales, but would likely have to put together a five-player package that includes top minor league prospect Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar, who’s uplifted the club after coming off of an injury-plagued season last year. There’s some history in the Rangers pulling this off, as last year they went after high-profile hurler Cole Hamels who helped propel the Rangers to the division title.

The surging Houston Astros are in need of an additional starting pitcher as well.  They have the resources to make this happen, as their farm system is flush with top prospects they have been accumulating for the past 3-4 years.  Don’t be surprised if the Astros’ 2015 Number 1 draft pick, Alex Bregman, is exploited in a trade deadline deal.  The Astros are now thinking he will get a shot in their lineup as an outfielder, because there is no obvious place for him as an infielder.  Pitcher Andrew Cashner would be a good pick-up for them, as well as Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer or Matt Moore.  The Padres and Rays could certainly use Bregman to build their future.  The Astros could be in the hunt for Chapman, too. 

The second-place Los Angeles Dodgers are also reportedly interested in Chris Archer and/or Chris Sale, given Clayton Kershaw’s recent health status and the rest of the staff being state of flux as well.  Dodger president Andrew Friedman is familiar with Archer from his Tampa Bay background.  The Dodgers’ young 19-year-old starter, Julio Urias, would have to be a big chip in such a deal.

A few other moves that could make sense for several clubs include Jonathan Lucroy to the Cleveland Indians to backfill for injured Yan Gomes; Phillies’ pitcher Jeremy Hellickson to the Miami Marlins; outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. to the New York Mets for much-needed offense; and Aroldis Chapman to the Washington Nationals, where they finally demote controversial reliever Jonathan Papelbon.  Plus, the Red Sox may not be finished, as they consider Chris Sale and his White Sox teammate Jose Quintana.

Mid-Season Report Card Offers Hope for High Marks

The week of the Major League All-Star Game marks an appropriate time to assess pre-season prognostications.  It’s time to see who are the winners and losers so far.

From my pre-season picks, I have a couple of big-time losers, yet I’m holding my own on the rest.  At the bottom line, my two picks for league champions are still among the favorites for a face-off in the Fall Classic.  If I had placed a bet in Vegas before the season on who would be the World Series opponents, I’d be feeling pretty good right now.

Below is a recap of my pre-season picks (first number) and how they are currently faring (second number) in each of the divisional races.

 

AL East – Yankees (1, 4); Blue Jays (2, 3)

AL Central – Royals (1, 3); Tigers (2, 2)

AL West – Rangers (1, 1); Astros (2, 2)

NL East – Nationals (1, 1); Marlins (2, T2)

NL Central – Pirates (1, 3); Cubs (2, 1)

NL West – Diamondbacks (1, 5); Giants (2, 1)

World Series – Rangers and Giants

 

The New York Yankees are one of my biggest busts for winning a division title.  It’s true their bullpen is one of the best in baseball, but unfortunately their offense is not getting the team into positions to leverage that bullpen capability.  I don’t see the Yankees recovering during the balance of the season.  However, the first-place Baltimore Orioles are proving in the AL East that huge offensive production can make up for mediocre starting pitching, as they are set records for home runs.  Same story for the Boston Red Sox, who are currently edging out the Toronto Blue Jays for second place.  It’s not implausible that any of those three teams could wind up winning the division.  The Red Sox front office appears to be serious in their run at the title, since in the past week they have been aggressively filling holes in their lineup with trades.

Back in the spring, I was calling the Kansas City Royals the “new” New York Yankees, for their potential to be perennial World Series contestants.  Consequently, I picked them to win the AL Central.  Right now, however, they are ½ game back of the Detroit Tigers for second place.  The Cleveland Indians, who have been on the cusp of breaking out of the middle of the pack in the division for the past few seasons, seem to have put it all together this year.  Their pitching staff is far and away the best in the American League, as the team leads Detroit by six games.  The Tigers were my pick for second place at the beginning of the season, and that’s where they stand today.  The Royals will have to improve their run-scoring and starting pitching, currently third from the bottom of the league in both categories, to claim a playoff berth.  The Royals’ relief pitching continues to be their main strength.

For my pre-season selections in the AL West, the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros are making me look pretty good, since they are currently the top two teams in the division.  Earlier in the season, the Astros appeared to swoon, but have recovered enough to outpace third-place Seattle Mariners by three games at this point.  If one or both of those teams make some key roster additions at the July trade deadline, they could challenge the Rangers, whom I had picked to go on to win the American League pennant.  However at this point, I still like the Rangers.

As my first and second picks, the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins are currently holding those positions in the NL East Division race.  Manager Dusty Baker has been the steadying influence the Nationals needed.  Daniel Murphy’s bat has been the surprise of the season for them.  If Bryce Harper finally gets on track with last season’s slugging performance, the Nats, currently six games ahead of the second place club, could win the division going away.  The Marlins and New York Mets are currently embroiled in a tie for second place.  However, the Mets’ run production surpasses only the frail Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies in the National League.  The Mets had the same problem last season, until late-season acquisition Yoenis Cespedes almost single-handedly carried them to the division title.  Marlins manager Don Mattingly has his young team hungry for making their first playoff appearance in fourteen years.  In the franchise’s only previous playoff berths in 2003 and 1997, they won World Series championships.  Could they do it again?

I had picked the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the NL Central Division, but they currently trail the leading Chicago Cubs by 9 ½  games and the second-place St. Louis Cardinals by 1 ½ games .  I had picked the Cubs to finish second, but still making the playoffs.  Through June 19, the Cubs had held a 12 ½ game lead, but have since stumbled somewhat with an 8-15 record.  The Pirates’ starting pitching has struggled so far and will have a difficult time challenging the Cubs for first place, since they have won only three of twelve games against the Cubs.

I went out on a limb and predicted the Arizona Diamondbacks would win the NL West Division, after they had picked up starters Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller during the off-season.  However, the limb broke early in the season, and the team has practically imploded as they are currently in last place, trailing league-leading San Francisco by 18 games.  Greinke’s and Miller’s inability to deliver as expected as well as a season-ending injury to all-star outfielder A.J. Pollock have been key factors in their demise.  I had picked the Giants to finish in second place and ultimately advance to the World Series.  They have proven to be one of the best teams in baseball even though they have suffered injuries to three in their starting lineup.  The second-place Los Angeles Dodgers, behind solid relief pitching, rookie shortstop Corey Seager, and ace Clayton Kershaw, are playing well enough to be a playoff contender.

I think we’re headed for some tight division races during the remainder of this season.  No team has built an insurmountable lead, including the impressive Cubs who have shown some vulnerability lately.  The Red Sox have already set the tone for some key trades that will likely be forthcoming by contending clubs before the trade deadline expires at the end of this month.  Sit back and watch, it’s only going to get better.

Cubs All-Star Infield Isn't the First of its Kind

The infield of first baseman Anthony Rizzo, second baseman Ben Zobrist, shortstop Addison Russell, and third baseman Kris Bryant makes for a formidable force within the Chicago Cubs’ lineup, leading the team to a solid first-place standing in the National League Central Division at mid-season.  In a rare occurrence in baseball history, all four of them were rewarded with selections to the starting lineup of the National League all-star team that will compete in Major League Baseball’s annual midsummer classic on Tuesday.

In fact though, it’s not the first time a team’s entire infield had been selected to a major-league all-star team.  The St. Louis Cardinals’ infield quartet, comprised of first baseman Bill White, second baseman Julian Javier, shortstop Dick Groat, and third baseman Ken Boyer, made such an appearance in 1963.  When Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski withdrew from playing in the game with a pulled leg muscle, Javier replaced him to make up the entire infield of the National League’s starting lineup, the only time that had ever happened.

The election of four all-star infielders from the same team had nearly happened in 1957, when Cincinnati Reds fans began stuffing ballot boxes with pre-printed voting ballots that contained the names of the Reds’ entire starting lineup, including their four infielders.  At one point in the voting process, eight Reds players were leading the tallies.

However, baseball commissioner Ford Frick interjected himself into the process, and Reds first baseman George Crowe was subsequently surpassed by Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Two of the elected Reds outfielders were replaced by Frick after the final votes were counted.  However, the Reds’ other infielders, including second baseman Johnny Temple, shortstop Roy McMillan, and third baseman Don Hoak, remained on the final all-star team.  Consequently, the misguided voting situation led to baseball fans being removed from the all-star selection process until 1970.

Fan-stuffing of the all-star ballot boxes occurred again last year for the Kansas City Royals’ entire starting lineup, except it was done via internet-based voting versus the paper ballots of 1957.  Last year’s early voting results revealed that all of the Royals players were leading the balloting in their respective positions, largely due to an aggressive campaign by Royals fans to sway the outcome.  Believing the situation was not in the best interests of the game, Major League Baseball intervened and voided over sixty million internet votes.  Among the four Royals selected for the final team, shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas wound up being the only infielders.

Los Angeles Dodgers teams of the mid-1970s and early 1980s featured a core of players that comprised their starting infield for eight seasons.  Their solid infield, made up of first baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Dave Lopes, shortstop Bill Russell, and third baseman Ron Cey, was among the best of their era.  While the foursome was never elected to an all-star team in the same season, they came close on two occasions.  In 1976, Garvey, Russell, and Cey were selected for the National League, while Garvey, Russell, and Lopes made the team in 1980.

Although currently in a losing streak, this year’s hugely successful Cubs team has created a spirited buzz among baseball fans around the country.  Not unexpected, their popularity has contributed to their sweep of infield positions on the fan’s National League starting team.  Three other Cubs players, including pitchers Jake Arieta and John Lester and outfielder Dexter Fowler, were also named to the National League’s roster.

The Cubs’ four infielders account for over half of their team’s home runs and RBI so far.  This season marks Rizzo’s third consecutive all-star appearance.  For Zobrist, acquired by the Cubs as a free agent in the offseason, this is also his third all-star selection.  Kris Bryant, who currently leads the National League in home runs, will make his second all-star appearance, while this is the first outing for Russell.

However, as is the situation practically every year, the fan voting for the starting players was not without its share of debate.  Cases could legitimately be made for Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, and Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado to have been voted as the starters over their Cub counterparts.

But Rizzo, Russell, and Bryant are all in their mid-twenties.  Whether it’s with 35-year-old Zobrist or some younger second baseman down the road, this group is good enough to have more all-star selections in their future.