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.
Like Him or Not, A-Rod is Back

There were a lot of mixed feelings from baseball’s followers about the return of Alex Rodriguez with the New York Yankees this spring.  It turns out he is one of the biggest surprises of the early season’s results.  He is among the Yankees’ team leaders in several offensive categories, and if he keeps up the current pace, he could be a serious contender for the American League Comeback Player of the Year.

Yankee haters were adamant that A-Rod didn’t deserve an opportunity to get back on the field after his suspension by Major League Baseball for the entire 2014 season and part of 2013.  Yankee fans, desperate to get a competitive team on the field, were mostly forgiving of A-Rod’s transgressions and willing to give him a shot at earning a spot on the roster.  Heck, going into spring training, we weren’t even sure the Yankee organization really wanted him back.

Most baseball analysts were skeptical of Rodriguez’s ability to return to his former capability after having sat out of baseball for more than a season.  Before spring training, expectations of him were being set pretty low, not because people wanted to give him a break, but because they seriously doubted the 39-year-old could surmount coming off of hip surgery and not having played competitively for over a year.

Rodriguez came into spring training camp with his hat, not just his bat, in his hand.  Apparently, he figured out the only way he could get back into the game’s good graces, he was to be humble, accessible, and supportive of the Yankee organization.  While he was saying the right words in interviews and press conferences, many people felt like they could not trust his words, based on his past history of deceit and his verbal assaults on Yankee management, when he was in the mode of defending himself in the Biogenesis scandal of 2013.

Of course, A-Rod’s new attitude was heavily influenced by the $61 million remaining on his contract that he stood to receive over the next three years if he could stay in baseball.  There were rumors the Yankees’ front office was hanging onto a faint ray of hope that somehow Rodriguez would not be able to return, thus allowing them to save this big chunk of money.  However, he seemed determined not to let that happen.

Now, the Yankees are riding on the bright rays of hope from A-Rod’s bat again.  He’s hit 5 home runs and 13 RBI so far, second most on the team in both categories.  He’s also second on the club in On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) percentage and runs scored.  His 477-foot home run last week is an indicator his power has returned.  I’ve heard a few baseball analysts remark that Rodriguez is only hitting fastballs though, so his batting eye likely still needs more work.

Off the field, things are going A-Rod’s way too.  He hasn’t been the distraction to the Yankees some were anticipating when he returned.  He is being the model teammate.  At his home Yankee Stadium, he’s getting cheers, not jeers.

So what if A-Rod continues to get back in the groove of his former self?  A year with 18 home runs, 70 RBI, and a .270 batting average, helping the Yankees win 82 or more games, would have to be classified as a successful return.  Anything more than that would be considered icing on the cake, and could qualify him as a legitimate candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.  Would that award be appropriate, considering the reason Rodriguez did not play last season?

The regular season’s only three weeks old, but A-Rod has answered many of the naysayers so far.  It will be interesting to see if he can he sustain his early performance.

Stay tuned.  This will surely be an intriguing story to follow for the rest of the season.

Baseball In Their Bloodlines

We are all familiar with how some family traditions and legacies are handed down from generation to generation.  Playing baseball is one of those that many fathers pass down to their sons and that brothers relish as they are growing up together.

A special bond often develops between fathers and sons around the sport.  Fond memories are formed around a father buying the first baseball glove and bat for his son, playing catch in the back yard, and attending ballgames together.

These types of bonds are even more special when fathers, sons, and brothers are professional baseball players.  In their cases, they have the good fortune to have their memories include a son shagging balls in the outfield of a major league stadium during batting practice, or hanging out in the clubhouse with dad’s major league teammates.

Some baseball families think of their professional careers in the sport similar to the way some families foster generations of lawyers, doctors, and soldiers.  There’s often an expectation that sons will follow in the footsteps of their fathers and sometimes their grandfathers.  The sport is full of examples of players with baseball lineage.  It has become part of the history and lore of the sport.

Here’s a sampling of some of today’s family relationships in baseball.

Names of current baseball families who have been around a long time, with multiple family members or multiple generations, include Mota, Hairston, Narron, and Paciorek.  Manny Mota, still a coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had five sons to play professionally.  The Hairston family, one of only five families in history with three generations of major leaguers, had a total of ten family members in pro baseball.  Four Paciorek brothers spawned four sons who have followed them in baseball.  The Narron family numbered seven ballplayers.

The generations of baseball families seem to just keep on coming.  Current major leaguers whose grandfathers played in the big leagues include Rick Porcelo (Sam Dente), Derek Dietrich (Steve Demeter), Jayson Werth (Dick Schofield, Sr.), Drew Garcia (Dave Garcia), and Jared Cosart (Ed Donnelly).  Up and coming prospects whose grandfathers played in the majors include Adam Law (Vern Law), Jacob May (Lee May), Mason Williams (Walt Williams) and Grant Hockin (Harmon Killebrew).  Drew Pomeranz is the great grandson of Garland Buckeye, who played in the 1920s.  Minor league player Joe Jackson is the great-great nephew of his namesake, better known as “Shoeless Joe” Jackson.

The Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty and Jesus) of the 1960s and 1970s were a sensation when they were briefly teammates for the San Francisco Giants.  Today, the Seager (Kyle, Corey, and Justin), Rasmus (Colby, Cory, and Casey), and Snyder (Brandon, Matt, and Michael) brother trios are striving for distinction of all having played in the majors.

Following in a Hall of Fame relative’s shoes has to be a pretty daunting task for new prospects, but that is exactly what Mike Yastrzemski, Ryan Ripken, and Cody Yount are attempting in their young careers.

Several of today’s new major league stars, perhaps a couple of them future Hall of Famers, have baseball in their bloodlines:  Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Michael Brantley, Dee Gordon, Joc Pederson, and Matt Wieters.  While Brantley’s and Gordon’s fathers also played at the major league level, the others have already surpassed their dad’s brief minor league careers.

Major league managers and coaches seem to have a propensity for producing professional baseball players.  There were 86 such managers and coaches last season, who accounted for 151 family relationships among current and former players.  Among the current major league sons are Brett Bochy, Scott Van Slyke, Josh Roenicke, and Eric Young Jr.  Minor league sons of major league managers and coaches include Chad Wallach, Tanner Vavra, Brian Fletcher, Francisco Pena, Matt Scioscia, and Cameron Seitzer.

I’ve recently completed an update of my Family Ties database for the 2014 major and minor league players who had relatives in professional baseball.  The number of players now totals 659, while managers and coaches add up to 86.  Between these two groups, they represent over 1,000 family relationships with current and former professional players.

Of the 659 players, 227 had major league experience, which is 16% of the total number of major league players in 2014.

20 players that made their major league debuts in 2014 had relatives as pro players.  That’s 8.5% of all the players who made their big league debuts that season.

73 amateur players drafted in the 2014 MLD Draft had current or former relatives in pro baseball, which is 6% of all the players drafted in 2014.

The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates used the popular disco song, “We Are Family,” as their theme of team unity, as they battled to a World Series title.  That song also applies today, representing the numerous family ties that are prominent in the sport.

The 2014 Family Ties list can be retrieved at http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/family-ties-2014-season/.

Prolific Brother Tandem: Gaylord and Jim Perry

Former major league pitcher Gaylord Perry’s career is often remembered for his use of Vaseline and other illegal substances while pitching in games.  In fact, he won 314 games, was a Cy Young Award winner twice, and is eighth on the all-time strikeout list.  Despite the allegations of his use of illegal substances to get an advantage over hitters, he was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1991.  What is less known about Gaylord is that he had a brother, Jim, who was a productive pitcher in the big leagues himself.  Together, they rank among the most prolific brothers in major league history.

 

Here’s a sampling of some of the Perry brother accomplishments:

 

  • Only brothers in history to both win the Cy Young Award

 

  • Most career games pitched by brothers (1,407), behind Phil and Joe Niekro (1,566)

 

  • Most career wins  by brothers (529), behind the Niekros (539)

 

  • Most career strikeouts by brothers (5,110), ahead of the Niekros (5,089)

 

  • First brothers to pitch against each other in an American League game (1973)

 

Following are brief bios of the Perry brothers.

 

Gaylord Perry

Gaylord received a reported $90,000 to sign with the San Francisco Giants organization in 1958.  The 19-year-old right-handed pitcher made his professional debut with Class D St. Cloud of the Northern League, whom he helped win the regular season.  He established himself as a workhorse pitcher in the Texas League during the next two seasons, averaging 190 innings and 120 strikeouts, and leading the league in ERA with 2.82 in 1960.  In 1961, with Triple-A Tacoma, he led the Pacific Coast League in innings pitched and tied for the league lead in wins (16), as Tacoma won the league championship.

 

Gaylord started the 1962 season with the San Francisco Giants, making his major league debut on April 14 in a no-decision against the Cincinnati Reds.  He appeared in 13 games with the Giants, winning three games, but also pitched for Tacoma, again leading the Pacific Coast League in ERA with 2.48.  The Giants won the National League pennant that year by one game over the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Gaylord made the Giants club for good in 1963, but most of his appearances were in relief, as he finished with a 1-6 record in 31 games.

 

He hurled five complete games and two shutouts in 19 starts in 1964, but also finished 11 games as a reliever, compiling five saves for the Giants.  Gaylord’s combined won-lost record was 12-11 and he posted a 2.75 ERA on a team whose combined ERA was 3.19.  He finally broke into the Giants’ regular starting rotation in 1965 with Juan Marichal, Bob Shaw, and Ron Herbel. He struck out 170 in 196 innings and compiled an 8-12 won-lost record, but his ERA ballooned to 4.16 for the second-place Giants.

 

Gaylord had his breakout year in 1966, compiling 21 wins and 8 losses, 201 strikeouts and 2.99 ERA.  He and Juan Marichal combined for 46 of the Giants’ 93 wins that season, with the Giants finishing in second place behind the Los Angeles Dodgers by 1 ½ games.  On July 22, he struck out 15 batters in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.  He would go on to win 15 or more games in the next 12 seasons.  He was the winning pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game that year. 

 

The Giants remained competitive during the next three seasons, finishing in second place in the National League in 1967 and 1968, and second place in the West Division in 1969.  Gaylord won 50 games, but also lost 46, during those years.  He posted consecutive ERAs of 2.61, 2.44, and 2.49.  On September 17, 1968, he pitched a 1-0 no-hitter over the St. Louis Cardinals.  On the very next day, the Cardinals’ Ray Washburn no-hit the Giants, 2-0.  In 1970, Gaylord led the league in innings pitched (329) for the second straight year and tied for the league lead with 23 wins.  He was selected to his second All-Star Game.  After a 16-12 season with the Giants in 1971, the 32-year-old was traded with pitcher Frank Duffy to the Cleveland Indians for fire-baller Sam McDowell.

 

Gaylord went from a contender to a cellar-dweller with the Indians.  However, he did more than his part to make them a winning club, by posting a 24-16 record in an incredible 343 innings pitched and 29 complete games.  He tied for the AL lead in wins, and perhaps most amazingly, his ERA was a paltry 1.92, only .01 behind league leader Luis Tiant.  He made his third All-Star team and was voted the Cy Young Award winner.  Gaylord had another workhorse season in 1973 with a career-high 344 innings and 29 complete games, but his record was 19-19 and ERA 3.38 after yielding 56 more earned runs than the previous season.  The Indians finished dead last in the Eastern Division by 28 games.  In 1974, he won 21 games, his fourth time with at least 20 wins in a season.  He had a 15 consecutive game win streak ended by the Oakland Athletics on July 8. He was selected to his fourth All-Star team.

 

After a slow start (6-9 record) in 1975 with the Indians, he was traded in June to the Texas Rangers for three players and cash.  He compiled a 12-8 record for the remainder of the season for the third-place Rangers.  On April 18, 1975, he yielded Hank Aaron’s first American League home run, the 734th of Aaron’s career.  At age 37 in 1976 with the Rangers, when some had thoughts Gaylord was winding down his career, he made 32 starts, including 21 complete games, and posted a 15-14 won-lost record.  After one more 15-12 season with the Rangers, he was traded to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Dave Tomlin and $125,000.

 

Gaylord showed he had no intention of slowing his career down, as he posted is fifth career 20+ win season, compiling a 21-6 won-lost record and leading the league in wins and winning percentage in 1978.  He became the third hurler to win 20 or more games for three different teams, the others being Carl Mays and Grover Alexander.  He also won his second Cy Young Award, the first pitcher to win the award in both leagues.  He was 12-11 in 1979 for the Padres, but spent the last month of the season on the suspended list, because he quit the Padres when they would not honor his request to be traded back to the Texas Rangers.

 

In 1980, the Padres reluctantly traded Gaylord to the Rangers.  He split the season between the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees. He was traded to the New York Yankees on August 14, and he was eager to join a pennant contender, having never played in a World Series.  He split eight decisions in the last 6 weeks of the season.  The Yankees won the East Division title, but were bested by the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship series.  For the entire 1980 season, Gaylord started 32 games and compiled a 10-13 won-lost record.

 

From 1981 to his last season, 1983, Gaylord won 25 and lost 35, while pitching for the Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals.  On May 6, 1982, he hurled a complete game win over the New York Yankees for his 300th victory.  He pitched his final major league game on September 21, 1983.

 

Throughout his career, Gaylord was the subject of many debates regarding his use of the illegal “spitball” pitch.  Going back as far as 1964, he was accused of throwing the pitch in games.  In his book in 1974, he finally came clean and admitted to an occasional use.  However, he spent most of his career denying he ever threw the illegal pitch.  After the Organized Baseball’s rules committee finally outlawed the practice of a pitcher putting his hand to his mouth anywhere on the pitcher’s mound, Gaylord and other pitchers reportedly learned to use other hidden substances, such as Vaseline gel, to get the moisture needed to throw the spitball.  Umpires and opposing managers were seemingly always trying to catch him in the act.  However, it wasn’t until August 23, 1982, that Gaylord was ejected from a game for throwing the illegal pitch.

 

Gaylord was 44 years old when he ended his 22-year major league career.  At the time of his retirement, his 314 wins were the 11th most on the all-time list, and his 3,534 strikeouts were the third most in history. However, he never led the league in strikeouts.  He pitched in a total of 777 games, losing 265. In 690 games started, he pitched 303 complete games and 33 shutouts; and posted a 3.11 ERA. Gaylord did not start an Opening Day major league game until he was 31 years old, but wound up pitching the first day of the season a total of nine times for five clubs.  Gaylord was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, on his third try.

 

 

Jim Perry

Jim was signed by the Cleveland Indians organization in 1956 at 19 years old and began his professional career that year at Class D North Platte of the Nebraska State League, compiling a 7-8 record.  At Class C Fargo-Moorhead of the Northern League, the right-hander posted a 15-12 record, with 150 strikeouts and 2.88 ERA.  He advanced to Reading of the Class A Eastern League in 1958, where he hurled a 16-8 record and 2.79 ERA.

 

Jim made the Indians’ major league roster in 1959 as a relief pitcher, but also worked in 13 starts.  His 12 wins were the third most on the team, and his 2.65 ERA was the best of the staff, as the Indians finished in second place in the American League to the Chicago White Sox.  Jim finished in second place (to Bob Allison) in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.  Jim became the number one starter for the Indians in 1960, and posted 18 wins, tied for first in the league, and hurled four shutouts. Jim established a major league record for most home runs (15) allowed in a season against a single club, the New York Yankees.  In 1961, his record dipped to 10-17 in 35 starts for the fifth-place Indians.  However, he was selected to the American League All-Star team.

 

After a 12-win season in 1962, Jim was traded by the Indians early in 1963 to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Jack Kralick.  He joined a staff including Dick Stigman, Camilo Pascual, and Jim Kaat and started 35 games for the Twins, posting a 9-9 won-lost record.  The Twins added pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant in 1964, and Jim was relegated to a reliever role, as he compiled a 6-3 record.

 

He reclaimed his starting role in 1965 and helped Minnesota win its first pennant in franchise history, compiling a 12-7 record and 2.63 ERA.  He made two relief appearances in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but did not get a decision.  The Twins lost the Series in seven games to the Dodgers who were led by hurlers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen.

 

The Twins contended for the American League pennant in 1966 and 1967, finishing in second place both years, but they dropped to 7th place in 1968.  Jim won 27 games over those three years, but lost his starter role again.  However, in 1969 he and Dave Boswell each won 20 games for the Twins as they won the American League Western Division, its first year of existence.  Jim started one game in the League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles, but did not get a decision.  The Twins were swept by the Orioles in three games. On July 20, 1969, Jim was credited with two Twins’ victories against the Seattle Pilots, including a completion of a suspended game from the day before.  Including both games, Jim pitched 11 scoreless innings.

 

Jim was the main reason the Twins repeated as Western Division champs again in 1970.  He won a league-leading 24 games, posted a 3.03 ERA and pitched 13 complete games, on his way to winning the American League Cy Young Award.  However, the Twins were again defeated by the Orioles in the League Championship Series, with Jim taking the loss in one of the three ALCS games.  Jim was selected to his second All-Star team and he struck out three in his two-inning appearance.

 

The Twins dropped to 5th place in 1971, the 35-year-old Jim still won 17 games, as well as losing 17 games (2nd most in the league).  After one more season with the Twins in 1972, including 16 losses, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.  He joined a staff of Mickey Lolich, Joe Coleman, and Woody Fryman, and finished 14-13 for the 3rd-place Tigers.

 

Jim was involved in a three-team trade in March 1974, when he was sent to the Cleveland Indians.  He joined a pitching staff that included his brother Gaylord.  Jim had double-digit wins (17) for the 12th time in his career, while his brother posted 21 wins.  Jim spent one more season in the majors in 1975, splitting the season between Cleveland and the Oakland A’s.

 

During his 17-year career, Jim compiled a 215-174 won-lost record in 630 games.  He struck out 1,576 batters in 3,285.7 innings pitched, and posted a 3.45 ERA.  Jim was a switch-hitter and had a career .199 batting average.  He was a three-time All-Star.

Active Off-Season to Influence 2015 Post-Season

This past baseball off-season was noteworthy for the amount of player movements among the major league teams.  Several teams’ GMs made statements that they were serious about getting to the 2015 post-season.  Teams such as the Padres, Marlins, and White Sox really stepped out of their financial comfort zones to make improvements.  Traditional financially healthy clubs like the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox

The balance of power in MLB is evident this season, as I figure there are only a couple of teams who seem assured of winning more than 90 games.  The Central Division titles of both leagues are up for grabs for practically every team in those divisions.

The potential chink in the armor for all of the big league teams, of course, is the health of the clubs throughout the season.  It seemed like every day during spring training there was another pitcher being lost for the season to arm injury.  The situation has practically reached epidemic proportions.  I read a recent article purporting one-third of the professional pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery.  Last year, for example, the Texas Rangers used 40 different pitchers during the season because of injuries.  There are already some teams affected by injuries before Opening Day.

So here are my division race predictions for the 2015 season.

AL East (1. Orioles, 2. Red Sox)

I am picking the Orioles to lead the division, despite losing Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.  The Orioles have a chip on their shoulder because of the way the 2014 playoffs ended, after they led the East for most of the season.  A durable pitching staff stayed intact from last year.  I’m also a big Buck Showalter fan, because he seems to have a way of getting role players to step up every day.

The Red Sox were a big player in the off-season, adding two big boppers to their offense, Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez.  They will score a lot of runs, but whether it will be more than their pitching staff will give up is different question.  They acquired their entire starting rotation in the off-season, but none of them is a true ace who can carry the team on his back.  There are still some thoughts that premier pitchers Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto will go on the market during the season, and you can bet the Red Sox will be in the hunt for them.  However, I am picking them as runner-up to the Orioles.

The Blue Jays scored big acquisitions with Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, but their pitching will let them down again.  They have some promising rookie pitchers, but they are unproven.  I’m sad to say the Yankees (my favorite team) didn’t get any younger, and their pitching staff is one those I mentioned previously who is starting the season with health questions carried over from last year.  However, if they get a few surprises, or should I say miracles, from the geriatric and banged-up players, they could contend as runner-up in the division.  The Rays organization decimated what little offense they had, as well as their club leadership, with the loss of manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman.  The only “ray” of hope they have is a hardy, young pitching staff.

 

AL Central (1. Indians, 2. White Sox)

The Central Division will feature a very tight race this year.  Only the Twins are not expected to contend.  I’m going with the Indians this year to win the division title.  They fell a few games short of the playoffs last season, and with the same bunch of guys in place this year, they will surpass last season’s record.  They may have the best little-known team in baseball.  Ace pitcher Cory Klueber will prove he was no “one-year wonder” last season.  They have the touted prospect Francisco Lindor waiting in the wings to take an infield spot.  Like the Orioles, they have a seasoned manager in Terry Francona.

I’m passing on the Tigers and Royals, last year’s representatives of the division in the post-season, to repeat at the top.

The AL champ Royals barely squeaked into the playoff last season, getting hot at the right time late in the year and then carrying that over into the playoffs.  They still have a decent team, but I don’t believe their performance is sustainable, although their relief core is one of the best in the league.

The Tigers will have the benefit of a full-year from David Price.  I expect him to contend for the Cy Young Award in the AL.  However, he will need big help to make up for the loss of former Tigers pitchers Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, who accounted for 33 wins and 424 innings among them.  Plus, it’s not a good sign that Justin Verlander is starting the season with a questionable arm.  Their bullpen was a real weakness last season and they did nothing to better themselves in 2015.  After four consecutive first-place finishes, I’m predicting they don’t get to the playoffs this season.

The White Sox have my vote as the division runner-up behind the Indians.  They were one of the most active teams in the off-season, adding four solid free agents that improved both their offense and pitching.  Veteran additions Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche should be able to better protect last year’s Rookie of the Year slugger, Jose Abreu, at the plate.  Pitcher Jeff Samardija adds a legitimate No. 2 starter behind ace Chris Sale, and closer David Robertson, acquired from the Yankees, gives them legitimacy out of the bullpen.  Furthermore, watch out for rookie starting pitcher Carlos Rodon.  Even though he has only one season in professional baseball under his belt, I believe he will be in the rotation by mid-season.  The White Sox will make their first return to the playoffs since 2008.

 

AL West (1. Mariners, 2. Angels)

The Mariners showed they were a team on the rise last season, narrowly missing a wild card spot by one game.  Well, in 2015, I am projecting they will be able to put it all together for an outright division title.  They were missing a big-time slugger last year, so Nelson Cruz was a huge pickup for the Mariners over the winter.  Their middle of the lineup, with Robinson Cano, Cruz, and Kyle Seager, will be a potent one.  “King” Felix Hernandez will lead another good pitching staff this year.

The Angels won the most games in the American League last year, but I expect them to have a drop-off in 2015, yet still good enough for a second-place finish.  They have the best player in the game, Mike Trout, who can carry the team with all of his tools.  The loss of second baseman Howie Kendrick will be felt more than they expect, and even though Josh Hamilton wasn’t on the field as much as they would have liked last season, he was still a feared presence in the lineup.  The Angels won’t be able to count on him in 2015 due to his off-the-field problems.  They are hopeful to get a full season from pitcher Garrett Richards, who has developed as one of the league’s best up-and-coming hurlers.

The A’s were active in the off-season, but in a negative way, especially with the unthinkable trade of their best player, Josh Donaldson.  They will field five new players in the starting lineup after the “fire sale” over the winter.  However, they will still manage to find a way to beat out the Rangers and Astros in the division.  The A’s pitching staff will still hold its own despite the loss of free-agents John Lester and Jeff Samardija.  Pay attention to newcomer Kendall Graveman in the back of their starting rotation.

The Rangers and Astros will be battling for first place in the State of Texas, but unfortunately the winner will still only wind up in fourth place in the division.  Both teams added much-needed new managers over the winter.  The Astros’ re-building plan started several years ago won’t fully kick in until next year, although Jose Altuve and George Springer are legitimate stars now.  It’s hard to tell what the Rangers’ plan is, especially in the pitching department.

 

NL East (1. Nationals, 2. Marlins)

The Nationals will reign as division champs again, with no serious challengers for first place.  Their starting pitching is off the chart, compared to the rest of the league.  Three of their starters, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasbourg, and Jordan Zimmerman, could practically be No. 1 starters on any of the teams in the league.  And back of the rotation starters Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez would be great No. 2’s for most teams.  Losing first baseman Adam LaRoche will hurt some in run production, but provides an opportunity to get defensive liability Ryan Zimmerman off of third base.  Third baseman Anthony Rendon is emerging as a perennial MVP candidate, but is starting the season on the disabled list.

The Marlins made an uncharacteristic commitment to player salaries over the winter, and I believe it will pay off this season with another significant jump in wins and a second-place finish.  They filled some holes in the starting lineup with acquisitions, notably adding Martin Prado, an all-purpose player and a great clubhouse guy.  Veteran pitchers Mat Latos and Dan Haren will complement the younger staff.  Ace pitcher Jose Fernandez won’t return from Tommy John surgery until after mid-season, but will provide a nice late-season boost to the Marlins.  The biggest flaw I can see in the team is that slugger Giancarlo Stanton doesn’t have much protection in the batting order.

It was tough picking the Marlins over the Mets this season, but I believe the Mets lack the offensive punch to go with their solid pitching staff.  Matt Harvey seems primed for a repeat season from 2013, showing no effects of his surgery last season.  Losing starting pitcher Zack Wheeler this season isn’t as devastating as it might otherwise be, since they have other young arms behind him.  The Mets needed a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but newly acquired 36-year-old Michael Cuddyer won’t be enough.

The Braves and Phillies will finish in a distant fourth and fifth place, respectively.  I’m sorry, but Braves outfielder B. J. Upton’s name change to Melvin Jr. won’t guarantee he will hit above .208 this season.  The biggest news expected from the Phillies this season will be who they get in a trade for ace Cole Hamels during the season.  It’s time for Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to go.  He’s done all the damage he can do to the team.

 

NL Central (1. Cardinals, 2. Pirates)

I’ve heard the Cardinals characterized as the “San Antonio Spurs of baseball”—year in and year out a solid team with expectations for a division title.  This year won’t be different, although I expect the Cardinals’ divisional competition to push them again in a race down to the wire.  The Cardinals have a deep team, even with the loss of promising outfielder Oscar Taveras, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident over the winter.  If they should happen to suffer any setbacks due to injury during the season, their farm system has players ready to step into big league roles.  Veterans Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina figure to lead this team again to the playoffs.  They bring back essentially the same pitching staff as last season, with Carlos Martinez getting a full-time spot in the rotation.

After so many years of mediocrity, the Pirates seem to be on a track to be a perennial contender in the division.  They are hopeful they can now get past the first round of the playoffs.  They will finish behind the Cardinals again, but it should still be good enough for a playoff berth.  The Pirates will miss catcher Russell Martin who was very effective with the Pirates pitching staff, but all of their other roster spots return with familiar faces, and they also have some versatility off the bench.  Last year’s rookie outfielder Gregory Polanco will start to reach his potential and add some batting order strength around yearly MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen.  If big right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole can get through a full season, the opposition better look out.  The rest of the pitching staff is not overpowering, but is stingy with giving up runs.

There won’t be any push-overs from the rest of the teams in the division.  There has been a lot of buzz about the Chicago Cubs because of their aggressive off-season and the cast of young players on the verge of stardom.  New manager Joe Maddon will make them competitive this year, but I believe they their time will come in 2016.  I don’t see the Cubs getting a playoff berth this year.  The Brewers had a legitimate shot at the division title last year, but fell off the map in September.  They have some solid players in the lineup, but I think their pitching won’t hold up.  Ditto for the Reds.  Their ace pitcher, Johnny Cueto, is a free agent at the end of this season, and it is likely the Reds will shop him around during the season to get some premium players or prospects.  However, the Reds and Brewers will still create some challenges for the rest of the teams in the division.

 

NL West (1. Dodgers, 2. Padres)

The Dodgers were one of the teams that did somewhat of a make-over during the off-season.  I get the feeling they are still a team in transition because some promising prospects will challenge for spots occupied by upcoming free agents.  However, the team being put on the field in 2015 will find a way to repeat as division champs.  If the Dodgers have made some bad off-season acquisitions, they have the financial wherewithal to correct them during the season.  As in the past, pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke will do a lot to carry the team, but their bullpen is an open question until Kenley Jansen gets back from foot surgery.

As much change as the Dodgers created for themselves this year, their Southern California rival, the Padres, did more.  Their pitching staff, although not well-known, was already among the best in the league, yet the Padres added free agent pitchers James Shields and Brandon Morrow.  Their off-season activities also significantly upgraded their offense with Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton.  I’m drinking the Padres kool-aid that they will immediately contend for the division title, leap-frog the defending World Series champion Giants, but yet not overtake the Dodgers.

It’s not an even-numbered year, so the Giants aren’t scheduled to contend for the National League title again this season.  (Recall they won the World Series in 2010, 2012 in addition to last year.)  The Giants stood pat on their lineup from last season, making only a half-hearted attempt to replace free-agent Pablo Sandoval who signed with the Red Sox.  Behind last year’s World Series hero, Madison Bumgarner, the pitching staff is highly questionable with aging veterans Tim Hudson and Jake Peavey and weary-armed Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.  One saving grace is that the Giants have future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy at the manager’s helm.  He’s as good as they come these days.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies will be the cellar-dwellers of the West Division this year.  There’s not much chance they will make an impact this year, except to boost the records of the other teams.

 

Post-Season Predictions

The White Sox and Angels will be wild card teams, and the Mariners will win their first-ever American League pennant.

The Padres and Pirates will be wild card teams in the National League, while the Washington Nationals will also be first-time champions of the National League.

I’m picking the Nationals to win it all.

Happy Opening Day!  I still think it should be a national holiday.

Fats Dantonio among baseball's replacement players during World War II

Under normal circumstances, New Orleanian John “Fats” Dantonio would have been an unlikely candidate to play major league baseball.  However, because over 60% of the players on the 1941 Opening Day rosters left baseball for military service during World War II, the sport needed replacement players to provide continuity in the game during a period when the country desperately sought diversions from news of the overseas battlegrounds.  A former New Orleans Pelican minor leaguer, Dantonio happened to be at the right place and at the right time to make a major league team roster during the war years.

A new book recently released by Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II, profiles forty-eight players whose careers in major league baseball were tied to the shortage of players during the war.  Because of the large number of unknown, unproven players who ascended to big league rosters during the war years, it was the proverbial case of needing a scorecard to know who was in the starting lineup, hence the book title, “Who’s on First.”

During the four seasons (1942-1945) the United States was at war, major league clubs struggled in their attempt to keep their rosters filled with viable players.  The book recounts that during this time 533 players made their major league debuts.  There were 67 first-time major leaguers under the age of 21.  Two disabled players, one-armed Pete Gray and Bert Shepard, a former POW with an artificial leg, were pressed into major league service since they had been good athletes who rose above their disabilities. In fact, the 1944 St. Louis Browns team included thirteen players who were classified as 4-F.  These were the types of drastic measures major league teams were taking.

Dantonio’s biography is among those featured in the book.  He was one of the replacement players for the Brooklyn Dodgers, getting his opportunity for promotion as a late-season call-up in September 1944 and then seeing big league action in 1945.

A native of New Orleans, Dantonio graduated from Jesuit High School in 1937, after playing on a state championship team the year before with teammates Connie Ryan and Charlie Gilbert, who would later have major league careers.

Dantonio’s first professional baseball season was in 1938.  He started out as an outfielder and shortstop, but switched to the catcher position by 1941, when he played for Class C Springfield of the Western Association.  Future St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial was a teammate of Dantonio’s at Springfield, and they became life-long friends, despite Dantonio’s brief big league career.

In 1942, Dantonio signed with the hometown New Orleans Pelicans, then a Cardinals affiliate.  His Pelicans’ battery-mates included New Orleanian pitchers Al Jurisich, Ray Yochim, and Jesse Danna.  Another teammate was his childhood friend, Russell Gildig, who was responsible for Dantonio acquiring the nickname “Fats.”  However, Dantonio had to share catching duties with Jerry Burmeister and wound up batting .256.

Dantonio received a medical exemption from military service.  He held a defense-related job at Delta Shipyards, for whom he played in semi-pro baseball leagues on Sundays.  Desperate for players, the Pelicans, who had switched their affiliation to the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Dantonio in May 1943 as a back-up catcher.  However, Dantonio continued his defense job and played with the Pelicans only when they were playing home games.

He returned to full-time status with the Pelicans in 1944 and had a banner season with them, compiling a .327 average, although he still shared catching duties.  During that same time, the parent Brooklyn Dodgers, under manager Leo Durocher, were having one of their worst seasons.  Their roster had included 18-year-old pitchers, Ralph Branca and Cal McLish, and 16-year-old outfielder Tommy Brown.  With a roster in constant turmoil, the Dodgers had already used four different catchers, when they purchased Dantonio’s contract in mid-September to see how he would play under fire.  The 25-year-old Dantonio made his major league debut on September 18 in a pinch-hit appearance and then saw action in two other games that season.

Thus, Dantonio’s route to the majors was not a predictable one.  Just a year earlier than his debut season, he wasn’t even playing in the Pelicans’ road games due to his civilian job.  Furthermore, in the same year as his promotion, he was still sharing playing time as catcher with the Pelicans.  But that was how things were during the war.

Slated to start the 1945 season at Double-A Montreal, Dantonio got a break when regular Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen was inducted into the Navy in May.  Durocher inserted Dantonio into the Dodgers lineup as the primary catcher during the month of June.  However, Dantonio was inconsistent as a hitter and error-prone as a backstop in his major league stint and was consequently demoted to St. Paul in July.  He was later able to return as a backup catcher to finish out the season.  Overall, he played in 47 games for the Dodgers, compiling a batting average of .250 and collecting 12 RBI.

In 1946, most of the regular major league players returned from military service, and Dantonio never got another chance to make a big league club.  Roy Campanella came along a couple of years later to cement himself as the Dodgers’ starting catcher, eventually being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Dantonio went on to play three more seasons in the minors, including the final season of his pro career as a Pelican in 1948.

Regardless of the reasons for his reaching the big leagues, Dantonio is counted among only 18,000-plus players in baseball’s history of over 140 years to have the label “major leaguer.”

Following his playing days, Dantonio remained a popular sports personality in New Orleans.  His baseball career was honored by being named to the halls of fame of Jesuit High School, the Diamond Club, and Louisiana American Italian Sports.

Nolan Vicknair Fell Short of his Dream, Yet Still Accomplished Much

In my ongoing quest to add to my database of New Orleans area baseball players who went on to play at the collegiate or professional levels, I recently came across West Banker Nolan Vicknair whose aspiration, starting at a very young age, was to be a career professional baseball player.

Vicknair indeed reached baseball’s minor league level, but his stint in pro baseball consisted of only 56 games during 1946 and 1947.  In a recent interview with him, Vicknair claimed, “I was born to be a professional baseball player, but I was the victim of circumstances that worked against me in realizing my dream of making a career of baseball.”  However, this statement does not come from a man who suffers from a case of “sour grapes.”  His bulging scrapbook attests to his still managing to have an outstanding career in sports in the New Orleans area.

Vicknair was born in Marrero, Louisiana, where he attended elementary and high school.  One of the athletic skills that he would use throughout his sports career began to blossom as an early teenager, when he set a school record for the 75-yard dash as a 13-year-old.  According to Vicknair, minimum age requirements for high school sports were often overlooked at that time, so he was enlisted for the high school football team in the sixth grade because they could use his speed as a scatback, an old term for a speedy, all-purpose halfback. 

He played baseball, basketball, and football in his first two years at Marrero High School.  It was there that he first gained attention as a baseball player.  He recalls an American Legion game against the Jesuit-based team in his sophomore year in which he struck out the first nine batters of the game.  It happened that Branch Rickey, the St. Louis Cardinals’ general manager, was in attendance that day.  Rickey had occasion to be in town for a prospect tryout camp, since the New Orleans Pelicans were a minor league affiliate of the Cardinals.  Vicknair crossed paths with Rickey after the game.  According to Vicknair, Rickey told him, “Kid, you have talent.  After you finish high school, you should consider a baseball career.”  That assessment further fueled Vicknair’s dream of playing pro baseball.

Vicknair relocated to Port Arthur, Texas, for his junior year of high school to live with relatives.  He attended St. Mary’s High School there, contributing as a starter at halfback on the 1941 football team, which ultimately won the south-east state championship that year.

World War II was well underway by this time, and Vicknair enlisted in the Navy in April 1943, immediately upon turning 17 years of age.  He served almost three years which included a six-month stint in Australia and a tour of duty on the destroyer USS Bearss that saw action against the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Still interested in pursuing a baseball career after his military service ended in December 1945, Vicknair attended a tryout camp with the New Orleans Pelicans in the spring of 1946, after which business manager Vincent Rizzo wanted to sign Vicknair as a pitcher.  Near the same time, one of Vicknair’s acquaintances from school got him an appointment with Gretna native Mel Ott, then the New York Giants manager.  Ott passed on the information about a Giants spring training camp at Fort Smith, Arkansas, where 150 prospects showed up, vying for forty spots that would make up two minor league rosters in the Giants’ system.

Vicknair opted to go to Fort Smith, fortunately making the cut, and was assigned to the Class D roster of the Oshkosh Giants of the Wisconsin State League.  He figured he was on his way to the big leagues.  He started the season as a regular outfielder where, once again, speed was at the core of his game.  Vicknair recalls that he could change a game with his base-running skills.  As a leadoff batter, he would give pitchers fits once he got on base.  One of his favorite situations was the double steal.

Vicknair missed games due to a leg infection from being spiked, as well as chronic pulled muscles, which kept him off the field numerous times.  Toward the end of the season, he was involved in an unfortunate accident, as he was was struck in the jaw by a ball thrown by the opposing second baseman as he approached second base on a double play.  His jawbone was broken in six places, which required it to be wired shut.  To make matters worse, he contracted blood poisoning during the recovery process, and at one point he was not expected to live.

As a testament to his being a fan favorite in Oshkosh, Vicknair’s scrapbook contained numerous get-well cards from devoted fans while he was in the hospital.  He recalls that a local Oshkosh businessman befriended him, several times writing him checks to supplement his meager baseball income, as well as allowing him to take his boat out on a nearby lake.  Altogether, Vicknair appeared in 45 games and hit for a .193 batting average for the 1946 season.

In the spring of 1947, the Giants organization conducted a minor league camp in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the site of John D. Rockefeller’s mansion and estate.  Vicknair recalls getting his weekly pay from legendary pitcher Carl Hubbell, who was the head of the Giants minor league organization at the time.  Most of the players on the 1946 Oshkosh club advanced to the next level, but Vicknair started the regular season again in Oshkosh.

When he didn’t get any playing time at the beginning of the season, Vicknair asked for and received his release from the Giants.  He vividly remembers the feedback he received from Oshkosh manager Ray Lucas, “You are a valuable player with your speed, good in the clubhouse.  But we expect our outfielders to hit home runs, and you are more of a contact hitter.”  At 5’ 6” and 150 pounds, Vicknair was at a disadvantage in meeting these expectations.

He returned to New Orleans where he received a call from Harry Strohm, who was the manager of New Iberia of the Evangeline League. He signed on with New Iberia, where one of his teammates was fellow New Orleanian Lenny Yochim.  Vicknair recalls about Yochim, “Besides being a good pitcher at that time, Lenny could really hit the ball too.  He would play first base when not pitching.”  Yochim would go on to play briefly in the majors, but actually made his biggest mark in professional baseball as a scouting supervisor in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Shortly after the start of the season, Strohm was fired as manager and replaced by Vernon Thoele, who came from the New Orleans Pelicans.  After appearing in only eleven games, Vicknair was released by Thoele.  Vicknair believes the new manager acted on advice from the Pelicans’ Vincent Rizzo, who likely held a grudge because Vicknair had rejected Rizzo’s offer in 1946.

So, Vicknair’s dream took a big step backwards.

With baseball still in his blood, Vicknair began playing in semi-professional leagues in the New Orleans area.  It was a usual practice for the semi-pro teams to include former-minor league players, as well as active players during the minor league off-season.  For example, Vicknair played against New Orleans professionals like Fats Dantonio and Pete Modica.  Vicknair’s scrapbook shows a 1950 newspaper clipping of a prominent independent baseball team, the Mohawks, he managed on the West Bank.  Over the years, he also played for various teams in the Audubon League and the Mel Ott League.  Vicknair says his performances were frequently featured in the States-Item newspaper by sportswriter Hap Glaudi, who later became a legendary sports radio personality in New Orleans.

Eight years after he had last played in the minors, Vicknair got one more opportunity for a professional tryout with the Milwaukee Braves minor league organization in Waycross, Georgia.  Vicknair recalls the tryouts were being conducted by former major leaguer Skeeter Webb.  However, Vicknair says he was not fully in shape when he reported.  After striking out three times in a scrimmage game, he decided to finally give up on his dream as a professional player.

Vicknair began working as a machinist for Avondale Shipyards in 1951.  This began another phase of his sports career, when he pitched for company-sponsored teams in over-hand-pitch softball leagues for fifteen years.  A knuckleball pitcher, he once hurled a no-hit, no-run game in 1963 for Avondale in the local CAA Softball League.  A newspaper article in his scrapbook reported that it was the first no-hitter hurled in that league.  Vicknair was a significant contributor to Avondale Shipyard’s perennial reputation for fielding superior teams, including several league championships.  He kept himself in shape and continued to play softball in various leagues until he was 65 years old.

In addition to playing all sports, Vicknair also took an active interest in coaching.  He firmly believed he had a knack for picking talent, as well as learning and applying game strategies in each of the sports.  He was often the player-coach for many of his teams.

He was among the first members of the New Orleans Diamond Club, a fraternity of former professional baseball players who met regularly and played occasional “old-timer” games.

Vicknair will turn 90 years old in April.  A self-described “people person,” he comes across as someone who is willing to talk to anyone about sports or practically anything else.  For example, just ask him about the champion show dogs he once had or the Cajun-style dancing he has done.  He might also give you a photo of himself in a New York Giants uniform from his minor league days.

Vicknair’s baseball dream was not unlike that of thousands of youngsters before and after him.  In another time or in a different set of circumstances, Vicknair’s dream might have been more fully realized.  He missed three prime years of development as a player due to his time in the service.  Injuries in his first minor league season further hampered his development and adjustment to professional baseball.  It turned out he didn’t exactly fit into the Giants’ mold for outfielders in those days.  Yet all these deterrents didn’t discourage his love of sports, especially baseball, since he still became an accomplished player and coach during his era of local sports.

Vicknair’s career is a meaningful part of the sports history and lore of the New Orleans area.  Indeed, he has much to be proud of.

The Growing Role of Analytics in Baseball

For several years now, technology advances and the amount of new data captured about baseball games and its players have created new methods for routinely evaluating players and developing strategies for player development.  A new set of advanced metrics have produced new ways of looking at the sport, some of them challenging the conventional wisdom established through the nearly 140 years of major league baseball.

It’s not surprising that the baseball industry has embraced the use of data analytics.  Competitive industries such as insurance, retail, and finance have been using it for many years to optimize their businesses.  The technologies to support data analytics in those industries have translated well to baseball.  Baseball’s front-office staffs are now skilled in the use of the technologies and are applying it to the business of baseball.

No longer are the long-time baseball metrics of Batting Average (BA), Home Runs (HR), Runs Batted In (RBI), Wins (W), Losses (L), and Earned Run Average (ERA) sufficient for evaluating players’ performance.  They don’t tell the full story about actual performance on the field and how players should be valued by the team. 

The newer advanced metrics, often collectively referred to as sabermetrics, bring new terminology and measures, including Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), Defensive-Independent ERA, and Equivalent Average (EQA).  The newer metrics enhance the comparison of individual players with the average player in the sport in various hitting, fielding and pitching categories.  They also attempt to quantify a player’s performance independent of other team members’ performances, as well as representing players’ performances in a normalized view of the various ballpark conditions across the major leagues.  Thus, these types of metrics attempt to provide a truer gauge of individual performance.  However, you practically need a math degree to fully understand how some of these new metrics are calculated. 

Initially the book “Moneyball,” published in 2003, and then the follow-on movie in 2011 popularized the trend toward baseball analytics.  However, Bill James had been promoting the use of different kinds of metrics for evaluating players since the mid-1970s.  Back then, James was cranking out numbers with pencil and paper.  The advent of personal computers then helped fuel James’ approach.  Nowadays, gigabytes of data, managed in huge databases, and manipulated by sophisticated analytics software are standard tools used by every major league team.

Baseball operations staffs for major league teams now include MBAs, mathematicians, data modelers, and analysts whose job is to identify critical relationships, correlations, and trends from the massive amounts of historical data available.  They directly contribute to formulating game strategies for field managers and evaluating player performance for the scouting and player development departments chartered with building the teams.

For example, some teams are focusing on building their lineups to include players who have high on-base percentages and who have a propensity to prevent runs scored because of their defensive skills.  In some teams’ view, a player’s number of strikeouts are less important than it used to be, because they are offset by these other measures of a player’s value and contribution.

Pitchers’ performance are not just measured on wins, losses and strikeouts anymore, but measures like WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning pitched), Strikeouts Per Innings Pitched, and Fielding Independent Pitching (pitcher’s effectiveness at preventing home runs, hit by pitch, and base on balls, and causing strikeouts) are being used as predictors of future performance.

Examples of the results of all this data crunching include the trends we see in using defensive shifts of players on the field against certain batters and using specific pitcher/batter matchups in the late innings of games. 

It used to be that in-game situations were solely driven by the manager’s intuition and experience.  Now the manager is armed with current quantitative data to supplement the decision-making process.   Managers who embrace this additional information and analysis as part of their jobs are considered to have an advantage in today’s game.

“Moneyball” highlighted the two schools of thought around the use of analytics to drive decision-making in the sport.  Initially, the “old school” managers, general managers, and scouts didn’t readily embrace them, because it challenged their personal knowledge, experience, and feel for the game they had developed over many years.  The new-style general managers, like Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, recognized that teams could benefit from looking at the sport in new, quantitative ways, thus avoiding the pitfalls of subjective evaluations.

For many of the old-schoolers, it was initially thought that the use of analytics was a short-term fad that wouldn’t have a lasting effect on the game.  Instead, it has evolved from being a “radical” movement within the sport to being a mainstream approach for the majority of the thirty major league clubs. 

Of course, some teams are better than others in the deployment of analytics.  The March 12th edition of ESPN Magazine recently rated all the professional sports teams on their “strength of its analytics staff, its buy-in from executives and coaches, its investment in biometric data, and how much its approach is predicated on analytics.”  The top category, “all in” Major League teams, included the Red Sox, Cubs, Indians, Astros, Yankees, A’s, Pirates, Cardinals and Rays.  Only two Major League teams fell into the bottom category of “non-believers”—the Marlins and Phillies, while “skeptics” included the Diamondbacks, Braves, Reds, Rockies, Tigers and Twins.  The remainder of the teams fall into two other in-between categories— “believers” and “one foot in”.

There is a new book, Big Data in Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak, scheduled for release in May.  It relates how far-reaching big-data strategies (using analytics) had significant influence on ending the club’s drought in 2013.  I suspect there will be a few more clubs writing their version of this book in the years to come.

Baseball is evolving in many ways, both in terms of how it’s being played and how it’s being run as a business.  Baseball analytics have certainly played a key role in that evolution.  Who knows?  Perhaps one day the manager of a big league baseball team might be a young MBA grad versus the grizzled veteran who was a former big league catcher!

Bourgeois Made his Mark Officiating Hoops

Sports halls of fame are usually reserved for players and coaches, the men and women who were highly accomplished in their sport.  It’s not often that referees and umpires who officiate sports get recognition as hall of fame members.  Donald Bourgeois, Sr. is an exception, because of his outstanding career as a high school and college basketball referee.

Bourgeois was inducted into the St. Bernard Parish Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night, along with jockey Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark and James “Biggie” Bickford, a statistician, coach, and public address announcer for local high school and college sports.  Since 1994, this organization has recognized outstanding athletes and coaches from the parish for their achievement in their respective sport, and the number of inductees to date is just shy of 50.

Bourgeois was graduated from St. Aloysius High School in 1953.  Ironically, he didn’t play varsity sports in high school due to the interruption of a 15-month period in the seminary.  However, Bourgeois grew up in a family of local amateur umpires, and he often accompanied his father and three uncles to CYO and recreation league games.

Bourgeois began his own officiating career in New Orleans area CYO leagues in 1957, and with the lure of higher level of competition, as well as higher pay, he joined the Louisiana High School Athletic Association in 1961.  He officiated local high school baseball and basketball, as well as industrial league softball games, for twenty years.

He became recognized by his peers and coaches for his ability to call basketball games and eventually progressed to the college level of basketball, initially doing games at junior colleges and Loyola University of New Orleans.  By 1978, he had advanced to being a regular basketball official in the Southland Conference that included Texas and Louisiana schools like Lamar, Northeast Louisiana State, and McNeese State.  He eventually became a member of six NCAA Division 1 conferences.

Bourgeois commented on his time as a college basketball official, “You had to really be in shape to do college games.  There were usually two months of physical training, in addition to attending officiating camps, to prepare for the upcoming season.”

His abilities were further recognized when he was enlisted to officiate numerous high school and college basketball championship games, including the Louisiana High School Championships for ten years, the Southland Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, the American South Conference, an NIT regional in Gainesville, Florida, and the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City for four years.

Before calling it quits on the hardwoods, Bourgeois spent 1998-2004 as supervisor of officials for the NAIA Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, in which New Orleans-based colleges fielded several teams.

Among his most memorable officiating moments was a game in which a college coach in Mississippi wanted to fight Bourgeois at mid-court over some controversial calls, resulting in the security guards having to be summoned.  Prominent LSU coach Dale Brown once came to the referees’ locker room after a game to launch a verbal attack on Bourgeois following a lop-sided loss to Arkansas State University.  Bourgeois recalls telling Brown, “My officiating wasn’t the reason you lost the game—your team was terrible tonight.”

He recalls officiating college games involving Karl Malone from Louisiana Tech and Joe Dumars from McNeese State, both of whom are now in the NBA Hall of Fame.  He also recollects the floppy-haired Pete Maravich playing in a freshman game he officiated at Tulane.

Bourgeois said about his induction into the St. Bernard Sports Hall of Fame, “It is a very gratifying moment to be honored by this organization.”

Soon to be eighty years old, Bourgeois looks like he could still don his black-and-white striped shirt and whistle to officiate a game of hoops.  He and his wife Marian have been residents of Arabi for 55 years.

Minoso a Trailblazer for Latino Baseball Players

With a nickname like “Minnie”, Saturnino Orestes Armas (Arrieta) Minoso had one of the best names of all time in professional baseball.  The name Minnie Minoso has a nice ring to it.  Minnie Minoso.  Great name for a great baseball player.

Minoso died on March 1 at the age of 89.  As the first black Latino player in the major leagues, he was to future Latino players what Jackie Robinson was to future African-American players.  The Cuban-born Minoso is certainly not as popular or remembered as often as Robinson, yet he was a trailblazer all the same.

Minoso made his major league debut in April 1949 with the Cleveland Indians, two years after Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors.  In fact, Minoso was not the first black ballplayer for the Indians.  The Indians’ Larry Doby had the distinction of being the first African-American player in the American League in 1947.  However, after an inauspicious start with the Indians, Minoso was sent to their minor league affiliate in the Pacific Coast League for most of the 1949 season and all of 1950, where he proved to be a very productive, versatile player.

He made the Indians team coming out of spring training in 1951, but played in only eight games before being sent to the Chicago White Sox in a three-team trade that also involved the Philadelphia Athletics.

It was with the White Sox that Minoso initially made his mark in the big leagues.  As the first black player for the White Sox, he was the runner-up for American League Rookie of the Year honors, narrowly edged out by Yankee infielder Gil McDougald.  Known as the “Cuban Comet”, Minoso put up All-Star numbers with a .326 batting average, 10 home runs, 73 RBI, and .422 on-base-percentage, while leading the league in stolen bases (31) and triples (14).

He proceeded to make the American League All-Star team consecutively for three additional years and finished in the top four of the AL MVP voting for three of his first four seasons, thus establishing himself as one of the premier outfielders in the league.

Following an All-Star and Gold Glove Award season in 1957, Minoso was traded back to Cleveland in a deal that sent future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn to the White Sox.  Minoso turned in practically two identical offensive seasons with the Indians, with batting averages over .300, 20+ home runs, 80+ RBI, and 90+ runs scored, while adding another Gold Glove.

The Indians and White Sox must have had some kind of love-hate relationship with Minoso, since the Indians traded Minoso back to the White Sox for a second time after the 1959 season.  Apparently, it did not matter to Minoso where he played.  With the White Sox in 1960, he added another All-Star team selection and a Gold Glove, while leading the AL in hits.

Following one more productive season with the White Sox in 1961, Minoso played three seasons in part-time roles with the Cardinals, Senators, and White Sox for the third time.

Minoso retired after the 1964 season at age 38, but it turned out later it wasn’t his last hurrah as a major league player.  While a coach for the White Sox in 1976, he was activated as a player at age 50 in September 1976.  White Sox owner Bill Veeck, noted for his penchant for publicity stunts and showmanship, wanted Minoso to claim the distinction of appearing in the majors in four different decades.  At the time, that feat had previously been accomplished only five players in all of baseball history.  Hence, Minoso appeared as the designated hitter, batting last in the lineup, on September 11, going 0-for-3.  Then on September 12, he rapped out a single in three at-bats.

Minoso wasn’t finished yet, as he was activated again by the White Sox in 1980 to become only the second player to play in five decades at the major league level during his career.  On October 4th and 5th, he made two pinch-hit appearances at age 54, going hitless in both at-bats.

In 1993 and 2003, Minoso made plate appearances for the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League, thereby achieving seven decades as a professional player.

Baseball was still in its infancy with regard to integration during Minoso’s career in the 1950s.  (The Boston Red Sox were the last major league franchise to integrate its team in 1959.)  Minoso’s exceptional performance on the field attracted attention to and helped paved the way to the big leagues for more Cubans and other Latin stars such as Roberto Clemente, Luis Tiant, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Oliva, and Tony Perez.

Yet Minoso’s career is largely under-appreciated by the average baseball fan and apparently by the Golden Era Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  In their most recent voting in December, the committee gave Minoso only eight of the required twelve votes for induction.

It’s been said that only Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle were better American League outfielders than Minoso in the 1950s.  That’s saying a lot, especially for a guy whose name is Minnie.

Boyer Brothers Competitive Third-Sackers in 1960s

In my book Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives, I had a chapter entitled “Baseball’s First Family”, where I declared the Hairston family the unofficial first family of baseball.   They included three generations of major league baseball players, including two sets of brothers.  Altogether, there were ten family members who played or were drafted in professional baseball over a span of sixty years.

 

One of the other candidate families I mentioned in the book was the Boyer family.  Headlined by Ken and Clete Boyer, this baseball family consisted of seven brothers, all of whom signed professional contracts.  Cloyd also played briefly in the big leagues, while Len, Lynn, Wayne and Ronnie reached varying levels in the minors.

 

Unless you are a baseball fan of the 1960s, chances are you may not know too much about Ken and Clete.  However, they both garnered attention by playing for World Series teams of the early-to-mid 1960s.  Both were Gold Glove winners, and Ken turned in a National League MVP performance in 1964.

 

 

Following are brief biographies of Clete and Ken Boyer.

 

 

Clete Boyer

Clete was signed out of high school as a “bonus baby” player by the Kansas City Athletics.  As such, he was required to stay on the Athletics’ major league roster for two years without being sent to the minors.  Only 18-years old when he made his major league debut on June 5, 1955, he played in 114 games during his first two full seasons, turning in relatively unproductive years for last-place teams.  His brother, Cloyd, also played on the 1955 Athletics team, which was Cloyd’s last year in the majors. 

Clete was traded to the New York Yankees on February 19, 1957, in a 13-player deal, but was not received by the Yankees until June 4, 1957, because he was required to complete the terms of his bonus arrangement with the Athletics.  He spent the remainder of the 1957 season and all of 1958 on Yankees farm clubs.

 

He made his major league debut with the Yankees in 1959, and proceeded to play as a regular on five straight World Series teams beginning in 1960, including two World Series championships.    He faced his brother Ken in the 1964 World Series against the Cardinals.  Both of the third basemen hit home runs in the Game 7 of the exciting Series.

 

Clete was considered a good glove man at the “hot corner”, but unfortunately his career overlapped that of Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles.  Consequently, Clete was always in the shadow of Robinson, who was widely regarded as the best fielding third baseman in the business.  Clete never did hit for high average, but did show occasional power.  A typical season consisted of 15 home runs and 55 RBI.

 

By 1965, the Yankee dynasty was over.  A large player turnover included Clete at the end of 1966, when he has traded to the Atlanta Braves.  That team was promising with such players as Hank Aaron, Joe Torre, Felipe Alou, and Rico Carty.  Clete enjoyed his best offensive season in 1967 with 26 home runs and 96 RBI and led the league in fielding percentage for third basemen.  However, Braves pitching was inconsistent and the team finished in a disappointing seventh place.  1968 was an off-year for Clete due to bone fracture in the wrist that caused him to miss the second half of the season. 

The Braves won their division in 1969 and Clete contributed his usual offensive standard, 14 home runs and 57 RBI, and garnered his first Gold Glove as well.  However, the Braves lost to the “Miracle Mets” in the first-ever league championship series.  Clete played two more major league seasons, but by this time the Braves franchise began a decline that would last until 1982.

 

Clete was involved in a gambling investigation in 1971, and he was ultimately fined by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office for betting on college and pro football games during 1968-69.  This situation and disputes with the Braves’ front office contributed to his release by the Braves after 30 games in 1971.   Clete signed with Hawaii in the Pacific Coast League for the remainder of the season.  He later had the distinction of being the first American professional player ever traded to a Japanese League team when he was dealt to the Tayio Whales for John Werhas.

 

Following his stint in Japan, Clete returned to the Braves as a minor league coach, became third base coach for Billy Martin in Oakland for six seasons, and served as bench coach for the Yankees.  Over his 16-year career, Clete hit 162 home runs and 654 RBI and batted .242.  His fielding average was .966, 10th best on the all-time list of third basemen at the time of his retirement.

 

 

Ken Boyer

Ken was the best of three Boyer brothers to play in the major leagues.  He was one of five who played professionally in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

 

Ken started his professional career as a pitcher in 1949.  Converted to an infielder, Ken made his major league debut on April 12, 1955, with the St. Louis Cardinals, the same year his brother, Clete, made his debut with the Kansas City Athletics.  Twenty-four-year-old Ken immediately won a starting job for the Cardinals as a third baseman.  He showed decent power from the very beginning when he hit 18 home runs and 62 RBI in his rookie season.  The next season proved he was no fluke, as he upped his production with 26 home runs and 98 RBI.  He selected for the National League All-Star team that year.

 

The versatile Ken emerged as a center fielder in 1957, making only one error in 105 games at that position.  But the acquisition of Curt Flood by the Cardinals after the 1957 season returned Ken to his original position in 1958.   Because of his speed, he hit his third inside-the-park home run in three weeks on June 14, 1959.  That same year he had a 29-game hitting streak that ended on September 13.  He continued to be an offensive threat with the Cardinals who were building a nucleus of players that would eventually lead to second-place and first-place finishes in 1963 and 1964, respectively.  An infield of Bill While, Stan Javier, Dick Groat and Boyer became one of the most formidable of that decade.  Battling future Hall of Famer Ed Mathews of the Braves for honors as the premier third baseman of the National League, Ken made consecutive All-Star teams from 1959 through 1964.

 

Ken captured National League MVP honors in 1964 based on 24 home runs and a league-leading 119 RBI.  The Cardinals raced the Phillies down to the wire for the pennant and won their first league crown since 1946.  The Cardinals brought down the curtain on the Yankees dynasty with a seven-game triumph in the World Series.  The turning point of the Series was Ken’s grand slam home run when the Cardinals were trailing two games to one and 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 4.  He faced his brother Clete in the Series, and both of the third basemen hit home runs in the seventh game of the exciting Series.

 

The Cardinals’ tenure at the top of the league quickly diminished the next season when they finished seventh.  Ken was traded to the New York Mets following the 1965 season.  His production began to fall off, and consequently he spent time with three different teams over the next four seasons.  His final major league season was in 1969 with the Dodgers.

 

Over his 15-year career, he amassed 282 home runs, 1,141 RBI, 2,143 hits, 318 doubles and a batting average of .287.  He hit for the cycle on September 14, 1961, and June 16, 1964.  He is among the Cardinals’ top ten leaders in many offensive categories.

 

Ken returned to the Cardinals as their batting coach in 1971 and eventually became their manager in 1978.  He assumed the leadership role 19 games into the season, but was unable to change things significantly with his 62-81 record and 5th place finish in the Eastern Division.  He improved to a 3rd place finish in 1979 and subsequently was fired as manager after 51 games in 1980.  He died of cancer in 1982. 

 

Does Pete Rose Deserve a Pardon?

One usually tries to get a pardon in order to get out of jail early.  In Pete Rose’s case, he is seeking a pardon to get into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Rose has to feel like he’s been in jail since he received a lifetime ban from organized baseball in 1989 for betting on baseball games while he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds.  With the new Major League Baseball commissioner in place now, will Rose get a chance to make his appeal for re-instatement?

Because of the ban, Rose has not been eligible for induction into the Reds' or Baseball's Hall of Fame.  He also is not allowed to be involved in most on-field activities, which has prevented the Reds from retiring his uniform No. 14.

Rose has reportedly already contacted the Commissioner’s Office to request a meeting with baseball’s new head, Rob Manfred.  Obviously, the all-time career hits leader wants an opportunity to make his plea for re-instatement in the game and ultimately a chance to be included on the Hall of Fame ballot.  While previous commissioner Bud Selig refused to give Rose an audience, Manfred’s general approach to his new job seems to be more collaborative and inclusive.  Rose likely has his best shot now at getting his pardon.

There are two camps around the Rose re-instatement issue.

The hard-liners don’t believe Rose deserves a reprieve, now or ever, because he broke one of the cardinal rules of baseball, betting on games.  Furthermore, Rose angered a lot of people when he never apologized for his actions for more than fifteen years following his ban.  It wasn’t until his autobiography in 2004 that Rose admitted to betting on his team’s games.  In many people’s minds, these types of feelings overshadow the fact that Rose was indeed the “Hit King” as a major league player, amassing 4,256 hits in his career.  The folks in this camp point to Shoeless Joe Jackson, who never got a reprieve for his involvement in the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal.

More sympathetic followers argue that Rose committed his mortal sin following his fantastic playing career and that Rose, as the Reds’ manager, didn’t bet against his team.  This group contends that Rose’s performance on the field ranks among the all-time best in baseball and thus deserves an honorable place in baseball immortality.  No one played the game harder than Rose.  After all, his fierce playing style earned him the popular nickname of “Charley Hustle.”  The people in this camp point to a football reference, Paul Hornung, who was elected to the Football Hall of Fame despite the fact he was suspended for a season during his playing career in the 1960s for betting on football games.

Rose’s plight is similar to the current situation with hall-of-fame-worthy players who admittedly or allegedly took performance enhancing drugs.  Should they get a pass by voters when considering them for Hall of Fame election?

In 1997 Rose made an application for re-instatement to then commissioner Selig.  His application has now gone to Manfred’s desk.  One news account of Manfred’s position on the Rose situation said that he is open to speaking with Rose, although he says he has never reviewed Rose’s case.  Manfred offered no timetable for addressing it.

Rose, now 73, hopes that happens sooner rather than later.  Even if Rose was eventually re-instated in baseball, he’s probably past the age when he would be considered for a role in the dugout.  That’s a shame.  If you have listened to him in recent interviews talking about the game today, he’s still very much in tune with the players, the teams, and the strategies of baseball.   Most of his playing and managerial experience would still be relevant.  However, the fans in Cincinnati have never lost their loyalty to Rose over the years and would likely campaign for the Reds organization to find a useful place for him as a special assistant or senior advisor, actively involved in the game.

Since the Black Sox scandal and other incidents of gambling in the early days of baseball, the sport has taken a pretty hard stance when it came to gambling.  There was even a time when former major league stars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were warned by baseball officials about working post-career public relations jobs at casinos, or else they would have to disassociate themselves with organized baseball altogether.

No one’s advocating the sport soften its position on gambling.  But it seems like Rose has done enough time already.  Minimally, MLB should lift the ban on him such that he can pursue a job in baseball.  Let the team executives decide whether he can be of value to them.  But there should also be strong consideration for allowing him to be placed on the ballot for the Hall of Fame.  Let the baseball writers decide if he should be inducted.  I’m sure that’s what Rose is hoping for.

Padres Raise the Stakes in NL West

In uncharacteristic fashion, the San Diego Padres made a big splash during the off-season in executing a huge make-over of the team.  Their activity was capped off last week with the signing of pitcher James Shields, one of the top three free agents hurlers over the winter.  New Padres General Manager, A. J. Preller, effectively transformed the team from “the most boring in baseball”, as MLB Network analyst Steve Phillips labelled them, into one of the most intriguing clubs heading into the 2015 season.  On paper at least, they appear to be poised to make a run at the Dodgers and Giants in the National League West Division this season.

Preller made the entire baseball community sit up and take notice of the Padres, when he began acquiring some big-name players during the Winter Meetings in early December.  When other major league teams were ready to unload outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, Preller was there to scoop them up.  As a result, the team instantly has a new, formidable middle of the batting order.  Admittedly each of these talented outfielders has had issues in their past, including injury-plagued seasons and living up to high expectations, but they certainly have the potential to have big offensive seasons.

The Padres also picked up other position players who will make strong bids to be in the starting lineup, after the team parted ways with former regulars Seth Smith, Yasmani Grandal, and Everth Cabrera.  Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, catcher Derek Norris, and second baseman Clint Barmes are respectable players who will provide comparable value for the Padres to offset their losses.

The Padres already possessed some nice arms in their pitching staff in Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy.  Their team ERA last season was second in the National League at 3.27.  Their relievers finished third in Wins Above Average.  However, in the off-season the Padres added promising young starter Brandon Mauer, middle reliever Shawn Kelley, and veteran Brandon Morrow, who has been both a starter and reliever during his career.   The addition of Kemp, Upton, Myers and Norris will add much-needed offensive capability, which in turn will bring the pitchers more wins because of the run support these hitters bring.

As if all those acquisitions weren’t enough, the icing on the cake for the Padres was the addition of James Shields for the top of their pitching rotation.  In addition to the Padres being able to get Shields at a “hometown” discount, he will make everyone else on the staff better, as he did with his former teams, the Rays and Royals.  Shields brings instant credibility to a staff that needed a boost to reach “contender” status.

Indeed, the commitment to Shields made a statement to the rest of the league that the Padres intend to be serious contenders in 2015, if not for the division title, then certainly a wild-card playoff spot.  The Royals and Giants proved this past season that being a wild-card entry is good enough.  But the Padres have some recent history of mediocrity to overcome.

The Padres finished in third place in the NL West last season, 17 games back of the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.  The last time the Padres were relevant was in 2010, when they finished two games behind the Giants, who were the eventual World Series champs.  The Padres’ last playoff appearances were in back-to-back seasons in 2005 and 2006.

The Padres had a woeful offense in 2014.  They had the worst slugging percentage in baseball last season at .342, and their on-base percentage was a bleak .292.  They scored an average of 3.3 runs per game, lowest in the National League.  Thus, it seems Preller has effectively addressed those needs.

While both Chicago teams garnered a lot of attention during the Hot Stove season with their respective player acquisitions, I believe the Padres made more weighty improvements in their roster by addressing their deficiencies from last season.  Plus, Preller has established himself as a wheeler-dealer who won’t be bashful about making mid-season adjustments, if necessary, to keep the Padres in contention.

If the Padres are healthy and can achieve some team chemistry among their new players early in the season, the Giants and Dodgers better look out! 

Baseball Without Derek Jeter

Major league players report to spring training camps in ten days, but one person who won’t be there suited up in pinstripes is Derek Jeter.  It will be the first time in over twenty years the New York Yankees won’t have him in uniform and spikes, taking ground balls and getting his turns in the batting cage, to get ready for Opening Day.  That’s going to seem odd for the team, as well as the media and Yankee fans who flock to Florida at this time of the year.  All will miss that infectious smile Jeter exhibite, signaling everything was good with baseball.

Jeter retired from the Yankees last season in spectacular fashion.   He played his final game at Yankee Stadium amid sadness and jubilation. Fans and teammates were sorrowful he was saying good-bye to baseball, but thrilled to see him win one last game with a dramatic game-winning RBI.  It couldn’t have been scripted better for a movie.

However, Jeter seems to have already progressed to life-after-baseball.

There are reports he is interested in buying a professional sports team, having already considered ownership in the NFL’s franchise in Buffalo which was up for sale last year.  He launched a new book publishing business in partnership with Simon & Schuster, with a target audience seeking adult nonfiction, picture books, and middle grade school fiction.  His name brand will surely attract authors and readers.

Jeter also launched a new internet website, ThePlayersTribune.com, aimed at providing a platform for professional athletes to share their views, experiences, and other first-person content directly to the public.  Sports Illustrated’s cover for the 2015 swimsuit issue features Jeter’s girlfriend, Hannah Davis.

So, it appears Jeter has moved on, but have we, as fans?

Who’s going to take Jeter’s place as the face of the Yankees?  As the face of Major League Baseball?  Do you recall the adulation he commanded at Fenway Park in the Yankee-Red Sox series that closed out the season last year?  TV broadcasts highlighted that now iconic poster one Red Sox fan waved during the series saying, “Fenway roots for no Yankee except Jeter.”

Who’s going to be the Yankee team captain, the guy everybody respects in the clubhouse and on the field?  Will there even be another captain, as Jeter was one of only a handful in all of Yankee history.

No more clutch hits to right field. No more diving catches into the stands.  No more leaping throws to first base from the deep part of the infield.  No more “Mr. November” heroics in the post-season.

And we won’t be hearing the legendary recording of former Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Shepphard declaring Jeter’s next at-bat, “Now batting for the Yankees, No. 2, Derek (pause) Jeter, No. 2.”

What’s baseball-after-Jeter going to look like?

The Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius from Arizona in the offseason to play shortstop.  They could have gotten Honus Wagner, who some historians consider the best shortstop of all-time, and it probably wouldn’t make a difference.  Filling Jeter’s shoes would be a tall order for anyone.  Unfortunately, 24-year-old Gregorius, with only 191 games of major league experience under his belt, will take the brunt of criticism for not measuring up to Jeter.

To compound the situation even further, the Yankees face the real prospect of having its first losing season since 1992, which will exacerbate the loss of Jeter.  The team didn’t do much during the off-season to bolster its lineup for 2015.  They apparently decided it will mainly rely on the recovery of an injury-plagued pitching staff and a cast of age 30+ players to make them competitive for the upcoming season.   Good luck with that!  Admittedly, Jeter was part of the aging player problem fans complained about, but if the Yankees indeed take a turn for the worse, ironically some Yankee fans will be calling for Jeter to ditch retirement.

When the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson in 2010, I figured he would be groomed as the next “face of the franchise” for the Yankees after Jeter.  But that didn’t pan out, as the Yankees shipped Granderson to the Mets after the 2013 season.  No one else on the team sticks out as an obvious replacement.

It’s been speculated catcher Brian McCann will emerge as the Yankees’ clubhouse leader in place of Jeter, even though he’s only been with the Yankees for one season.  Unlike Jeter, McCann is more vocal, but he has the personal makeup and respect for the game that suggests he will actually be a good choice if he steps up to the challenge.

Maybe we’ll see Jeter at spring training one day, providing instruction to the organization’s rookies and prospects.  Maybe he’ll suit up for an annual Yankee Stadium old-timer’s game in August.  For sure, we’ll see him at the induction podium of the Baseball Hall of Fame five years from now, perhaps the first player ever to garner 100% of the votes.  Those events will definitely arouse memories of a player who was a class act on and off the field.

Jeter goes down as one of the Top 5 all-time great players in Yankees history, in the regal company of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle.  However, even with the best of times and players for the Yankees of the future, there won’t be another Jeter and we’ll just have to get used to that.

20-Second Pitch Clock in Baseball Not Entirely a New Concept

Two weeks ago, it was announced the Triple-A and Double-A levels of minor league baseball will implement a 20-second pitch clock for the 2015 season.  This could eventually lead to implementation in the major leagues.  It is in response to an ongoing concern by Major League Baseball to address the pace of the game, since fans have complained for some time now that baseball games are taking too long and the flow of the game is too slow.  Consequently, MLB is concerned about the loss of interest by a significant portion of its fan base.

For years now, basketball has deployed a 24-second shot clock and football has used a 45-second play clock to control the flow of the respective games, but use of a clock in baseball seems like a radical move for a sport which is deeply entrenched in tradition.

However, a look back in baseball history shows that a pitch clock is not a brand new idea.

For similar reasons as today, in 1963 the Texas League, a Double-A minor league association, instituted what was termed a “20-90 second clock.  The new rule called for an automatic “ball” to be charged against a pitcher who did not make a delivery within 20 seconds of receiving the ball from the catcher, when no runners were on base.  Furthermore, at the conclusion of each half-inning, the teams were required to switch positions within 90 seconds.  The offending team incurred a fine for failure to comply with this part of the rule. The clock was managed by someone in the press box, as a siren was used to indicate the expiration of the times.

According to a June 8, 1963, The Sporting News article, the results after the first two months of the season were that league games were taking an average of 21 fewer minutes.  The article went on to say the rule change was generally applauded by players, managers and occasional fans.  However there were rumblings of disgruntlement by the concessions vendors for obvious reasons, while serious fans were more concerned about the quality of play rather than the elapsed time of the games.  One of the Texas League managers noted an unexpected benefit of pitchers demonstrating more control of their pitches-- issuing fewer walks--since they apparently became more focused by the pitch clock.

The Sporting News later reported the use of the pitch clock was deemed a success by Texas League officials and was authorized for the 1964 season as well.  I found a few references to the pitch clock during the 1965 season, but couldn’t readily find out how long it was actually implemented after that.

I reviewed the 2014 edition of the Official Rules of Baseball to see how the use of a pitch clock would mesh with current regulations.  What I found, which admittedly I had personally forgotten about, was that Rule 8.04 states “When bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.  Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call ‘Ball’”.  Therefore, the pitch clock should be seen as a mechanism to consistently enforce an existing rule.  When is the last time we have seen a major league umpire enforce the existing rule?

In the 1970s, the average for a nine-inning baseball game in the major leagues was two hours and 30 minutes.  Now the regular season games average just under three hours.  Yankees-Red Sox matchups are notoriously longer, sometimes approaching four hours.  Many believe that television breaks during games are the main culprit, but that’s not entirely true.  Pitchers dawdling on the mound between pitchers, hitters leisurely strolling to their at-bats while their personal-choice music is blaring through the PA system, batters stepping out of the box on each pitch to make batting glove or other protective equipment adjustments, catchers making multiple visits to the mound each inning—all of these are contributing offenders to the increased length of games.

 A trial use of the 20-second pitch clock was used in 2014 for the Arizona Fall League, a post-season instructional league for the top prospects of the major league clubs.  Additionally, a few other proposed time-saving changes were tested to see if the overall elapsed time of games could be effectively reduced. They included a requirement of the hitter to keep one foot in the batter’s box during the entirety of an at-bat, time limits on pitching changes, not requiring a pitcher to actually throw four pitches to effect an intentional walk, and limiting timeouts for non-pitching changes to three per game.

For 2015, only the pitch clock and box initiatives will be transitioned to the minor leagues.

It’s been speculated that players will not fancy this new pitch clock rule if it becomes institutionalized in the major leagues.  I heard some player interviews on this topic over the past few weeks that seem to indicate the desire to speed up the game simply requires a mindset change by the players, managers, and umpires and does not necessitate the rigidity of a clock timer or some of these other restrictive rule changes.  The players’ union will indeed get a voice on the rule changes, so there will be an opportunity to see if some type of compromise agreement with Major League Baseball is forthcoming.

Despite the opposition of the game’s traditionalists, technological innovations, like the use of instant replay, and other rules changes have generally been good for the sport.  In the case of the pitch clock, we are able to look back 50-60 years to get a glimpse of the future.

Cubs Burdened with High Expectations in 2015

Fans and followers of the Chicago Cubs are desperate for a pennant-winning year, their last appearance in the World Series occurring in 1945 and last World Series championship in 1908. Their hopes for the upcoming season have been fueled by an aggressive, active off-season by Cubs front-office leaders Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.  But there’s a question about whether those expectations being set too high, at least for 2015.

It all started with the signing of Joe Maddon as manager during the offseason.  The Cubs dumped its previous manager, Rick Renteria, after only one season, when Maddon opted out of his contract with Tampa Bay at the end of the 2014 season.  Many people felt it was unfair or unethical for the Cubs to fire Renteria, but CEO Epstein wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to lasso Maddon, one of the most highly regarded field managers in baseball today.

The move for Maddon, by itself, would probably have been enough to give Cub fans extreme optimism, since the team is seemingly on the verge of realizing the fruits of the re-building mission by Epstein and Hoyer, since they arrived in 2011.  The thinking was that Maddon would help complete the molding of the Cubs’ cadre of young stars and upcoming prospects, and the results of that foundation could begin as soon as 2015.  Consequently, most observers were hoping the Cubs would join the conversation for the playoff picture.

But the Cubs didn’t stop there.  They courted superstar pitcher Jon Lester, the top prize of the free-agent market during the off-season, with the prospect of his leading the Cubs in their long-standing pursuit to break the legendary “curse” surrounding the Cubs’ absence of a World Series championship.  After all, Lester had helped his former team, the Boston Red Sox, return to prominence.  Why couldn’t he do it again for the despairing South Siders?  Lester was won over by this unique opportunity and ultimately signed a long-term deal with the Cubs.

Without an ace on the staff already, the Cubs’ signing of Lester gave instant credibility to their plans.   The acquisition signaled that the Cubs were seriously thinking the 2015 campaign would not just be another throw-away season on their re-building path.

Then the Cubs made some off-season acquisitions for veteran position players to further complement the young team for the upcoming season.  Two-time all-star catcher Miguel Montero was swapped for two pitching prospects with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Outfielder Dexter Fowler was acquired in a trade with the Houston Astros for infielder Luis Valbuena and righty pitcher Dan Straily.

The Cubs also got second baseman Tommy LaStella from the Atlanta Braves, perhaps giving more time for one of their prime prospects, Javier Baez, to develop in the minors a bit longer.  In a brief call-up last September, Baez showed legitimate signs of home run power, but also struck out a lot.

The core of the team for the future is being built around current all-star shortstop Starlin Castro and all-star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, both only twenty-five years old.  22-year-old right-fielder Jorge Soler made an impact in his rookie season last year.  Along with Baez, two of the Cubs’ other top minor league prospects, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, are waiting in the wings to assume spots on the big league roster, future additions to that core.   The Cubs’ trading away of Valbuena opened up a starting lineup spot at third base for Bryant, who compiled 43 home runs last season between Double-A and Triple-A levels. The job will be his to lose in spring training.  Russell, an infielder who was the 11th overall pick out of high school in the 2012 draft, may be a couple of years away, however.

Following Lester in the starting rotation, the Cubs will be dependent on Jake Arieta and Travis Wood.  Neither is a legitimate No. 2 starter at this point, but they will put up the required innings of serviceable starters.  Unfortunately, the Cubs’ prospects for pitching are not as deep as their position players.  Kyle Hendricks and 33-year-old Tsuyoshi Wada each had thirteen starts in their rookie seasons last year and showed some promise, but it’s too early to tell if they will stick around for the long-term. 

The media’s reactions to the off-season activities of the Cubs have heaped a fair amount of pressure on the Cubs for the upcoming season.  As you might expect, the starving fans of the Cubbies have also created significant expectations for their team.   Last week, Anthony Rizzo, one of the faces of the franchise, added fuel to the fire by declaring the Cubs “World Series-worthy” in 2015.

Manager Joe Maddon is probably salivating over the challenges for the season, but I believe it’s premature to expect the Cubs to deliver on a playoff appearance for 2015.  The team is still comprised of a bunch of young, relatively inexperienced—albeit talented—kids.  They are still growing.  Plus, the National League Central Division has been getting tougher in the past few years.  To go from the doormat of the division to a division champion is a tall order.

So, maybe Cubs fans should be more realistically setting their sights on 2016 or 2017.  However, in today’s culture of instant gratification, the idea of waiting a couple of more years is usually not an acceptable alternative.

The Pitching Feat of the 1971 Orioles, Never Again

How many times have we heard the statement, “that’s a record that will never be broken?”  It is often used for individual records like Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive games hitting streak and Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits.

Here’s one for a team that I think falls into that category: the Baltimore Orioles featured four 20-game winners in the 1971 season. Of course, pitching in baseball has drastically changed in the last 40-45 years, so it’s not likely we’ll ever see this feat again.

Nowadays, starting pitchers are considered “workhorses” if they get in 30 starts and 200 innings for the season.  In measuring starting pitchers’ effectiveness, “complete game” stats have been superceded by “quality starts” ( a game in which a pitcher completes six innings yielding three earned runs or less).  Teams are now building their relief staffs with a specialist for each of the last three innings of a game.  Managers are quick to use the hook on starting pitchers to get a fresh arm from the bullpen in the game, even if they are ahead in the score.  On top of all that, pitch counts are frequently used as a gauge by managers to decide when to yank a starter off the mound.

The 1971 Baltimore Orioles was the last team to accomplish this feat, with pitchers Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson each credited with 20 or more wins.  Not surprising, that team won the American League pennant.

Palmer is the most familiar name among this group, since he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but McNally and Cuellar were no strangers to 20-win seasons, having recorded four each in their careers.  In fact, that troika also recorded 20 or more wins for the Orioles during the previous season.  Dobson’s 20 wins in 1971 was the only season in which he accomplished this milestone, although the journeyman hurler would later come close in 1974 with 19 for the New York Yankees.

To contrast the Orioles’ accomplishment with today’s state of the game, there were only three pitchers in all of Major League Baseball with 20 or more wins last season: the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the Reds’ Johnny Cueto, and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright.

During the Atlanta Braves historic run of division championships during the 1990s and early 2000s, there was only one season when two of the Braves’ Hall of Fame pitchers on those teams, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, recorded 20 or more wins.

Prior to the Orioles’ achievement in 1971, the 1920 Chicago White Sox was the only other team, since 1900, with four 20-game winners.  There have been only 22 occasions in baseball history when a team had three 20-game winners in a season, the most recent being the Oakland A’s in 1973.

So, you can start to get a perspective of the significance of the Orioles pitchers’ historic season.

Here are some additional fascinating facts surrounding the 1971 Orioles’ season, to juxtapose with current pitching staffs.

Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Dobson started all but sixteen games for the Orioles for the entire season.  All of today’s teams use five-man starting rotations, with some even having experimented with a rotation of six starters pitching every fifth day.

The Orioles’ foursome threw a total of 70 complete games for the season. In 2014, there were 118 complete games during the entire season—for all 30 teams.  The Giants and Cardinals teams tied for Major League Baseball lead with eight.

The 1971 Orioles used a total of 13 pitchers on the staff for the entire season, compared to 20 used by the 2014 Orioles.   The 2014 Texas Rangers used a total of 40 pitchers.

Indeed, it’s a different world in the game of baseball today.  Many of the performance standards of yesteryear, pitching and hitting, don’t exist anymore.  However, that shouldn’t detract from the fabulous performances of the four Orioles hurlers of that 1971 team.

It's a Tough Task Comparing Today's Stars with the Legends of Yesteryear

I’ve often wondered what some of the old-time baseball stars were really like, having only read about them, seen them in a few photos, and perhaps gotten a glimpse of them in a game-action shot from brief film snippets.  I have images in my mind that they were immortal players, true heroes of their day for many baseball fans. 

We only have raw career statistics and old newspaper accounts of these stars’ performances to rely on for references about their careers.  By contrast for today’s players, we have plentiful opportunities to watch their entire games or minimally catch their game highlights, practically every hour if you want it.   Additionally, countless TV sports shows, radio talk shows, and baseball blogs offer expert analysis and commentary about the performances of today’s players. 

So, how does one compare today’s superstars with the legendary players of the past?

This question was highlighted for me again during the post-election analysis of the Baseball Hall of Fame candidates last week.  There was a lot of discussion about where pitcher Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina finished up in the voting.  Several baseball analysts and journalists expressed dismay that these pitchers did not receive more consideration in the voting.  New-style metrics and a focus on peak performance years seem to indicate Schilling and Mussina are among the all-time best in several pitching categories. 

Indeed, Schilling and Mussina had noteworthy careers, but each fell significantly short of getting the required votes for election into the Hall this year.  However, unless we use metrics that provide valid comparisons across the generations of players, it’s practically impossible to assess their worthiness for induction.  We can’t use the old “eye test” for comparison, if we’ve never seen the players of yesteryear.

With my interests in Yankees history, I thought I would provide a retrospective look at one of those stars of yesteryear, pitcher Charles “Red” Ruffing.  He played during 1924 and 1947, was part of the Yankee dynasty of the 1930s and early 1940s, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.  Ruffing accomplished this despite the fact that he had lost four toes on his left foot during a mining accident as a teenager.

Ruffing’s career did not start out in Hall of Fame fashion.  As a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in his first six big league seasons, he compiled a forgettable won-lost record of 39-93.  He led the American League in losses twice with 25 and 22, and his ERA was horrendously over 4.00 each year except one. However, Ruffing was pitching for some pretty bad Red Sox teams during that time, since owner Harry Frazee had gutted the team to cover his financial problems.

The Red Sox gave up on Ruffing and traded him to the New York Yankees in May 1930 for Cedric Durst and $50,000.  Still only 25 years old, he made an immediate turnaround with the Bronx Bombers, going 15-5 for the balance of the season. 

Then, over the next 12 seasons, Ruffing compiled 204 victories for the Yankees as they claimed six World Series titles, including four in a row between 1936 and 1939.  He was the Game 1 starter five times for the Yankees, compiling a 7-2 record and 2.63 ERA in Series competition.  Of course, Ruffing benefitted from playing on some great Yankee teams, with Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, Lazzeri, Combs, Chapman, Crosetti, Rolfe, and DiMaggio providing much of the offense during that span.  Ruffing shared mound duties with hurlers like Lefty Gomez, Monte Pearson, Johnny Murphy, and Spud Chandler.  But Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey called Ruffing was the best pitcher he ever caught.

Despite his foot condition, Ruffing was drafted into the army during World War II and missed the 1943 and 1944 seasons.  He played sparingly over the next three seasons and finally retired in 1947 at the age of 42.

During his 22-year career, Ruffing won 272 games and lost 225.  Considering only his Yankee seasons, he compiled a 231-124 record and 3.47 ERA, including 40 shutouts.

The start of Ruffing’s career was not unlike that of another Hall of Fame pitcher, Sandy Koufax.  Koufax struggled with control problems for five seasons with the Dodgers before he made his breakthrough in the big leagues at age 25 in 1961.  In contrast to Ruffing, the remainder of Koufax’s career lasted only six more seasons (1961-1966), although he was the most dominant pitcher in the majors during those years.

Ruffing offers a good example of trying to compare current players with players of past generations.  His impact during his career certainly suggests he is worthy of his Hall of Fame status, yet both Mussina and Schilling have considerably higher values for Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for Pitchers than Ruffing.  Mussina ranks 24th and Schilling ranks 26th, compared to Ruffing’s 74th-place ranking.  Schilling (4.38, 2nd all-time) and Mussina (3.58, 17th all-time) rank considerably higher than Ruffing (1.29) in Strikeouts per Base on Ball.

Thus, you can see the dilemma the baseball writers have in casting their ballots for the Hall of Fame candidates.  But the ongoing debates are part of what makes this game so much fun to follow.

 

Baseball Sometimes Produces Politicians

Mario Cuomo, who served three terms as governor of New York from 1983 to 1994, died last week at the age of 82.   The son of Italian immigrants, he was a noted old-school liberal of the Democratic Party who turned down opportunities to run for U. S. President and hold a Supreme Court justice seat.  It’s a little-known fact that Cuomo once played professional baseball. 

Cuomo’s baseball career was brief, playing only one season in 1952 with a Class-D affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The 20-year-old batted .244 in 81 games.  Perhaps he found hitting his law books easier than hitting fastballs.

Over the course of baseball history, there have been a number of major league players who sought careers in politics after their playing days.

One of the more notable in this category is Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, who served as United States Representative and Senator of his home state of Kentucky from 1986 through 2010.  Bunning is best remembered for pitching a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies against the New York Mets on Father’s Day on June 21, 1964.  It was the first perfect game thrown by a National League pitcher in 84 years.  Over his 17-year career, he compiled 224 wins and was second in career strikeouts at the time of his retirement in 1971.  Bunning’s career also included stints with the Tigers, Pirates, and Dodgers.

Former major league pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell served three terms in the U. S. House of Representatives from North Carolina during 1969-1975.  Prior to his political career, Mizell played nine seasons in the big leagues with the Cardinals, Pirates, and Mets.  His best year was in 1960 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when they beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.  Mizell won 13 games for the Pirates that season and started one contest in the World Series.  Overall, his won-lost record was 90-88 in the majors.

Others politicians associated with baseball include Morgan Bulkeley, who was the National League’s first president in 1876.  He later became the 54th governor of Connecticut from 1889-1993 and served in the U. S. Senate from 1905-1911.  Bulkeley was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1937.

John Tener was a pitcher in the early major leagues from 1888-1890, and he later served as a U. S. Senator from Pennsylvania during 1909-1910 and then held the governor’s office from 1911-1914.

Additional former major players who held national congressional offices include Fred Brown and Pius Schwert.

A number of ex-players held political offices at local levels, including Tookie Gilbert, who was elected civil sheriff of Orleans Parish in Louisiana, and Mickey Owen, who was a four-term sheriff of Greene County in Missouri.

In December, Mark Gilbert, who played seven games for the Chicago White Sox in 1985, was confirmed by the U. S. Senate as foreign ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. He is the first former major leaguer to serve in this capacity.

If there were more recent major league players to go on to political office, who would the likely candidates be? Perhaps someone like Nolan Ryan, Frank Robinson, or Joe Torre, respected baseball veterans who have held responsible executive positions after their playing days.   Or Tony LaRussa who actually holds a law degree.   Tommy Lasorda probably would have made a good politician, since he has the gift of gab.  And then you have an unconventional player like San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, who seems to have an uncanny way of rallying people behind a cause.

Are there any current players you would vote for in a political election?

A Short Hall of Fame Ballot for Me This Year

Baseball Hall of Fame voters cast their ballots last week for the 2015 inductees, with the results to be announced on January 6.  There remains a lot of controversy around the selection process, its guidelines, and its voters.  The related issues don’t appear will be resolved soon, so we’re stuck with the same archaic method of selection for another year.

Rather than trying to contribute to the ongoing debates on these issues, I’m going to jump straight to my “fantasy” selections for this year’s inductees.

To recap my votes from last year, I included Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens.

Glavine, Maddux, and Thomas made it in on their first appearance on the ballot.  Jack Morris fell off the ballot for 2015 after his fifteen year of not receiving the required 75% of the baseball writers’ votes.

I’m sticking with the remaining six selections from 2014 on my 2015 ballot.  I realize I’m probably in the minority on Lee Smith (he only garnered 30% of the vote last year in his 12th year on the ballot), but I still maintain he is among the best all-time closers in the game.  I believe Smith’s selection is hampered by the fact that relief specialists don’t generally get as much consideration as starters do.  Missing out by only two votes last year, Biggio appears to be a shoo-in this year.  Although somewhat tainted by the perception of being PED users, Bagwell and Piazza received enough votes last year that seem to indicate they will eventually be elected, although perhaps not in 2014.  Bonds and Clemens, the two best players from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, should be elected, but won’t be unless there is a change in the attitude and perhaps the voting guidelines that embraces the steroid-era players.

That leaves four new players to be added to my list of ten for 2015.

In their first-year of eligibility, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are newcomers on my list.  They both easily fall into the category as being among the “best players of their era.” Johnson was one of the most feared pitchers of his time—sort of a left-handed Bob Gibson, winning 303 games and claiming five Cy Young Awards.  Similarly, during a stretch of eight years from 1997 to 2004, Martinez won three Cy Young Awards, finished as runner-up two seasons, and had two other top four finishes for the award for best pitcher.  

Actually, I’m sitting on the fence on my last two selections for this year.

John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield, also in their first years of eligibility, are certainly top candidates.  Smoltz gets a lot of credit for contributing to the Atlanta Braves’ dominance in the National League during the 1990s, but I don’t put him in the same class as his Hall of Fame teammates, Glavine and Maddux. In fact, I put Smoltz behind Jack Morris who has been shut out for fifteen years on the ballot.  Sheffield is an “accumulator” of sorts for offensive statistics over a 22-year career, claiming only one league-leader title. Furthermore, I’m admittedly biased against him because he played for eight different teams during his career, never really establishing himself as a franchise player.  Therefore, I’m not casting my votes for either of these guys.

I haven’t really changed my opinion on carryovers from the 2014 ballot.  Tim Raines and Mike Mussina would be atop that list for me.  However, while they were indeed high-level performers, they fall below my dividing line that separates them from being among “the best of the best.”

Thus, I’m withholding the last two votes on my ballot.  I know that’s heresy among those who tout that voters should be trying to put players in, and not excluding them from, the Hall of Fame.  I appreciate that point of view, but I believe I would be changing my mind in future years for these players who are on the fence.  And I don’t think that’s right either.

Alas, the debates continue.

Is Major League Baseball in Cuba's Future?

With President Obama’s announcement last Wednesday that the United States intends to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, it immediately surfaced questions from the baseball community of how soon Major League Baseball will be allowed to embrace Cuba again as an open, permissible source of players and possibly establish teams there.

When the United States implemented an embargo with Cuba in 1960, U. S. professional baseball in Cuba was halted. Since Fidel Castro took over Cuba, most of the major league players from Cuba played in the United States only because they defected from the tiny country, some of them at great peril to themselves and their families.

Although there is no specific timetable yet for restoring the diplomatic and economic relationships, perhaps American baseball can be one of the catalysts for moving them along in the process.  After all, baseball is one of the current common grounds between the U. S. and Cuba.

Cuba has been a rabid baseball country dating back to the early 1900s, and even in the face of Castro’s dictatorship and some desperate in-country economic conditions that resulted, Cubans have never lost their fervor for the sport.  Over the years, Cuba’s national baseball team has been very competitive in international competition, including the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic.  Baseball has been one of the few non-political unifying factors of the Cuban population.

Baseball migrated to Cuba soon after its introduction in the U. S.  The first Cuban-born major leaguer appeared in 1871, but it was not until Armando Marsans began his career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1911 that a Cuban had a significant career.   Cuba also fielded teams in the early Negro leagues in the United States, in addition to hosting its own professional leagues.

The popularity of the game in Cuba saw dramatic growth with the formation of amateur leagues in the 1930s.  In the 1950s, workers at sugar mills formed many of the amateur teams that engaged in regional competitions.

After the desegregation of baseball in 1946, Havana became the home for a minor league team, first in Class C and B leagues, but later in the Triple-A International League, as the Sugar Kings.  That lasted until 1960, when Castro banned all professional baseball in Cuba.

Cuba had been the primary source of Caribbean baseball players in the U. S. until the Castro regime took over.  After that, major league teams began to routinely sign players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Panama, instead of Cuba.

Rene Arocha was one of the first Cuban players whose defection to the United States in 1991 got international attention.  He wound up making his major league debut two years later.  Arocha was followed by Livan and Orlando Hernandez in the mid-to-late 1990s.  The brothers had been star pitchers for the Cuban national team, well-known within international competition circles, and thus became prized acquisitions by the Marlins and Yankees.  A recent documentary by ESPN chronicled the personally dangerous aspects of their defections from Cuba because of the political pressures.  They both wound up extending their success in Major League Baseball, playing for World Series championship teams.

Currently, there are twenty-five Cuban-born players in the Major Leagues.   Among them are prominent all-stars such as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jose Abreu.   The pipeline is continuing to be filled with new entrants seeking to capitalize on lucrative big league contracts in the U. S., but they are still encumbered by Cuban national restrictions.

With Cuba continuing to be a fertile ground for professional players, it seems logical that Major League Baseball is anxiously awaiting the day where there can be a free flow of players.  However, it is unclear right now how the new player acquisition process would work.  Players from the other Latin countries are currently not subject to the Major League Amateur Draft.  Will that eventually be the same for Cuban players?  Or will there be a posting system, like in Japan, for major league teams to bid on the rights to sign Cuban players, where the teams pay the Cuban national government for the rights to the players?

I can see the day when major league teams will sponsor baseball academies in Cuba to groom up-and-coming prospects, as they currently do in other Caribbean countries.  I can definitely envision minor league baseball returning to Cuba.  With Major League Baseball wanting to grow its international presence and popularity, could we eventually see a major league team in Havana instead of Tampa?

I guess we shouldn’t get ahead or ourselves though.  The newly announced policies are still in their infancy.  Aspiring major league baseball players from Cuba will likely still have to defect in the short term.  But perhaps the sport can be instrumental in bridging some of the gaps in current relations.  It sure would be nice to see more players like Cuban legends Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, and Tony Perez in the major leagues.

Winter Meetings Reminiscent of Old-Fashioned Baseball Trading

During Baseball’s Winter Meetings last week, I heard more than a few times how the trading activity among Major League Baseball general managers reminded people of the old days when GMs like Bill Veeck and Buzzie Bavasi would hammer out deals trading players in the era before free agency.

Free agent signings usually highlight the Winter Meetings, but this year there were several significant trades that also captured the attention of the baseball world.  Sure, there were still the frenzied competitions for the top free agents, but they practically took a back seat to what seemed at times like horse trading among the teams attempting to improve their chances in the upcoming races of the 2015 season.

Unlike the yesteryear days of Veeck when cigars and bourbon were the staples of most of the GMs, today’s deal-makers are more likely to indulge in a cup of Starbucks and an energy bar as they were negotiating transactions.  Nevertheless, it was an active three days of trading at the San Diego hotel where all the teams were gathered.

The GMs of today seem to have a constant juggling act trying to deal with multiple factors to fill out their 25-man rosters.  They have a complex job of balancing short-term and long-term player contracts.  They have to weigh getting value for players nearing the end of their contracts without simply relinquishing them to free agency, with overpaying free agents to order to keep them.  They’re having to make sure all of their top minor league prospects are not being depleted by having to swap them for veteran players they need to fill big gaps in their lineups.

Major League Baseball is breaking all kinds of revenue records, largely because of mega TV contracts and the MLB branding of its own products which extend beyond the traditional hats and jerseys. I heard the other day that the sport is now a $9 billion industry.  More teams now have the resources to invest in the top players in the game.   Witness the Miami Marlins who re-signed its face of the franchise, Giancarlo Stanton, to a blockbuster deal when they had previously been among the lowest payroll teams in the league.

Yet there are still teams not willing to empty their pocket books on player salaries.  They rely more on strategies based on advanced analytics of players’ performance to build their team rosters, while managing within a budget set by the team’s owner.

All of these factors form the backdrop for what goes on when teams are making decisions for player acquisitions, whether through free agency or trades.

There were some definite winners and losers coming out of the Winter Meetings, although some would argue there’s still more to come during the remainder of the off-season.  Some of the losers will have second chances to make deals for key players still available in the market.

I’d say the city of Chicago was the biggest winner, because both the Cubs and White Sox made big splashes with player acquisitions.  We’ll likely see a sort of baseball revival  in the Windy City next season.

The Cubs outbid the Red Sox and Dodgers for free agent Jon Lester’s services to address a big hole in their starting pitching, while also adding a much-needed catcher, Miguel Montero.  The Cubs figure to add even more pitching to go along with a core of promising young hitters, since they’re making big noises about becoming a relevant team again within a year or two.  The addition of Joe Maddon as the manager will also help that cause.

The cross-town White Sox solidified their pitching staff by making made huge acquisitions for starter Jeff Samardzija, top-notch closer David Robertson, and setup man Zach Duke.  First baseman Adam LaRoche was signed to add more thump in the middle of the batting order.  With these changes, the ChiSox are optimistic they can improve on their 73-win season last year.

One of the biggest trade surprises was Oakland’s swap of third baseman Josh Donaldson for Toronto’s third baseman Brett Lawrie and some prospects.  Donaldson was the A’ best player and is rated well above the talent of Lawrie.  It’s hard to figure what A’s GM Billy Beane was thinking with that move.  He let Lester, Samardzija, Brandon Moss, Luke Gregorson, Alberto Callaspo, and Jonny Gomes go to free agency, so it appears he’s in the mode of dismantling and re-building the team over the off-season.  He’d better get busy finding replacements.  In any case, the A’s are a loser at this point.

Speaking of dismantling a team, it’s been interesting to watch Dodgers President Andrew Friedman at work in his new job.  Friedman has the best of both worlds—superior analytics expertise and the deep pockets of the ownership.  Despite having practically an unlimited budget from the Dodgers, Friedman’s already offloaded the big contracts of Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp, two of his key offensive players, as well as traded his starting second baseman, Dee Gordon.  It’s true the Dodgers had too many outfielders, but Kemp was the best among them.

Friedman’s remodeling effort so far has included trades for veterans Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick to shore up the defense of middle infield while still having some pop in their bats.  However, they are likely there for the short-term only, while Dodgers’ prospects are getting ready for the big leagues.  The Dodgers also upgraded their catching position with Yasmani Grandal who was acquired from the Padres in the trade for Kemp.  Although the Dodgers lost the battle for Lester, I expect them to spend the money necessary to get another top-notch hurler before the season starts.  At the end of the day, they will be a winner.

The Boston Red Sox had jumped out in front of everyone before the Winter Meetings by signing free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, both of whom will provide much-needed offense in their lineup.  The Red Sox were in hot pursuit of Lester too, since they needed to refresh their starting pitching.  When they did not land Lester, the Red Sox traded outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for pitcher Rick Porcello and acquired pitcher Wade Miley in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Justin Masterson, who previously pitched for the Red Sox, was re-acquired, thus completing a refurbished veteran rotation that allows them additional time to groom some minor league pitching prospects.  Thus, the Red Sox didn’t sit idly by as they look to get back in contention next season.

Well, I see the Yankees didn’t take the advice I gave them in my blog two weeks ago.  They got light-hitting Didi Gregorious, instead of Troy Tulowitski, as Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop.  They did not re-sign pitchers David Robertson and Brandon McCarthy, and have not yet landed a big-time pitcher for the starting rotation.  The Yankees did manage to outbid everyone for Andrew Miller’s services. There is question about whether Miller will replace Robertson as the closer or current setup guy Dellin Bettances steps into the stopper role.  Reportedly, the Yankees are still in the hunt for free-agent pitchers Max Scherzer and James Shields.  However, at this point, I’d label the Pinstripers a loser.

In addition to the Oakland A’s, several other post-season teams were on the sidelines during the Winter Meetings.  The Orioles lost Nelson Cruz, Mark Markakis, and Andrew Miller to free agency and have not replaced them yet.  The Royals lost Billy Butler and James Shields to free agency without any replenishment activity last week.  The Giants have not yet filled holes created by losing Pablo Sandoval to the Red Sox and further expecting to lose Jake Peavey and Ryan Vogelsong to free agency.

So, those are some of the highlights of the activities from the Winter Meetings.  It’s sure to generate more talk during the remainder of the Hot Stove Season.

Happy Birthday, Boo!

I’ve mentioned an acquaintance of mine, Dave “Boo” Ferriss, a few times in my blog posts in the past.  Well, today is his 93rd birthday, so let me tell you a bit about him.  He is known in the baseball world as a member of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.  However, aside from those prestigious accomplishments in sports plus many others, Boo is best known by those who have known him, within baseball circles and outside of baseball, as one of the finest persons around, a true gentleman.

I grew up in the same little town of Shaw, in the Mississippi Delta, where Boo was born and raised.  My first recollection of him was as an eight-year-old Little Leaguer who heard him speak at a team gathering one summer day.  I figured Boo must be important because he had played with Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and was giving away some baseballs that day signed by “The Splendid Splinter.”  

My mother, who had gone to high school with Boo, always spoke highly of him.  I would later have a few other occasions to come across Boo as I grew up, but never really got to know him well at that time.  However, I was certainly aware of his reputation as a former big league ballplayer and college coach.

One of those occasions occurred in the summer after my freshman year in college.  I coached a Shaw baseball team in a 13-14 year-old league in a nearby town.  Although I had played a fair amount of baseball in my youth and in high school, I really didn’t know much about how to teach and coach the youngsters.  Typically, I would just make out the game’s lineup, put the guys on the field, and let them play.

I vividly recall one evening, when our team was practicing, Boo happened to stop by the baseball field and asked if I minded if he could show my young pitcher a few pointers.  Here was a guy who had been the major league pitching coach for the Red Sox in the 1950s and was now the head baseball coach at Delta State University.  And he’s asking me would I mind. Well, as fate would have it, that young pitcher, Steve Sandroni, who got Boo’s tutoring that day, wound up pitching for him at Delta State for four seasons and made the Division II College All-American team as a senior.  At least I can say I had Steve at the right position on my team!

My passion for learning the history of baseball grew after I got out of college, when I began to read a lot about the players and teams of eras gone by.  I started focusing on Boo’s career as a player in the major leagues, collecting information and stories about his playing days.  I began to correspond with Boo about some of his baseball accomplishments, but that soon turned into dialogs about our families and topics other than baseball.  I started to realize he was a man who represented much more than my perception, while a youngster, as just a former star ballplayer.

For example, on several occasions when hurricanes passed over or near New Orleans, he called me afterwards to ask if everyone in my family was okay and whether we needed anything.

But he treats everyone like that.

Rick Cleveland, a Jackson, MS sportswriter who authored Boo’s biography (Boo Ferriss: A Baseball Life, Well-Lived), recounted numerous stories in the book of baseball players who had played for Boo at Delta State, where Boo had as much influence on their personal lives as he did with their baseball careers.  Boo stays in touch with many of those former players even today, many years after their ball-playing days.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Scooter Tucker, one of Boo’s former players at Delta State and later a major leaguer himself. Tucker’s own personal stories about Boo echoed many of those in Cleveland’s book.  Tucker remarked how Boo had prepared him to be a big league catcher, but also made sure he was keeping up with his studies.

Even the guys who played with Boo in the major leagues years ago recognized what a gentleman Boo was back then.  About twenty years ago, I had written to one of his former teammates, Johnny Pesky, asking him to tell me a story about Boo.  Here’s what Pesky responded:  “Boo is just one of the great people I played with.  If anyone is God’s chosen people, it’s Boo. Not only was he a great pitcher—but as a person there was no one better.  Great disposition and a very dedicated man to his family and friends.”

So that’s Boo, one of the finest persons you will ever meet, as well as the accomplished sports personality.

Happy Birthday, Boo.  Here’s hoping you get a lot of “best wishes” today from the many people whose lives you touched all these years.

Yankees Uncharacteristically Quiet This Off-Season

The recent acquisitions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez by the Boston Red Sox would make you think the BoSox had taken a page out of the handbook of the New York Yankees’ general manager.  By this point in the off-season, it’s usually the Yankees who are setting the pace for re-stocking its team for the upcoming season.  However, the Yankees have been quietly sitting on the free-agency and trading sidelines, at least so far.


With the Red Sox signing these top-flight free agents, it sends a signal that they are impatient with getting back into contention for another World Series appearance.  They’ve gone from worst to first, and back to worst, in three consecutive seasons.    The Yankees haven’t tasted post-season champagne for the past two seasons and have been absent from the World Series since 2009.  In Derek Jeter’s twenty years with the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers missed post-season play in only three seasons.  So there are a lot of Yankee fans hoping the team is not slipping back into the mediocrity the franchise experienced from 1982 to 1994, when they did not have even one post-season appearance.

So what’s the holdup with the Yankees? 


I’m afraid Yankee GM Brian Cashman and other front-office execs may be thinking the 2014 season was merely one of misfortune by the Yankees, with injuries to several key pitchers and some “down” years by free-agent acquisitions Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, who had been all-star caliber players in the National League.  But the fact is, the Yankees are an old team, not just starting to get old, but old right now.  The average age of the entire team was 33 years last season.  For contrast, the American League champion Kansas City Royals team averaged 28 years of age.


There were no regular starters for the Yankees under 30 years of age.  Derek Jeter played his last season at age 40.  34-year-old Mark Teixeira has been injured or playing hurt for most of the past two seasons.  40-year-old Ichiro Suzuki’s on-base percentage is significantly down from his prime years.  Even as the team’s designated hitter, newly acquired 37-year-old Carlos Beltran played only 19 complete games.  The team also had 38-year-old outfielder Alfonso Soriano and 36 year-old second baseman Brian Roberts.  Alex Rodriguez is expecting to return to the field in 2015, but he’s 39 years old and probably a bit rusty after last-year’s layoff due to his PED-related suspension by Major League Baseball.


Regarding the pitching staff, except for C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, who are 33 and 39, respectively, there is relatively more youth than that of the position players.  However, none of the younger pitchers are proven starters.  Masahiro Tanaka, who the Yankees acquired through free-agency from Japan before last season, was on his way to being a 20-game winner before he hurt his arm shortly after mid-season.  He could easily rise to be the ace of the staff if healthy.


Yankee GM Cashman talks a good game about wanting to stay within the salary cap and still field competitive teams, but it’s not in their “franchise DNA” to stick to that plan.  Last year, they broke the bank with free-agent acquisitions of Jacoby Ellsbury, McCann, Beltran, and Tanaka.  Yet the Yanks still finished a distant twelve games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the East Division race; it was a small consolation that they finished in second place.


The Yankees have only one player on the current roster, Brett Gardner, who has played more than two big league seasons after coming up through the Yankees farm system. Scouting and player development have not been organizational strengths. They don’t have a readily available stock of young, desirable prospects that can fill some of their own roster spots, or that other teams would entertain in a trade for a quality player.  Hence, Cashman is practically forced to look to free-agency to obtain a younger core of players. 


So what should the Yankees do?  They don’t have too many choices but to spend the big bucks, unless they decide to sit out the off-season entirely. Of course, if there was a way for the Yankees to keep A-Rod off the roster next season, that would free up about $20 million for a big-name acquisition, but that issue won’t be settled until spring training, if even then.   Therefore, as a typical Yankees fan, my vote is to open the checkbook this off-season like they’ve always done.  I think three moves are key to their getting back into a closer race next season—retaining their current closer, acquiring two starting pitchers, and getting an offensive-minded shortstop.


Pitching should be the top priority.  Closer David Robertson entered free-agency this fall, but the Yankees should make a concerted effort to re-sign him.  No one was going to fully replace Mariano Rivera, but Robertson has proven to be a more-than-capable alternative.  Combined with All-Star reliever Dellin Betances as a set-up guy, they make a solid one-two punch out of the bullpen.


Starters Sabathia, Tanaka, and Michael Pineda all spent considerable time on the DL, and there is probably some question about their ability to rebound this coming season.  Furthermore, Kuroda is supposedly considering retirement.  So the Yankees have immediate need for a healthy, top-flight starter. 


The top free agents include Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields, but the trade rumors also mention that Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann and Cole Hamels could be available.  Any one of these aces would dramatically improve the Yankees.  Brandon McCarthy turned in some good performances for the Yankees after coming from Arizona at mid-season, and the Yankees should retain the veteran as the fourth or fifth starter in the rotation.


Getting another big bat in the lineup is the other priority for the Yankees.  Losing Robinson Cano to Seattle a year ago was a significant blow to the Yankees’ offense last season.  Reportedly, shortstop Troy Tulowitski is available from the Colorado Rockies, and he could serve two purposes by providing that big bat and replacing Derek Jeter.  When Tulo’s been healthy for an entire season, he’s historically been in the discussions for league MVP.  He could make up for Cano’s absence.


The Yankees don’t have a viable backfill for Jeter. Although the Yankees could get last year’s backups to Jeter, Brendan Ryan and Stephen Drew, relatively cheaply, they don’t bring enough offense to the table.  Although Tulowitski will be 30 next season, the Yankees should resort to its deep pockets to pursue him in some type of buyout with the Rockies.   Someone like Jean Segura of the Milwaukee Brewers could be a possibility too, and he wouldn’t cost nearly as much as Tulowitski.


I hope it’s just a matter of time for Cashman to put together all the pieces to make these kinds of improvements for the Yankees next season.  They simply can’t sit idly and let the same old players just get another year older.


Breaking Down the Stanton Mega-Deal

Miami Marlins’ outfielder Giancarlo  Stanton inked a mega-deal last week that eclipsed all previous sports contracts.  His 13-year, $325 million contract comes from a team that had the lowest payroll of all the major league teams in 2014.  I’m trying to figure out what’s up with the Marlins.  Is this just another scam of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, or are they really serious about building a contending club for the long-haul?


The 25-year-old Stanton has established himself as one of the best sluggers in the big leagues.  Having just completed his fifth major league season, he’s already a known quantity, despite his relatively young age.  He’s averaged 30 home runs and 80 RBI per season.  He was the runner-up to Clayton Kershaw for the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2014. In a period where strong pitching has cut down on teams’ offensive numbers, Stanton would be a much-coveted hitter by almost every major league team.


Loria has been an enigma during his reign as owner of the Marlins.  He has drawn the scorn of baseball fans throughout the thirteen years he has owned the club, because of controversial actions he’s taken with the team.  They’ve included several fire sales of his players, the most recent in 2012, when he unloaded his top players after only one season in the new retractable-roof ballpark in Miami.  After much controversy over the Miami taxpayers’ funding a new $2.4 billion stadium, Loria tempted the fans of Miami with a huge investment of $191 million for free agent players to stock the team for the opening season of new ballpark.  However, he wound up shedding almost $150 million of payroll after a losing season.  He apparently decided if he was going to lose, he would lose cheaply.


Loria’ history of decimating teams is sadly legendary.  Even after winning the 2003 World Series over the New York Yankees, Loria similarly dismantled the team when he cut player payroll.  At one point, the commissioner’s office of Major League Baseball levied complaints against him for not re-investing his team’s profits back into the club, asserting non-competitive teams were not good for the overall game of baseball.


In business circles, Loria is better known as a leading international art dealer, not an impassioned baseball owner.  His critics argue that if he spent as much on his players as he did on art pieces, he could field some pretty decent clubs.


So assuming Loria is having a change of heart, or rather a change of pocketbooks, how does this deal stack up for the Marlins and for Stanton?


For Stanton, it’s obviously a boatload of money and a whole lot of security.  At his press conference, Stanton was asked if he was embarrassed about making $69,000 per day with his new deal, more than the average annual income of many Miami residents.  Additionally, Stanton managed to secure a no-trade contract and an ability to opt out of the contract after six years.  If Loria and the Marlins are not true to their intentions about building a winning franchise, then Stanton can look elsewhere, while still being only 31 years old.


While the deal’s average annual salary is $25 million, the contract is heavily back-loaded, averaging $30 million per year in the last seven years of the contract term.  If the going price for players with Stanton’s talent is considerably more than that after his sixth year into the contract, Stanton has the option to go into the open market to pursue an even bigger contract.  He’s practically in a no-lose situation financially.


For the Marlins, with baseball salaries trending like they are, $17.8 million per year for the next six years is a relative bargain for a young, prodigious hitter like Stanton. Ball clubs are generally struggling to acquire big offensive guys in the prime of their careers.  Many of the larger contracts lately have involved players who will be in the mid-to-late 30s in the latter half of their contracts, like those of Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Albert Pujols.


In today’s game, general manager strategies are all about control of the younger players.  Control translates into predictable player rosters and salaries.  The Marlins have locked in Stanton to a minimum of six years during the prime of his career and, with some luck, it could be longer.


Another interesting aspect of the deal is that Stanton’s salary during the first six years gives the Marlins some flexibility to invest in other players to surround Stanton.  I have to believe that was an important factor for Stanton too—that he wouldn’t be the lone superstar on the team.  Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, and Adeiny Hechavarria are young Marlins players that will likely command top market values when they reach their arbitration eligible years.  Loria will need the extra money to keep them.


So, the big question is whether Loria will indeed invest in other star talent to complement Stanton, as he promised at the contract signing’s press conference last week.  Or is this just the latest of Loria’s scams?  Last season, the Marlins only spent only $40 million on player salaries, the lowest in the majors.  To field post-season-contending teams, the Marlins will need to spend at least 2-3 times more.  Apparently, Stanton developed some level of trust that Loria would be increasing his spending level to acquire and retain top-flight players.


Is this beginning of a turnaround for the Marlins?  With Lebron James out of Miami now, will the city turn to baseball as the sport of choice?  Will Loria live up to his commitments to Stanton and the city?  Is Loria looking to repair his image within baseball?  History says the answer to these questions is “no.”  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Kershaw Joins Elite Dual-Winner Club

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw claimed the National League Cy Young Award and MVP Award, joining an elite group of pitchers who have received both titles in the same season.  Although this select club is few in numbers, remarkably it happened in both the American and National Leagues in 1968, when Dennis McLain and Bob Gibson posted career-best seasons.


Kershaw was the hands-down winner of the Cy Young Award, being unanimously selected by the Baseball Writers Association.  It was his third time in four years; he was the runner-up in the fourth year.  However, amid heated controversy generated by sports talk show hosts, baseball analysts, and fans about whether pitchers should even be eligible for the MVP Award, Kershaw out-paced the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton, 18 to 8 in first place votes. 


To recap Kershaw’s fantastic season, he compiled a 20-3 won-loss record and led the National League in ERA (1.77), WHIP (0.857), complete games (6), strikeouts per 9 innings (10.8), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.71).  In his 27 starts for the season, he yielded more than three runs only once.  He accomplished all this after missing the entire month of April due to a shoulder injury he incurred in the first game of the major league season, which was played in Japan on March 22. Kershaw led the Dodgers to a National League West Division title, but he later got thumped twice by the Cardinals in the Division Series. 


In addition to Kershaw’s spectacular numbers, another factor likely contributing to his winning the MVP title was that runner-up Stanton missed 17 games at the end of the season when he was hit in the face by a pitched ball.  Furthermore, Stanton didn’t lead his team to the post-season, thus diminishing his impact in the league. In general, it was a “down” year for offensive statistics of other MVP candidates in the National League; thus none of the position players made compelling cases that overshadowed Kershaw’s performance.


Kershaw is only the eleventh player in history to collect both the Cy Young and MVP Awards in the same season, the first in the National League since 1968.  The most recent dual winner was Justin Verlander in 2011.  The first was Don Newcombe in 1956.  In between them were Dennis Eckersley (1992), Roger Clemens (1986), Willie Hernandez (1984), Rollie Fingers (1981), Vida Blue (1971), Dennis McLain and Bob Gibson (1968), and Sandy Koufax (1963).


We’ll not likely see a season like 1968 again, where the most valuable players of each league were pitchers.  The Detroit Tigers’ Dennis McLain and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson turned in the best seasons of their careers and some of the best in all of baseball history.  They wound up squaring off against each other in Games 1 and 4 in the World Series, with Gibson garnering two wins over McLain.


McLain’s 31 victories in 1968 were the last time a major league pitcher won 30 or more games.  The previous 30-game winner before McLain was Dizzy Dean with 30 in 1934.  24-year-old McLain started an astounding 41 games for the Tigers and logged 336 innings pitched while hurling 28 complete games.  Kershaw’s pitching workload in 2014 pales against McLain’s historic 1968 season.


Bob Gibson posted a 22-9 season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968.  The hard-throwing right-hander’s 1.12 ERA ranks as the fourth-best of all-time for a single season.  Like McLain, Gibson had 28 complete games, but also led the league with 13 shutouts, 268 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 0.853.  He posted sixteen consecutive winning decisions, including five straight shutouts, between June 2 and August 19, with an 11-inning no-decision outing sandwiched within the streak.  Gibson pitched less than eight innings in a game only twice in 34 starts, and those were two seven-inning starts at the beginning of the season.


Because of his missed time on the field, Kershaw pitched only 198 innings for the season.  This situation further fueled the argument that pitchers should not be eligible for the MVP Award because they are not everyday players.   There are a lot of sentiments for having one award for the best pitcher and a separate one for the best position player/designated hitter, but it’s not likely we’ll see that happen soon, if ever.


Oh, by the way, I predicted Kershaw would win both awards in my blog post on September 29.   


The Hot Stove League Heats Up

Baseball’s “Hot Stove League” officially began with the last out of World Series Game 7 and will end the first day major league Spring Training camps open in mid-February.  So for about three and one-half months, baseball talk show hosts, analysts, bloggers, and fans will queue up and debate the hot topics of the off-season.  Expectedly, the range of hot stove topics will include second-guessing teams’ organizational moves in 2014, prognostications for next year’s contenders, Hall of Fame predictions, the latest hot free-agents, and of course the perennial discussion about the New York Yankees “evil empire.”


Only a few days into the off-season, the most talked about topic has been the Chicago Cubs’ signing of manager Joe Maddon, who became available on the open market when he didn’t extend his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.  Speculation is that the Cubs are ready to move into their next phase of re-building the club under Theo Epstein’s leadership, having stocked it with young, promising prospects over the past four to five years.  They believe they are now poised to become more competitive on the field and figure Maddon is the guy to get them there.  The Cubs fired manager Rick Renteria after only one season to create the opening for Maddon.  Some pundits are already projecting the Cubs will contend for a playoff spot in 2016.  However, they still need signficant help in the starting rotation to be in that conversation.


2014 was a bumper year for new Hall of Fame inductees, with three players and three managers getting bronze plaquesl.  Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Pedro Martinez highlight the new entrants on the ballot this January.  The most promising carryovers from last year’s ballot include Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds.   I predict there will be a moderate selection in January—Johnson and Biggio will be the only 2015 inductees.


The Hall’s Golden Era Committee, consisting of sixteen former players, executives and media, will vote on previous candidates who will get a second chance to be voted in.  This year’s nominees include Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, Jim Kaat, Maury Wills, Ken Boyer, Dick Allen, Billy Pierce, and Bob Howsam.  In my opinion, Jim Kaat has the best chance of getting in from this group, although his career statistics are largely due to his lengthy 25-year career.  Over the years, there have been overwhelming sentiments for Gil Hodges’ induction, like there was for over-looked Ron Santo, but I think Hodges will fall short again this year.


The free-agent market always dominates the off-season conversations, with available pitchers usually taking center stage.  This year’s prominent free agent pitchers include Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, and Andrew Miller.  The big-pocket teams that need immediate pitching help include the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, and Cubs.  I look for these types of teams to scoop up these front-liners.


Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz, Russell Martin, and Pablo Sandoval headline the free-agent position players.  But it’s not entirely out of the question that their current teams will re-sign them.


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog piece entitled “Moneyball Meets Moneybags,” referring to how the Los Angeles Dodgers’ new president Andrew Friedman would impact his new team.  Friedman made a name for himself by managing to field several playoff teams at Tampa Bay with some of the lowest budgets in major league baseball.  Now that he will have deep pockets in Los Angeles, what changes will he make for the 2015 season?  Frankly, I was surprised he decided to keep Don Mattingly as manager and didn’t make a run at Maddon, his former field boss in Tampa.  The Dodgers need help in the bullpen and will have to backfill Hanley Ramirez, if he decides to pursue free agency.  They have four outfielders who have been starters in the past, including high-priced Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, so a change seems imminent there.  The Dodgers are an impatient team with regard to getting back to the World Series, so I expect Friedman to readily draw on the Dodgers’ deep resources if he needs to.


What direction will the Tampa Bay Rays take?  They suffered in mediocrity for the first ten years of the franchise which began in 1998.  Former general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon were the key cogs in that organization who changed all that.  The Rays did more with less than any other major league team, resulting in several playoff seasons and one World Series appearance.  With both Friedman and Maddon bailing out on the Rays during the offseason, what does the future hold for the team?  Will the Rays revert back to being a second-rate team?


No hot stove season is complete without a lot of chatter about the New York Yankees.  Yankee haters are tickled to death the Pinstripers missed the playoffs for the second straight year.  Their high-profiled free agent acquisitions of last off-season didn’t deliver on expectations.  Their starting pitching collapsed due to injuries.  For the first time in twenty years, Derek Jeter will not be the starting shortstop.  Will the Yankees be a suitor of the Rockies’Troy Tulowitzki as Jeter’s backfill?  It appears Alex Rodriguez will be returning to the team, following his PED-related suspension from last season; but which A-Rod will show up and how will the rest of the team respond to him?  General Manager Brian Cashman has his work cut out for him during this off-season to make the necessary adjustments to return the team to the playoffs.


In each of the past two seasons, there has been a franchise which mounted a resurgence to prominence, the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 and the Kansas City Royals last season.  Will there be another in 2015?  My prediction is that the Florida Marlins, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians are on the verge of being playoff bound.  Except for the Indians’ appearance in 2013, these teams have suffered playoff droughts for eight or more years.  Without a lot of fanfare, each has been re-shaping their teams with up-and-coming pitching staffs.


Then there are the ongoing debates about “who would you rather have as a pitcher, Bumgarner or Kershaw?” and whether the World Series champion San Francisco Giants are a “dynasty” team.


So, these are just a few of the topics out there that will occupy a lot of air time and internet bandwidth over the coming months?  Let me hear from you about your favorite one.


Death of Cardinals' Taveras Reminiscent of Loss of Mike Miley

The tragic death of St. Louis Cardinals rookie outfielder Oscar Taveras from an automobile accident on October 26 in the Dominican Republic evokes memories of a New Orleans area baseball and football star, Mike Miley, whose life and promising major league career was also cut short by an automobile crash on January 6, 1977.


While Taveras and Miley had distinctly different paths to the major leagues, their ultimate fates have similarities in that tragedies seem to follow their baseball franchises.


Taveras had been the Cardinals’ top prospect in their farm system for two years and was projected to become a fixture in their outfield for years to come.  He was originally signed in November 2008 by St. Louis as a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic.  By his fourth season in pro ball, he was the Texas League MVP in 2012. 


An ankle injury curtailed Taveras’ 2013 season with Triple-A Memphis.  Although he had a good showing in spring training this year, it was determined he needed a bit more seasoning.  Thus, the 22-year-old Taveras started out the 2014 season with Memphis.  As expected, he got off to a hot start and was promoted to the big league Cardinals by the end of May.


Cardinal fans thought they had struck gold with Taveras when he hit a home run in his debut game on May 31.  But he struggled at the plate during the rest of the regular season, yet the Cardinals were still confident he was the promising player they hoped for, one who would become an integral part of a new, young core of team members. 


Mike Miley’s route to the big leagues was quite different.  He was a two-sport star at East Jefferson High School in Metairie, Louisiana, and earned a scholarship to LSU.  LSU sports followers would most likely remember “Miracle Mike” Miley as the starting quarterback for a Charlie McClendon-coached football team, but it turned out baseball was his professional calling.


As a junior, Miley quarterbacked the Tigers to a 9-2 record in 1973, when they won nine consecutive games before losing to Alabama and Tulane.  The Tigers earned an Orange Bowl appearance against Penn State, losing 16-9.  LSU was ranked 13th in the final AP Poll.  Individually, Miley finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference for most total yards (passing and rushing), while compiling four rushing touchdowns and seven touchdown passes.


Meanwhile, Miley was also the starting shortstop for the Tigers baseball team.  He had been an All-SEC selection in his freshman year in 1972.  In his junior season in 1974, he was named to The Sporting News All-American team, which led to his becoming the Number 1 selection (10th overall pick) of the California Angels in the Major League Baseball amateur draft in June 1974.  Understandably, he decided to forgo his senior year at LSU by signing with the Angels.


After only one and a half seasons in the minors, including a selection as a Texas League All-Star, Miley made his major league debut with the Angels on July 6, 1975.  He didn’t play particularly well, hitting only .174 in 70 games.  The switch-hitting shortstop was back in the minors in 1976, getting only a September call-up with the Angels for 14 games.  However, he was still regarded as their shortstop of the future.


In a memorial to Miley’s death, the 1977 California Angels Media Guide Media commented, “He was one of the most highly regarded young players in the Angels’ organization.  Miley was an outstanding young man with exceptional talent.”


Miley is linked to a long-time myth in baseball that there was a “curse” or “jinx” associated with the Angels franchise, because of the number of injuries and deaths that occurred over the years which supposedly hindered them from reaching the heights of a pennant-winning club.  Along with Miley, Dick Wantz (1965), Bruce Heinbechner (1974), and Lyman Boston (1978) were other Angels’ players who lost their lives early in their careers.  In 1989, former Angles reliever Donnie Moore committed suicide, and he is often mentioned in the curse conversation because his suicide is usually traced to a fateful home run he gave up in a losing effort in the 1986 playoffs.


The St. Louis Cardinals have had similar misfortunes with the tragic loss of players.  Taveras is the third Cardinals player in fairly recent times to have died while an active player.  Pitcher Darryl Kile died of a heart attack during the 2002 season, and pitcher Josh Hancock perished in a car crash during the 2007 season.  The heartbreaking loss of Taveras was felt by the baseball community just as Game 5 of the World Series was being played and thus garnered national attention immediately.


Miley is one of many players from the New Orleans area who reached the major leagues.  For more information about New Orleans area baseball players who went on to play college and professional baseball, check out http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.


2014 Update of Family Ties

One of my special interests in the game of baseball has been the identification of the many family relationships that have existed throughout the history of the game.  In 2012, I published Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives that contained over 3,500 professional players, managers, coaches, scouts, executives, umpires, and broadcasters with relatives in professional baseball.


As the World Series winds down the 2014 season, it’s a good time to look back and assess the current level of family relationships (brothers, father-son, uncle-nephew, cousins, etc.) in the game today.  I’ve compiled an updated list of the 2014 players, managers, and coaches that have current or past relatives in professional baseball.  It’s safe to say the tradition of baseball’s family ties has continued at a very high level, with over 650 current family relationships existing in 2014, including over 170 players who had multiple relationships.


The entire 2014 list can be retrieved on my Baseball’s Relatives page (http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/family-ties-2014-season/) on the MLBlogs Network website.


Following is a “By the Numbers” illustration of how prevalent baseball’s family trees were in 2014.


418 – number of major and minor league players in 2014 with a present or past relative in professional baseball (major, minor, and independent leagues).  Admittedly, my list is not exhaustive for the minor league players with relatives, and I estimate my compilation could be low by as much as 20%.


84 – number of 2014 major league managers and coaches with a relative in professional baseball.  Assuming each of the 30 MLB teams has a coaching staff of eight members, this number represents about a third of the coaching staff in the entire league.


100 – number of 2014 major league players with a relative that also played in the major leagues (present or past).  Assuming an average of 50 players appearing on the roster for each of the 30 MLB teams throughout the season, the count for this season is consistent with my count in Family Ties that 7% of all major league players in history were either a father, son, brother, or grandfather.


52 – number of additional 2014 major league players with a relative in the minor leagues (present or past).


25 – number of 2014 major league players with a relative also playing in the major leagues in 2014.


14 – number of grandsons playing professionally in 2014 whose grandfathers formerly played in the major leagues; another 15 grandsons had grandfathers who previously played in the minor leagues.


73 – number of amateur players selected in the 2014 MLB Draft with current or past relatives in professional baseball; 13 of these amateur players had multiple relatives in professional baseball.


Some additional facts from information in the list:


Included in the number of grandsons are last names which may sound familiar—Hall of Famers Yastrzemski, Ripken, and Killebrew.  Current A’s pitcher Drew Pomeranz is the great grandson of Garland Buckeye who played in the majors from 1919 to 1928.


40 of the drafted amateurs in 2014 have a relative who played in the majors.  Some of the drafted players were relatives of prominent major leaguers:  Mariano Rivera III (son of Mariano), Justus Sheffield (nephew of Gary), Nick Gordon (son of Tom and brother of Dee), Benito Santiago Jr. (son of Benito), and Ryan Ripken (son of Cal Jr. and grandson of Cal Sr.).


The Atlanta Braves led the league in selecting the most relatives in the 2014 MLB Draft with eight, while the Cincinnati Reds drafted seven. 


Veteran Scott Hairston is a three-generation player, one of only seven major leaguers in baseball history.  Three players drafted in 2014, Ryan Ripken, Adam Law, and Jed Sprague , could add to this list if they eventually get to the big leagues.


In addition to Hairston’s father and grandfather playing in the big leagues, he had two uncles and two brothers who also played professionally.


Torii Hunter’s son was drafted in 2014, but he chose to attend college at Notre Dame to play football and baseball.  The last father-son combo to play in the majors at the same time was Tim Raines and his son in 2001.


The Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies teams each had five of their coaching staff with relatives in baseball. 


Brett Bochy made his major league debut in 2014 for San Francisco and played for his father, Bruce, who was the manager.


Thirteen players who made their 2014 major league debuts had relatives that were former major leaguers.


Mike Guerrero, current coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, has four brothers in professional baseball capacities as player, scout, or coach.  His father was a former major league scout.


The Best Week in Baseball

We are approaching the only time during the sports year when all the major professional sports are in gear, as the World Series closes out the baseball season, the NBA season opens near the end of the month, and the NFL and NHL schedules are already in full swing.  However, before giving our full attention to one of the other three sports, we have the best week in baseball starting on Tuesday when San Francisco and Kansas City square off for the 110th edition of the World Series.  This week I’m also covering a couple of other recent topics, in addition to the upcoming World Series.


San Francisco Giants Showing Tendencies for Becoming a Dynasty

The Giants are starting to look like the dynastic New York Yankees with their recurring appearances in the World Series.  This is the third time in five seasons they have won the National League pennant.  They won the World Series titles in 2010 and 2012 and have to be favored in this year’s contest because of that experience.  They have played like a very confident team in this year’s playoffs thus far, and I expect that to carry over against the Royals.


Like the Royals, the Giants don’t really have a superstar on the team who is expected to carry the team on his shoulders.  Instead, it seems like a different player every day who steps up to make a difference.  The latest example is journeyman Travis Ishikawa who hit the game-winning home run, only his third all season, to propel the Giants into the World Series.  He joins former Giants player Bobby Thomson in Giants history for slamming dramatic post-season home runs.


Many baseball analysts have previously touted Giants manager Bruce Bochy as a future recipient of a bronze plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame because of his previous two World Series championships.  A third trophy this year would likely cinch that.   His experience could likely be a difference-maker in this Series.  A third World Series title would also put the Giants franchise into select company.


Are the Royals a Model for the Future?

Are the American League Champion Kansas City Royals really good, or just hot at the right time, or both?  We’ll find out shortly starting Tuesday. 


The Royals had the seventh-best record of the ten playoff teams this season, only one game better than the last the three playoff teams.  They held first place in the Central Division for only about a month between August 11th and September 11th, ultimately finishing second to the re-surging Tigers by one game and just squeaking their way into the wild card game.   The Royals were last in home runs and tenth in runs scored among the fifteen American League teams.  They had not made a playoff appearance in 29 years.  Hence, they weren’t a big favorite going into the American League playoffs.


However, the Royals propelled out the wild card game with the Oakland A’s as a hot team and surprisingly won a record eight straight post-season games, largely due to great bullpen performances in each of the games.  Some folks are making claims they are fielding the best bullpen staff ever in the playoffs.


The Royals also brought renewed attention to the value of speed and defense as critical weapons for pennant-winning teams.  It seemed like every game in the playoffs showcased some aspect of the Royals being the best running team in the league.  It was remarked several times during the game broadcasts that just the Royals’ threat of stealing bases was a major factor in their opposition’s approach to their strategy for facing the Royals.  Furthermore, practically every member of their team made critical defensive plays throughout each series.  They played like a well-rounded team in the playoffs, despite their so-so regular season performance.


The Royals’ performance in the playoffs, which was based on not being primarily dependent on racking up a lot of hits and hitting the long ball, has caused questions about whether more teams should model their strategy and approach after the Royals, in order to achieve success.


The Royals’ defeat of the Giants in the Fall Classic would certainly reinforce that thinking.


Moneyball Meets Money Bags

With Andrew Friedman’s recent appointment as President of Baseball Operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, it will be interesting to see how his approach and methodology for building teams for the money-poor Tampa Bay Rays, his previous employer, will mesh with the deep pockets of the Dodgers’ ownership.


Friedman is generally recognized as one of the more brilliant general managers in all of baseball, based on the results he has achieved with the Rays since he took over the job at age 28 in 2006.


With a team payroll less than half of the big market teams, he was forced to look for player’s value at costs lower than the top-flight players were commanding in the league.  He was one of the first major league GMs to start locking in young, promising players to long-term contracts early in their careers. 


Friedman has been astute in identifying the right timing to unload players due big dollars on their next contract extensions, avoiding those extensions by trading them for top prospects or high draft choices.  Like many of the newer GMs, the former Wall Street analyst successfully utilized advanced data analytics to help guide key player decisions.


Friedman eventually led the Rays into a perennial relevant position within the American League East Division -- four playoff teams, including one World Series appearance, in the last seven seasons.


The Dodgers had nearly $240 million in guaranteed contracts with players in 2014.  And that’s not counting the incremental $26M per year due pitcher Clayton Kershaw starting next season.  That’s about four times Friedman’s player salary budget for the Rays in 2014.


Will Friedman stay the course with his previously successful approach, or possibly find some new ways to incorporate it with vast resources available with the Dodgers?  We’ll have to wait and see.


Managerial Merry-Go-Round

There have been four vacant major league manager spots in the offseason so far, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are two more before the winter’s hot stove league is over.  The Astros, Rangers, and Diamondbacks have filled their vacancies with A. J. Hinch, Jeff Bannister and Chip Hale respectively, while the Twins are still searching for Ron Gardenhire’s replacement, as part of what I call the managerial merry-go-round.


The average tenure with their current team for the thirty big league managers this past season was slightly less than four years.  Mike Scioscia (15 seasons), Ron Gardenhire (13), Joe Maddon (9), Bruce Bochy (8), Bud Black (8), and Joe Girardi (7) were the major exceptions.    Forty percent of the 2014 managers had held managerial jobs with more than one team.


Two of the three new 2015 openings were filled with first-time managers.  Hinch, who previously skippered the Diamondbacks, became the Astros new manager, while Chip Hale (Diamondbacks) and Jeff Bannister (Rangers) claimed their first managerial roles.  Similarly, before the 2014 season there were four rookie managers named to fill five vacancies.


The pool of available managers with big league experience within the past few years is relatively small now.  It includes guys like Ozzie Guillen, Manny Acta, Eric Wedge, Dale Sveum, Jim Tracy, Ken Macha, Dave Trembley, and most recently Ron Washington.  However, the often controversial Guillen and Washington were the only ones who delivered World Series teams.


Perhaps as evidence of the lack of available candidates, a recent trend that seems to be gaining  traction is the appointment of new managers who were former players, but had no prior managerial experience, including in the minor leagues.   Brad Ausmus (Tigers) and Matt Williams (Nationals) were the latest in this category in 2014.  Mike Matheny (Cardinals) and Walt Weiss (Rockies) were other recent examples within the last three seasons.


It appears major league GMs are impatient with new managers if they don’t produce playoff-caliber teams within 2-3 years, although one could argue no manager could produce winning teams with some of the weak lineups being put on the field.  A prime example is Bo Porter with the Houston Astros, who was fired after the 2014 season.


However, even veteran managers get the ax when they can’t sustain winning teams.  Buck Showalter, considered one of the best managerial minds in the game, is working for his fourth team.  Terry Francona, who managed the Red Sox out of World Series obscurity with two championships, was bumped from the job after a dismal season in 2011 and is now with his third big league club.


So, if I left you in suspense about the other two managers who might be on the chopping block during the rest of this offseason, I’m predicting Don Mattingly (Dodgers) and Fredi Gonzalez (Braves) will lose their jobs.  Each of them will be the victim of new general managers’ actions to put “their guy” in the manager’s chair.  These two historically winning franchises want a return to the World Series very soon.


Stay tuned, as baseball’s managers get on and off this merry-go-round.


This Is Buck's Year

Given that the Baltimore Orioles have lost the first two games of the current American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals, readers might be asking, “How can anyone now say this is Buck Showalter’s year?”


The Orioles are vying for their first World Series appearance since 1983, after sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series.  Going into this season, they were largely expected to finish behind the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees who re-tooled their team with some big-name off-season acquisitions.  It’s true those two teams came nowhere near their pre-season expectations. But the Orioles had veteran manager Buck Showalter manning the dugout, and I believe he’s the primary reason why the Orioles are still destined to win his first World Series title.  My advice is, “Don’t bet against Buck.”


Showalter has had a huge impact on the Oriole franchise, and this season’s division title is a result of a steady progression the team has made since he came on the scene with his leadership.  They clinched the American League East Division title two weeks ago, their first since 1997 when Cal Ripken Jr. was still playing.  Prior to Showalter’s arrival, the Orioles’ last winning season occurred in that division championship year in 1997; since then, they often finished last in their division.


Showalter’s first full season with the Orioles in 2011 was no different than the preceding thirteen years, as the team claimed only 69 wins.  Then he led the Orioles to a dramatic turnaround in 2012, improving their record by 24 wins on the way to a second-place finish and a playoff appearance.  The O’s won 85 games in 2013, although they failed to reach the playoffs.


Despite the 2014 pre-season forecasts of the Red Sox and Yankees battling for top position of the division, the Orioles had their own high expectations going into the season.  They added free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz and pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, whom they had planned to put at the top of the rotation.  However, the O’s faced difficulties early in the season when two of their better players, Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, were lost to injuries.   Furthermore, after leading the majors in home runs for the 2013 season, Chris Davis’ offensive production dropped off dramatically this season.  Instead of being the ace of the staff, Jimenez was a huge disappointment, and he was eventually dropped from the rotation. The Orioles also had to find a new closer since Jim Johnson, their stopper in the bullpen last season, was not re-signed.


Facing these obstacles during the season, Showalter’ experience took over.  He pieced together a good starting rotation that didn’t include legitimate No. 1 and No. 2 starters.  Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen stepped up.  He took a gamble on Zach Britton as the new closer, having previously been a starter.  Darren O’Day was a consistent middle relief guy.  Nelson Cruz filled a gap in the offense with 40 home runs and 108 RBI, supplementing Adam Jones and JJ Hardy.  Furthermore, it was Showalter’s crafty utilization of unproven players like Jonathan Schoop, Steve Pearce, Ryan Flaherty, and Caleb Joseph that allowed the Orioles to maintain the division lead after July 3rd.


Baseball historians are calling the Baltimore franchise’s return to prominence a return to the “Oriole Way” approach to baseball, popularized during the Ripken years.  However, I believe it should be more appropriately labeled “Buck’s Way.”  He has built a reputation for being able to push the right buttons at the right time.  Analysts close to the game remark that they have never seen anyone as prepared for games as Showalter.  He gets high marks for his managerial IQ.


Of course, this isn’t Showalter’s first rodeo as a manager.  He has previously managed the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers, and has been credited with turnarounds of each those clubs as well.  However, he missed out on Yankees and Diamondbacks teams winning the World Series, in 1996 and 2001 respectively, one year after he left each of those clubs.  Many feel like Showalter was primarily responsible for getting both of those clubs poised for World Series titles.  Now, it’s time for him to claim a World Series ring.


So how will the Orioles pull out a League Championship this week after digging themselves into a big hole at Camden Yard?  I’m betting that Showalter’s managerial acumen, experience, and leadership will come through again.  While no team in history has lost the LCS after having won the first two games, I look for Showalter to rally his troops to overcome the Royals and earn a shot at the World Series.


Everybody Loved Derek Jeter...Except Yankee Shortstop Prospects

Derek Jeter’s career accomplishments have been well-chronicled in the past few weeks, as he completed his spectacular twenty seasons with the Yankees.  His career numbers are staggering, not only among Yankee franchise players which include the likes of legendary figures such as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra, but also including all of the game’s players.


In today’s world of free agency and huge contracts, Jeter is a fairly rare bird to have played that many seasons for only one team for his entire career.  Carl Yastrzemski, George Brett, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Craig Biggio, Todd Helton, and Mariano Rivera are among a few others who accomplished that in the past 40 to 50 years.  Jeter may well be the last player to ever do it.  In any case, he will go down in history as one of the most popular players in baseball to put on the spikes.  Fans in big league stadiums around the country, including Fenway Park, showered much-deserved admiration and adulation on Derek this season, as they bid him farewell.


If there’s been any down-side to Jeter’s lengthy and storied career, it would come from the perspective of the Yankee prospects that were blocked by Jeter from breaking into the Yankees’ lineup at the shortstop position for twenty years.  Think about how many shortstops’ careers were stymied by Jeter’s lock on the position.


Jeter took over the Yankees’ shortstop position in 1996, after the team had gone through a transient cadre of free-agent acquisitions and young prospects in the five to six years before he arrived.  Veteran Yankee shortstops like Tony Fernandez, Mike Gallego, Kevin Elster, Spike Owen, and Wayne Tolleson were pretty much washed-up in their careers, in the seasons preceding Jeter’s arrival.  They were acquired through free-agency to fill the position, but none of them held the starting shortstop job on a regular basis for more than one season.  Then there were prospects like Alvaro Espinoza, Robert Eenhorn, Dave Silvestri, and Andy Stankiewicz, who were brought up through the Yankee farm system before Jeter became the mainstay at Yankee Stadium.  However, none of these hopefuls panned out either.


Thus, when Jeter first donned the pinstripes in 1995, the Yankees could have been characterized as “desperate” in their search for a good shortstop.  In fact, you’d have to actually go back to 1961 to find a Yankee shortstop (Tony Kubek) that made an All-Star team.


Jeter changed all that with his career.  His consistently high level of play entrenched him in the position. Even the Yankees’ 2004 acquisition of Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the best shortstop in the game at the time, didn’t unseat Jeter as the regular shortstop.  A-Rod was relegated to third base instead.  Here’s another perspective on Jeter’s dominance at the position.  The Yankees franchise selected a total of fifteen shortstops in the first ten rounds of the Major League Baseball drafts during Jeter’s twenty-year career.  Only one of them, Andy Cannizaro, ever played shortstop for the Yankees, and that consisted of only a handful of games in 2006.  And that’s not even counting all the other shortstop prospects selected in later draft rounds.


Ordinarily you would think a top prospect would be thrilled to be selected by the storied Yankee franchise.  Yet you can probably imagine the disappointment by a young shortstop upon learning he was drafted by the Yankees during the Jeter years, because he figured it would be practically impossible to unseat Jeter as the regular shortstop.  I suspect that these prospects didn’t have a lot of love for Jeter.


Did you ever hear much about Yankee players named Eduardo Nunez, Ramiro Pena, Wilson Betemit, Miguel Cairo, Enrique Wilson, and Clay Bellinger?  Probably not, because they were among the infield backups that rarely played behind Jeter at shortstop over the years.  These players had limited chances to make a good impression or make a statement on the field for claiming a regular job as Yankee shortstop.  In that regard, I doubt they had a lot of love for Jeter either.


Except for the 2013 season when Jeter broke his ankle, he generally played 150+ games each year.  Furthermore, he never played any other fielding position on the diamond, other than shortstop--not even once in twenty years.  Hence, the Yankees’ utility infielders never got much action at shortstop.  There wasn’t much need for them to take fielding practice at shortstop before the games, because Jeter was in the lineup practically every day.


I’d hate to be the guy who replaces Jeter as the regular shortstop for the Yankees next year.  He’ll have some big spikes to fill.  Yet I’m guessing there will be a number of players who would like the prestigious job.  But then there were a lot of Yankees prospects and backups over the past twenty years who hoped they would get a chance at the job, and didn’t.

 


Some Surprises, Some Shoo-ins for Baseball's Regular Season Awards

With the 2014 regular season ending yesterday, it’s time to select the winners for the prestigious seasonal awards for players and managers.  It’s been another exciting season, with its share of high performances by veteran players and interest generated by newcomers whom we may not have known before the season.


Major league baseball writers cast their vote on the various awards at the end of the regular season, before the post-season play-offs begin.  However, the winners are not officially announced until early November.


Here is a preview of who I think will garner these awards.


National League Cy Young

This one is a no-brainer.  The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw put up the best season for a pitcher since Ron Guidry in 1978.  Kershaw even missed five weeks at the beginning of the season due to arm injury and still managed to win 21 of his 27 starts.  He led the league in ERA (1.77) and strikeouts (239).  This will be his third Cy Young in the last four years—he was runner-up for the award the other year.  The Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright was a contender with 20 wins and a 2.38 ERA, while the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner made a strong showing with 18 wins, a 2.98 ERA, and two NL Pitcher of the Month honors.


National League MVP

I know I’m bucking the system here, but I’m also going with Kershaw for the National League’s MVP.  I wrote about this in my blog a few weeks ago—that Kershaw would challenge slugger Giancarlo Stanton for what is historically an award primarily won by position players.  Stanton actually missed the last three weeks of the season after being hit in the face by a pitched ball.  Before that, he had slammed 37 home runs (still leading the league) and 107 RBI.  Clearly, he was the main reason for the Marlins’ turnaround this season.  Andrew McCutchen, last year’s MVP, was also a strong contender this season, having put up similar numbers to last year and helping the Pirates reach the playoffs again.  It’s true that the Dodger’s other starting pitchers turned in some fine seasons, as well, that led to their West Division title.  However, the bottom line is the impact of Kershaw’s contributions and domination of the league can’t be overlooked.


National League Rookie of the Year

Occasionally a big league player makes his career debut coming out of nowhere, with little pre-season hype, to make an impact for his team.  The Met’s Jacob deGrom did just that in 2014, and thus he gets my selection for Rookie of the Year.  With the Mets young pitching staff hampered by injuries this season, the 26-year-old deGrom came onto the scene in mid-May to compile a 9-6 record and 2.69 ERA in 22 starts.  Thus, deGrom figures to be part of the emerging starting pitcher rotation next year that just may propel the Mets back into relevance.  Billy Hamilton was the other newcomer who had a shot at Rookie of the Year honors.  Unlike deGrom, the Reds outfielder brought a lot of high expectations into the season with his much-heralded speed.  Although still somewhat of a raw talent, he managed to swipe 56 bases.  However, it was his defensive play in centerfield that took everyone by surprise, after being converted from an infielder.  He hit six home runs and drove in 48, while batting .250.


National League Manager of the Year

This was perhaps the most difficult of the post-season honors for me to pick this season.  I finally settled on Mike Redmond of the Miami Marlins, because his team made one of the most dramatic improvements from last year.  Talent-wise, they don’t match up well with most of the teams in the rest of the league.  However, he managed to lead the Marlins to a 77-win season, 15 better than in 2013.  It can be argued that Nationals’ manager Matt Williams, in his first season at the helm of the Nats, was a strong candidate as well, since he led the Nationals to the best record in the National League.  Clint Hurdle of the Pirates and Don Mattingly of the Dodgers also get some kudos from me for the seasons their respective teams put together.


American League Cy Young Award

The Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka lived up to his pre-season billing by making a strong bid for this award, before he hurt his arm shortly after the All-Star break.  The much lesser known Corey Kluber is my selection for the Cy Young Award.  This Cleveland Indians fire-baller was the key to keeping his team in the playoff race right up to the end of the season.  He led the league in strikeouts (269) and tied for the league lead in wins (18), while posting a 2.44 ERA.  In my thinking, Kluber outpaced former Cy Young Award winners Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez, both of whom had fine campaigns this year.  Chris Sale of the White Sox was also a contender by finishing second in the league in ERA to go along with a 12-4 record.


American League MVP

Mike Trout finally gets his due as MVP of the American League after finishing as runner-up to Miguel Cabrera for the past two seasons.  The Angels’ 22-year-old outfielder had a career-best 36 home runs and 111 RBI, although his batting average dropped about 30 points from last year.  He led the league in runs scored for the third consecutive year and helped the Angels return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.  Trout got strong competition this season from another Detroit Tiger, Victor Martinez, who turned in a stellar season with a .335 average, 32 home runs and 103 RBI.  Martinez led the league in on-base percentage.  Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, Robinson Cano, and rookie Jose Abreu also got my consideration for their productive seasons.


American League Rookie of the Year

While I didn’t check the box for Abreu as the Rookie of the Year, the Chicago White Sox first baseman obtained my selection as the most outstanding rookie of the American League.  A Cuban-born player, he came into the league with high expectations from baseball’s scouts because of his professional experience in Cuba.  He started the season with a bang by hitting ten home runs in the month of April and finished with 36 home runs, 107 RBI and a .317 average.  Since July 1, Abreu improved his batting average almost 40 points.  He led the league in slugging percentage.  Abreu might have been challenged by the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, if Tanaka had pitched a full season.  However, Angels’ pitcher Matt Shoemaker was a close runner-up for me.  He posted a 16-4 record and 3.04 ERA and helped solidify the Angels’ starting rotation for much of the season, which resulted in a West Division title.  George Springer and Nick Castellanos also put up solid rookie seasons, but were much farther back in the running.  I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the years to come.


American League Manager of the Year

Buck Showalter was my pick for this award, the third time in his career including previous honors with the Yankees and Rangers.  Showalter’s Orioles captured the lead of the East Division after the first week of July and never relinquished it, finishing with a 12-game lead over the second-place club.  It can be argued that the Orioles didn’t have too much competition from the rest of the division’s teams.  Yet Showalter dealt with injuries to star players Manny Machado and Matt Wieters and a power drop-off from Chris Davis, while also getting good production out of a pitching staff that lacked true No. 1 and 2 starters.  The Tigers’ Brad Ausmus got my second-place consideration because of it being his inaugural managerial season and because previous Tigers manager, Jim Leyland, was not an easy act to follow in leading the Tigers to a division title again.  Mike Scioscia and Ned Yost were also viable candidates.


If you disagree with my selections, leave a comment below, and we can debate it during the upcoming play-offs.


Baseball Takes a Back Seat This Week

This week I’m going to depart from my usual baseball-related story/research.  I just have to, even though I had already drafted an article about Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter.  He’ll just have to take a back seat this week. 


When something happens once every fifteen years or so, you have to take note.  Well, on Saturday night the Mississippi State Bulldogs triumphed over the LSU Fighting Tigers at Tiger Stadium, 34-29.  It was State’s first defeat of LSU in football since 1999 and the first in Tiger Stadium since 1991.  I read one recap of the game that said only one player in the Bulldog team had been born before the 1991 contest—that tells a lot about how LSU has dominated all those years.


In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m an MSU fan.  My brother, Jim, an MSU alumnus like me, and I got an opportunity to attend the game.  Based on the Bulldogs’ 3-0 start to the season that included a lot of offense, we were hopeful they could make a game of it against the Tigers.  The game had been projected to be the highest attended game in Tiger Stadium history, made possible by the stadium’s latest addition in the south end-zone during the off-season.  Indeed, over 102, 000 fans were there, but did not include many Bulldog rooters.  Jim and I were two of only a handful of ‘Dawgs supporters in our section.  We heard numerous chants of “Tiger bait” as we climbed up to our seats.


When State jumped out to a 17-0 lead, we couldn’t believe it.  It was eerily quiet in “Death Valley” for most of the first half of the game.  Could the Bulldogs break the streak?


I won’t go into all the details of the game, but suffice it to say that the Bulldogs dominated the Tigers, even though the final score didn’t reflect it.  However, like most of the Tiger fans, we left the game with about seven minutes left and the score 34-16, feeling assured of a rare Bulldog victory.  Despite a late-game surge by LSU, the Maroons did take away the victory.


Right before we decided to leave the game, I was getting texts from my family who warned, “Watch out when you go back to your car after the game; you might get beat up by some angry Tiger fans.”  Well, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.  In fact, many LSU fans, who spotted my maroon T-shirt as we were leaving the stadium, actually congratulated us for our team having played such a well-balanced game.  One disgusted Tiger fan shouted, “Hey, you guys need to put away Bama, too.”  Yeah, right!


I don’t get a chance to gloat about the MSU/LSU game’s outcome very often, but I will gloat all week to compensate for the long-time drought.  (Okay, Donna, I understand you’ll have to “un-friend” me now.)


I’m sure Showalter will understand about not having yet another article written about him, as his Orioles team heads into the baseball playoffs.  You see, he also went to Mississippi State, and he just may be gloatin’ this week also! 

 

#HAILSTATE.


A Tribute to a Legend, Stan Sandroni

On occasion I’ve used this blog forum to write about my personal experiences related to my passion for baseball.  This week, please allow me to pay a tribute to my cousin, Stan Sandroni, whom a lot of folks would consider a legend in the sports media world in Mississippi.


Stan died suddenly from a heart attack last Wednesday at age 64, in Oxford, MS.  A native of Shaw, MS, he spent his entire working career in sports broadcasting, as radio and TV news/sports director, the play-by-play voice for multiple sports at Delta State University for 17 years, and most recently as a member of the Ole Miss football broadcasting crew as the sideline reporter, in his 26th year.  Stan was an eight time honoree of Mississippi’s Sportscaster of the Year award.


For 21 years, Stan has also been the popular co-host of a weekly radio show, called Rebel Yell Hotline, which is broadcast throughout the North Mississippi and Memphis areas.  Since Stan often had access to the Ole Miss coaches and players, he typically provided insights into the Rebel sports programs no one else had.  He was known for doing his homework to prepare for those shows.


While Stan had a prominent public side to him, what one should really know about Stan is that he knew everybody and everybody knew him.  This came about because he didn’t just report on the first downs, home runs, and three-point shots of the sports events he was covering.  He made a point to personally know the players, coaches, staff, and sports information directors of the teams he covered.  Equally important, he got to know the fans of those teams.  He could strike up a conversation with anyone, and since he was such an extremely approachable person himself, practically everyone engaged him for a sports story or two.


A couple of years ago, Stan was in New Orleans to work the Ole Miss football game against Tulane.  Several members of my family and I took Stan to eat dinner at a popular restaurant on St. Charles Avenue the night before the game.  The place was full of Ole Miss fans, and Stan made the rounds to speak to them while we were waiting for our table.  Well, it happened that James Carville, CNN political commentator and former strategist for President Bill Clinton, was also dining there.  Carville noticed all the hub-hub that Stan had created by kibitzing with the Rebel fans and inquired, “Who is this guy?”  My sister-in-law turned to Carville and said, “James, there are a lot more people here who know Stan Sandroni than you.”


Stan had a humorous side that also contributed to his having countless friends and acquaintances.  He could entertain people with his funny anecdotes and impersonations of sports figures with whom he came in contact.  Upon notice of Stan’s death last week, one person on Twitter wrote about Stan, “Never failed to make me laugh.”  That was true for a lot of people who knew Stan.


I have some insights into how Stan got his start as a broadcaster.  I heard him “call” many games before he ever performed professionally on the airwaves.  As youngsters, we played countless make-believe baseball games using a mechanical game, with a spring-loaded bat and a push-button pitching mechanism, in the shape of a baseball stadium.  The players on our opposing teams were represented by their images on our favorite baseball cards.  Stan would provide play-by-play commentary of our fictional games’ action, including the simulated roar of the crowd and the plate umpire’s barking of balls and strikes.


Stan looked for any opportunity to practice his play-by-play skills.  He would even provide game-like commentary for the batting contests we played on a gravel road at his house, using a broom-handle as a bat to hit rocks into the nearby cotton field as singles, doubles, triples and home runs.  Back then, the style of his play-by-play accounts of those imaginary games imitated broadcasters Jack Buck and Harry Caray, whom he religiously listened to on St. Louis Cardinals’ radio broadcasts.  Of course, he later developed his own distinctive style and voice in his professional career.


Although Stan covered all sports during his career, I always thought his first love was baseball.  He had a keen sense for the history of the game.  He still collected baseball cards as an adult.  Stan constructed a baseball diamond in his back yard in Oxford that included a Green Monster wall in left field, patterned after Boston’s Fenway Park.  His son Christopher and his neighborhood friends would play there.  Stan once staged a Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry ballgame played by the youngsters, complete with uniforms and a public address announcer.  The contest even went so far as to include former major league players Jake Gibbs (Yankees) and “Boo” Ferriss (Red Sox) as the teams’ managers.  Only Stan could pull that off!


Most of my blog followers from the New Orleans area can relate to the popularity and lore of former sports radio talk show hosts Hap Glaudi and Buddy Diliberto.  Well, Stan was a comparable media icon in the State of Mississippi.


To honor Stan at the Ole Miss-Louisiana Lafayette football game this past weekend, the Rebel broadcast team maintained a silent microphone for the sideline reporter’s job which Stan normally filled.  Indeed, he will be difficult to replace.  He will be sorely missed by many Ole Miss fans, as well as the friends and acquaintances he made during his accomplished career.


So long, Stan, you entertained us well.


Rounding the Turn: My Picks for the MLB Playoffs

Using a horse racing analogy, with about twenty games left in the regular MLB season, the current leaders and wild card contenders are rounding the turn in the next few weeks of the season before heading into the home stretch of some close division races.  By my estimation, four of the six division titles are realistically within reach of two or three teams at this point.  Ten teams across the two leagues remain in contention for the four wild card spots.  It’s shaping up to be another pennant race packed with drama.


Here are my predictions for the playoff teams.


I’m going with the Orioles, Tigers and Angels as the American League division winners, and the Nationals, Cardinals and Giants as the division champs in the National League.


I’m predicting the American League wild card spots will be claimed by the A’s and Royals, with the Dodgers and Pirates taking the National League positions.


Perhaps the biggest surprise in these selections is the absence of the Brewers.  After leading the Central Division for practically the entire season, the Cardinals finally got back to its familiar spot as the leader over the “Brew Crew” at the beginning of September.  However, I also see the Pirates making a run to get back to the playoffs for the second straight year.  Little-known Josh Harrison is currently the Pirates’ spark-plug, while Andrew McCutchen is playing through injuries.  I look for pitcher Gerrit Cole to step up for their pitching staff after missing most of summer months to injuries.


The Brewers are still looking for offense to keep them in the race, and I don’t see that happening, despite an MVP-type season for Jonathan Lucroy.


The other surprise pick is the Dodgers falling behind the Giants for the National League West Division title after leading for most of the season.  Giants manager Bruce Bochy had the Giants rolling in August, and I think that will continue through the end of the season.  The Giants will ride on the back of Buster Posey, who has returned to his 2012 MVP season ability since mid-August.


Despite Clayton Kershaw’s stellar season, the Dodgers will falter down the stretch, as they are also struggling offensively.  Yasiel Puig had exactly four RBI during the month of August.  The Dodgers will still make the playoffs, but manager Don Mattingly will likely get the ax if the Dodgers don’t win the National League pennant.  Expectations are very high in Dodgerland.


The Washington Nationals appear to have a lock on the National League East Division over the Atlanta Braves.  They disappointed a lot of people last year when they didn’t make the playoffs and seem determined to not let that happen again.  They have one of the best starting rotations of all the playoff contenders, while veteran Adam LaRoche was getting hot this past month at the plate.


With the St. Louis Cardinals seeking to avenge last year’s World Series loss to Boston, they finally took sole possession of first place of the National League Central Division on September 1st.  They have one of the easier schedules for the remainder season, and they took actions to close some holes in their lineup due to injuries, so I think they will remain in the top spot.


The Baltimore Orioles found winning ways under manager Buck Showalter despite stars Manny Machado and Matt Wieters being out due to injuries and Chris Davis’ power numbers being significantly below his career-best season last year.  Off-season free agent pickup Nelson Cruz picked up the slack with his bat.  The Orioles may have the best relief staff as part of the best overall balanced team in the league.  They won’t get any contention from other East Division teams for the balance of the season.  This just may be Showalter’s year to get to his first World Series.


Many people saw the Kansas City Royals’ rise to contention in the American League Central division this season after last season’s third-place finish with 86 wins.  What many did not foresee was the fall of the Detroit Tigers in mid-August.  Former Cy Young pitchers David Price and Justin Verlander appear to be questionable as to their effectiveness for the Tigers right now, but my prediction is that these veterans will come around enough to help the Tigers outlast the Royals for the division title.  True, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus doesn’t have the big league experience as the other opposing mangers, but don’t count him out just yet.


The Oakland A’s have won only eight games since August 9, and at this point I don’t see them re-gaining the division lead from the Los Angeles Angels, who are playing good baseball.  However, the A’s are currently in the lead for a wild card spot and they should be able to hold off division challenger Seattle Mariners.  The A’s made acquisitions (for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester) to bolster their pitching staff for the playoffs, so we’ll get a chance to see if that makes a difference in their pennant run.


When the Los Angeles Angels acquired Huston Street as its closer, the move solidified the team, but then they suffered a setback when they lost one of their aces, Garrett Richards, and another starter, Tyler Skaggs, for the season.  I’m anxious to see Mike Trout in a playoff situation.  With Albert Pujols healthy, perhaps the two sluggers can carry the Angels on their shoulders in a playoff run, despite their pitching losses.


So, how will all this end up?  I’m betting on the Orioles to face the Cardinals in the World Series.  Showalter gets his first World Series championship.  Matheny and the Redbirds get left at the gate again.  But then, I was never any good betting the horses.


The Kershaw vs. Stanton MVP Debate. Reminiscent of Guidry vs. Rice in 1978

Clayton Kershaw’s fabulous season has launched the Dodgers’ ace pitcher into the conversation for National League Most Valuable Player.  He’s challenging Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins who is the most talked about frontrunner of the league’s position players.  This situation has renewed the debate of whether a pitcher should be considered for this award, the most recent occurrence being Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander’s capture of the award three seasons ago.


The Clayton vs. Stanton pursuit recalls a similar competition from 1978 when Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry and Red Sox slugger Jim Rice each posted “career” seasons during a dramatic pennant race between the two clubs.  In what turned out to be essentially a two-man race, Rice outdistanced Guidry to win the American League award.


The debate usually starts with the view that starting pitchers only play every fifth day and thus their performances and contributions can’t be compared to position players who practically play every day.  But that argument gets challenged when the pitcher is having a top-flight-performance season like Kershaw is putting up now.  He’s currently sporting a 16-3 win-loss record with an ERA of 1.73 and is closing in on 200 strikeouts.


Kershaw appears to be a shoo-in for the Cy Young Award, which brings up the next element of the debate.  Many believe the MVP Award should be intended for the best position player of the league, while the Cy Young Award is for the best pitcher of the league.  And thus they should be mutually exclusive.  However, when a pitcher like Kershaw or Verlander also makes a case for truly being the most valuable player of the league, that’s when the argument gets extended about what the MVP Award really signifies.


Stanton is putting up some huge offensive numbers (33 HR, 98 RBI, and a hash line of .403/.554/.958) with the Marlins, while also distinguishing himself as a defensive player.  Even though the Marlins are currently in third place in their division, he had made them a relevant team, although probably not a playoff team, deep into the season.


But then, Kershaw is clearly the best player for the Dodgers, who are currently among the two best teams in the league.  There is the point of view that an MVP candidate who leads his team into post-season play should get more consideration than a player, like Stanton, who will not.


Let’s go back to the point of starting pitchers only playing every fifth day and not having as much impact on a team’s season than a position player.  When you compare the number of batters faced by a starting pitcher in a season with a season’s worth of plate appearances by a position player, they are indeed comparable in terms of opportunities to influence the outcomes of games.  It’s just that a pitcher’s opportunities are concentrated in about 30-33 games versus being spread out over 150-160 games for a position player.


In 1978, Ron Guidry had one of the best pitching performances of the modern baseball era.  He was absolutely dominant in the Yankees’ capture of the American League pennant.  “Louisiana Lightning” posted 25 victories against only three losses.  In 35 starts, he had 16 complete games, including nine shutouts, while pitching 273.2 innings.  He led the league in WHIP with .0946.  Guidry started the season with a record 13 consecutive wins.  Three of his last five wins were 2-hit shutouts.  15 of Guidry’s wins followed a Yankee loss.  He was the unanimous choice as the American League Cy Young Award winner.


On the other hand, Jim Rice was having an equally superb season for the Red Sox.  In only his fourth full major league season, Rice led the league in Hits (213), Triples (15), Home Runs (46), RBI (139), Slugging % (.600), On-Base Percentage Plus Slugging % (.960), and Total Bases (450).  These are the types of numbers Ruth and Gehrig used to put up.  Rice was the first American League player to attain 450 total bases since 1937.  Thirty of his home runs either tied the score or put his team ahead.  He led the club in 16 game-winning RBI.


In my opinion, the 1978 MVP award could have gone either way.  Clearly both players were the most impactful in getting their teams to that one-game playoff after they finished in a tie at the end of the regular season.  However, Rice claimed the award in what was actually not a close race--Rice collected 20 of 28 first place votes.  Using one of today’s standards for comparing players’ seasons, Guidry had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 9.6, while Rice’s WAR was 7.6.


Neither Kershaw’s nor Stanton’s current season comes approach the type of dominating seasons Guidry and Rice posted 26 years ago.  But it still makes for a great debate.


Falling in Love With the Minor Leagues

This article was contributed by Thomas Teague

 

Although the 1981 season was compressed by a contentious labor dispute, it brought something new to my life: A love of live minor league baseball.

 

Some baseball writers had predicted a short strike when it began on June 12. By the end of June, I was depressed about the lack of access to my beloved Atlanta Braves; my family was a National League family from the days when my grandfather would take a train from Newport, TN to Cincinnati for a weekend of ball at Crosley Field.

 

I whined about the strike at my office one day and a colleague suggested that I attend the local minor league games. The team, the Knoxville Blue Jays – affectionately renamed the K-Jays – was an AA affiliate of Toronto.

 

I turned down the first couple of offers to go: Nothing seemed like a worse alternative to me: A minor American League affiliate playing in a decrepit stadium named after Bill Meyer, a local native who managed Pittsburg in its worst-ever season in the modern game (42-112 in 1952 – the season that led catcher Joe Garagiola to quip, “In an eight-team league, we should have finished ninth.”)

 

But, in early July, longing for the national pastime, I found myself in the grandstands at Billy Meyer Stadium.

 

The word “stadium” conjures an expansive and triumphant structure that Billy Meyer didn’t quite achieve. The field was poorly lighted, the small low-tech scoreboard sat about 400 feet away just left of center, and the stadium had been empty for some time in the 1960s, its hallways acquiring a distinctive sour-concrete odor that, near the locker room entrances, overwhelmed the smell of hot dogs, nachos and beer. The stadium sat across a parking lot from the massive Standard Knitting Mills, at one time Knoxville’s largest employer.

 

Optimistically, Billy Meyer’s builders had installed 6,400 seats. I never saw them all filled.

 

Over several games that year, though, some charms emerged: The stately slope of the grandstand that gave a feel of being field level even twenty rows back, a roof that shaded the entire grandstand, and the boisterous fans who had bravely driven through scruffy blocks of abandoned industrial buildings to attend a baseball game.

 

The K-Jays had finished last in the Southern League in the first half of the season and their fortunes did not change in the second half. It wasn’t great baseball: I saw a runner called out for forgetting to tag up after a pitch; an in-the-park home run that – I swear – was the result of no one bothering to field the ball; pitchers walked four batters to load the bases more than once.

 

But, that didn’t mean you couldn’t have a good time at the ball field. There were frequent promotions – fans invited onto the field to race a groundskeeper around the bases; almost uninterrupted announcements to check sweepstakes’ numbers printed in the programs (I once won a free wash and dry at a distant Laundromat); and – a near disaster – Quarter Longneck Night at which the management sold Budweiser in long-neck bottles for 25 cents each. A number of the bottles ended up on the field after a close call at the plate. Church Bulletin night on Wednesdays in which fans got in for half price by bringing a church bulletin was a popular promotion in Bible Belt Knoxville: One of the regular fans I got to know would stand in the parking lot before the games handing out church bulletins to anyone he recognized– every Monday morning he dumpster dived for the bulletins at churches near his home.

           

It took a while to get accustomed to the rhythms of the minor league game, mostly the sudden disappearance of players who had gone through tough patches or sudden hot streaks. The church bulletin man was fond of saying, “You sees ‘em goin’ up and you sees ‘em comin’ down.”

 

One K-Jay who I saw goin’ up that year was Jesse Barfield, a right-handed OF who is still regarded as one of the best long-throw arms in baseball. He hit 16 home runs and batted .261 that season, and as the weeks went by, fewer and fewer players would challenge him with late breaks on the base paths.

 

In the majors, the strike that had begun June 12 finally ended with play resuming August 9. I hardly noticed – the K-Jays and Chattanooga Lookouts were locked in a struggle to stay out of last place. The K-Jays lost but Billy Meyer Stadium had won me over.

 

In late August Barfield stepped to the plate in a game with, I believe, Birmingham. He hit a powerful homerun over the left-field wall at 330. Never before or since have I seen a ball leave a ball park faster than that.  After the cheering faded, loud chatter began among the fans. The ball had smashed through an upper-story window on the Southern Knitting Mills building and left a perfectly round hole.

 

The hole was there next time I went to a game, but Jesse Barfield was not – called up to begin a 12-year career with Toronto and the New York Yankees. You probably know about his sons, Joshua and Jeremy, who carried on the tradition. It takes a bit of digging to learn about his uncle, Albert Overton, a player in the Negro Leagues, who Jesse credited with helping him improve his hitting.

 

Billy Meyer Stadium is gone, but baseball is still played on the grounds there in a small park named after another Knoxville native, Todd Helton.


A Retrospective of the Minor Leagues in Louisiana

Cajuns, Red Sticks, Rice Birds, Berries, Creoles, Oyster Shuckers, Sugar Boys, and Gassers.


These might be the names of South Louisiana music groups at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  In fact, they have something in common with the Zephyrs minor league baseball team in New Orleans.  They were the mascots of minor league clubs in Louisiana towns and cities, some going back as far the late 1800s.


While the New Orleans Zephyrs is the only Louisiana-based minor league baseball club today, the Evangeline League and the Cotton States League were two of the more prominent lower-level leagues of yesteryear.  Their teams were comprised of towns like Hammond, Thibodaux, Rayne, New Iberia, and Abbeville.  Although these were Class C and D leagues during their existence, some would say they represented a time when minor league baseball was in its heyday.


The New Orleans Pelicans was a prominent team in the Southern Association for almost sixty years, ending in 1959.  However, the first Triple-A team in Louisiana was also the Pelicans, who had a one-year stint in the American Association in 1977 while playing in the Louisiana Superdome. Now, the New Orleans entry in the NBA has adopted the Pelicans name as its mascot.


The Zephyrs have been a member of the American Association and the Pacific Coast League, since the team was moved to New Orleans in 1993.  Shreveport was the other Louisiana city to be home to a minor league club in relatively recent years, as part of the Texas League.


The following is a listing of the various minor leagues which had clubs in Louisiana for the years shown below.  The Louisiana teams listed for each league did not necessarily play in each year shown.


Arkansas State League – Class D – 1909 – Monroe


American Association – Class AAA – 1977, 1993-1997 – New Orleans


Cotton States League – Class C and D – 1902-1906, 1908, 1910-1913, 1924-1932, 1937-1941, 1950-1955 – Alexandria, Baton Rouge, DeQuincy, Lake Charles, Monroe, Monroe-West Monroe, New Orleans, Opelousas


Dixie Association – Class C – 1971 – Shreveport


Dixie League – Class C – 1933 – Baton Rouge, Shreveport


East Dixie League – Class C – 1934 – Baton Rouge, Shreveport


Evangeline League – Class C and D, 1934-1942, 1946-1957 – Abbeville, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Crowley, Hammond, Houma, Jenerette, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe-West Monroe, New Iberia, Opelousas, Rayne, Thibodaux


Gulf Coast League – Class B, C, and D – 1907-1908, 1950-1953 – Alexandria, Crowley, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Leesville, Monroe, Morgan City, Opelousas


Gulf State League – Class A – Baton Rouge, Lafayette


Louisiana State League – Class D – 1920-1922 – Abbeville, Alexandria, Lafayette, New Orleans, Oakdale, Rayne


Pacific Coast League –Class AAA1998-2014 – New Orleans Zephyrs


Southern Association – Class A, A1, AA – 1901, 1902-1961 – New Orleans, Shreveport


Southern League – No classification – 1887-1889, 1892-1896, 1889 – New Orleans, Shreveport


South Texas League – Class D – 1906 – Lake Charles


Southwestern League – No classification – 1898 – Shreveport


Texas League – Class A, B, C, AA, A1 – 1888, 1908-1910, 1915-1932, 1938-1942, 1946-1957, 1968-1970, 1972-2002, --Alexandria, Lafayette, New Orleans, Shreveport


Texas Southern League – No classification – 1895 – Shreveport


West Dixie League – Class C – 1935 -- Shreveport


What Will the New Commish's Agenda Be?

Last Thursday Rob Manfred was elected the tenth commissioner of Major League Baseball.  He was one of three finalists under consideration by baseball’s owners but carried the vote of confidence of Bud Selig, the outgoing commissioner.  Manfred has worked in Major League Baseball’s Office with Selig since 1998, with a focus on labor relations with baseball’s union.  Many felt Selig had been grooming Manfred as his successor since then.


I listened to the press interview Manfred gave immediately following the owner’s meeting announcing his election, and I must say I was disappointed in what I heard.  In fact, it was what I didn’t hear that caused my dismay.  When asked what would be his top four or five priorities in his new role, Manfred essentially said he had not had time to think about it.  Really?  I thought he awkwardly evaded several specific questions from the sports reporters who were trying to ascertain his agenda for the sport.  My immediate reaction was “is this really the guy who’s going to lead the game in its next set of challenges?”


I don’t actually believe Manfred was un prepared to deliver his perspectives on the direction and focus the game needs to take.  Reportedly, several of the owners felt Major League Baseball had been too soft on the union in the last collective bargaining agreement in December 2011, resulting in the owners giving too many concessions to the players in the negotiations.  Manfred had been on the front line of those negotiations representing the owners.  However, a contingent of the current owners thought a different person with a different approach was needed for Selig’s successor.


Thus, I’m guessing Manfred just needed more time to smooth over the sentiments of this group of owners before publicly proclaiming his areas of focus for the coming years.  After all, that’s what Bud Selig would have done.  Selig used back-room influence and politics to gain consensus among the owners for the many issues he faced during his tenure as the Major League Baseball commissioner from 1992 to the present.


So I’m expecting the status quo from Manfred, who will continue down the path set by Selig over the last 20-plus years.  Manfred won’t likely make huge changes in the game.  The sport is in good shape – attendance is up; revenues are considerably up; there’s a movement to globalize the game; there is more league parity than ever; the performance enhancing drug situation among the players has stabilized; and there has been labor peace for twelve years.


On the other hand, baseball’s critics say the game is too slow, is losing the young fans and African-American players, and is angering traditionalist-type fans with recent changes like instant replay and the catcher interference rule.  Some would say these factors are jeopardizing the viability of the game for the long haul.  We’ll have to wait and see if Manfred will take on these issues or some others.


Let me hear from you the changes you think need to be made to baseball.


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Here’s a look back in history at Manfred’s predecessors and their career highlights in Major League Baseball:


The first Major League Baseball commissioner was Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  A former federal judge, he dealt the lifetime bans for the eight Chicago White Sox players associated with the Black Sox gambling scandal in 1919  The minor league farm system and the mid-summer All-Star Game were started under his watch.  He urged President Franklin Roosevelt to allow major league baseball games to continue following the United States’ entry in World War II.


Albert “Happy” Chandler had been a U.S. senator and governor of Kentucky before being named the second commissioner.  His biggest contribution to the sport was his approval of Jackie Robinson’s contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers which broke the color barrier in the big leagues in 1946.  He also established the first pension fund for major league players.


Ford Frick, the third commissioner, after serving as President of the National League, oversaw the expansion of baseball from 16 teams to 20 teams in the 1960s.  He ruled that Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 be marked with an asterisk in the record books, in order to preserve Bab e Ruth’s previous record of 60, which was established when there were eight fewer games in the regular season.


William Eckert followed as commissioner when Frick retired.  A retired three-star Army general, Eckert admitted he had not seen a major league game in over ten years when he was elected.  Baseball’s owners thought they needed more of a businessman to lead the office of the commissioner, but ironically forced him to resign with three years left on his contract, because of their lack of confidence in Eckert to deal with an anticipated labor strike in 1968.


Bowie Kuhn had a significant 16-year career as the fifth commissioner of Major League Baseball.  He had served as legal counsel for Major League Baseball for 20 years prior to his election.  Under Kuhn’s watch, there was a baseball strike in 1981, the end of the reserve clause which ultimately led to free agency, a doubling of attendance to 45 million, and unprecedented television contracts.  He actively supported the induction of Negro League players into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.


Named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for his successful efforts to organize the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Peter Ueberroth was elected as baseball’s sixth commissioner to succeed Kuhn.  Baseball continued to grow financially under Ueberroth’s leadership, but he facilitated collusion between the owners that violated the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players.  The union filed collusion charges with Major League Baseball and won each case.  Ueberroth resigned before the start of the 1989 season.


A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former president of Yale University and National League President, served only 154 days as commissioner of Major League Baseball before he died at age 51 of a heart attack.  His most notable action as the seventh commissioner was the negotiation of the agreement terminating the Pete Rose betting scandal by allowing Rose to voluntarily remove himself from the sport to avert further punishment.


Fay Vincent, the long-time friend of Giamatti and the then presiding deputy commissioner, succeeded Giamatti right before the 1989 World Series, which was interrupted by the earthquake in the Bay Area.  Vincent was never popular with the owners because of his intervention with the owners’ lockout during Spring Training of the 1990 season, which resulted in raising the minimum salary and a study to evaluate revenue sharing.  Suffering from a lack of confidence from the owners, Vincent resigned as commissioner in 1992, not even completing Giamatti’s original contract.


Bud Selig, who was at the forefront of the owners’ ousting of Vincent, was named the acting commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1992.  In 1998 he was officially elected as the ninth commissioner.  He has presided over some of the most dramatic changes in the sport.  He oversaw the 1994 player strike, the introduction of the wild card, interleague play, and the merging of the National and American Leagues under the Office of the Commissioner.  Selig was influential in organizing the World Baseball Classic, introducing revenue sharing, and propelling MLB revenues such that the sport is in its best financial shape ever.  The use of instant replay was expanded at the beginning of the current season.  Perhaps the only blemish on his record is the steroid era.  Critics argue that Selig allowed the owners to turn a blind eye to the players’ use of PEDs in its early days, since baseball was financially benefitting from the increased popularity generated by sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds.  However, Selig did eventually commission the Mitchell Report in December 2007, which stimulated the development of policies and enforcement mechanisms for PED usage that are in effect today.


Women Have Long Been Involved in Professional Basebll

Last week the San Diego Padres filled its vacant general manager position with 37-year-old A. J. Preller, who had been a Texas Rangers executive.  One of the other finalists for the job was Kim Ng, a female executive who currently holds the title of MLB senior vice president of baseball operations.  It would have been a ground-breaking move if Ng had been selected for the job, since women have yet to break into the ranks of male-dominated key front-office positions, although Ng has previously served as an assistant GM for the Yankees and Dodgers.  However, it’s probably just a matter of time, as evidenced by the recent hiring of Becky Hammon by the NBA San Antonio Spurs as the first paid female assistant coach.


However, over the years, women have contributed in various capacities to the history of the game, some successfully but others who didn’t achieve their intended outcome.


Helene Hathaway Robison Britton was the first female owner of a MLB club, the St. Louis Cardinals, inheriting the club from her uncles Frank and Stanley Robison.  She owned the team from 1911 to 1916.


Jackie Autry and Joan Kroc took over the reins  of the California Angels and the San Diego Padres, respectively, after their owner-husbands, Gene Autry (of cowboy movie fame) and Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s) died.  Jean Yawkey kept the Boston Red Sox from 1976 to 1992, after her husband, Tom, had owned the club since 1933.


Joan Payson was the first woman to own a major league baseball club, the New York Mets, without inheriting it.  Later, Marge Schott, was the managing general partner, president, and CEO of the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1999.


There have been a few instances of women playing against major leaguers, although not in official games.  Lizzie Murphy became the first woman to take the field against a major league team, when she played two innings at first base for the Red Sox in a 1922 exhibition game.  Babe Didrickson, the world-class track and field star and champion professional golfer, pitched for the Philadelphia A’s in a spring training game in 1934.  Jackie Mitchell, who had signed a contract with the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in an exhibition game in 1931.  Commissioner Kenesaw Landis voided her contract after the game, claiming baseball was too rough for women.


Eleanor Engle signed a professional contract to play shortstop with Class B Harrisburg of the Interstate League in 1952.  However, George Trautman, president of the minor league’s governing body, issued a decree that women could not be signed to baseball contracts, and Eleanor’s professional career was squelched before appearing in a game.


Ila Borders played professionally in unaffiliated independent leagues during 1997 to 2000.  As a pitcher, she could occasionally reach 80 mph in against all-male competition.


Several women have held jobs in major league broadcast booths. Hired by Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley in September 1964, Betty Caywood was the first woman who had a regular part of an on-air broadcast team.  Her role was to provide color commentary from a woman’s perspective.  The first woman baseball play-by-play announcer on a regular basis was Mary Shane with the Chicago White Sox in 1977.  She was hired by owner Bill Veeck and was part of the broadcast team with Harry Caray, Jim Piersall, and Lorn Brown. 


Gayle Gardner of the Colorado Rockies was the first woman to do play-by-play for TV audiences in 1993. Suzyn Waldman is currently in her tenth year as the radio broadcast partner of John Sterling for the New York Yankees.


Down on the field, Bernice Gera was the first woman to umpire a professional baseball game.  After fighting her way through the courts in New York for the right to perform as an umpire, she officiated one game in the Class A New York-Penn League on June 1972, but immediately quit after her debut because of the hostility of the league and other umpires leading up to the game.


Pam Postema had a thirteen-year career as a minor league umpire, the longest tenure for a woman in organized baseball.  She was released from her contract in December 1989 after seven years at the Triple-A level and a few Major League spring training games.  Postema was not given a reason for her dismissal, although there were suggestions Major League Baseball did not want to be bothered by the expected conflicts that would occur with some of the players.  She filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit which was settled out of court.


Then there was Morganna Roberts.  Popularly known by only her first name, she frequently made the baseball headlines as the “Kissing Bandit.”  The buxom entertainer’s first “victim” was Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds in 1970.  On a dare from a friend, she somehow managed to get past security guards at Riverfront Stadium and ran onto the field in between innings to kiss Rose.  Over the years, her other conquests included an All-Star roster of players:  Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, Steve Garvey, George Brett, and Cal Ripken Jr.

Remembering Thurman Munson

Former Yankee catcher Thurman Munson died 35 years ago on August 2, 1979, the victim of a crash of the blue pinstriped Cessna Citation jet he was piloting at his home in Canton, Ohio.  It was one of the darkest days in Yankee baseball history, since Munson was in the midst of a great career.  He was a key cog in the Yankees’ resurgence in the American League in the second half of the 1970s.  In his autobiography with author Marty Appel, Munson wanted to be known as a “player of the ‘70s”.  Indeed, he put his stamp on the decade, helping the Yankees to three World Series.


After Elston Howard left the Yankees in 1967, the Pinstripers went through a bevy of catchers, none of whom lasted more than a few seasons.  Guys like Jake Gibbs, John Ellis Frank Fernandez, Ellie Rodriguez, Bob Tillman, and Billy Bryan all took their turns.  Gibbs, a football and baseball All-American in college, had been transformed from an infielder by the Yankees and was being groomed as the regular catcher.  However, in 1970 Gibbs was overcome by Munson, who was selected the American League Rookie of the Year.


Munson infused the Yankees with grit, determination, and no-nonsense leadership to help bring them out of an eleven-year dry spell, during 1965 to 1975, for winning American League pennants.  His impact on the team was such that he was named the first Yankee team captain since Lou Gehrig.


With nicknames like “The Walrus” for his often unwieldy mustache and “Tugboat” for his fireplug-type body, Munson wasn’t a picture of good-looking athleticism you might expect for a professional ballplayer.  He didn’t have the chiseled body of contemporaries Carlton Fisk and Johnny Bench, but he was as tough and competitive behind the plate.


Munson wasn’t a particularly good defensive catcher throughout his career because of effects of having caught so many games, but did manage to win three Gold Gloves as catcher during 1973 to 1975.  He hit his stride offensively in 1975, when he reeled off three consecutive seasons with 100+ RBI and a .300 batting average, only the second time in history for a catcher.  In 1977, he was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player.  Munson was selected to seven All-Star teams during his eleven-year career.


Munson played during the Yankees’ years of internal team turmoil for what became known as the Bronx Zoo.  There was a revolving door of Yankees managers, with Billy Martin seemingly always on his way in or out of the door.  Reggie Jackson commanded a lot of attention, wanting to be regarded as the leader of the team.  He made overt attempts to usurp the leadership role of captain which the Yankees had bestowed on Munson.  These types of situations created divisions among the players on the team, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner often looked to Munson to play the role of intermediary.


In 1976 the Yankees won their first division title or pennant since 1965.  They were swept in four games of the World Series to the “Big Red Machine” of the Cincinnati Reds.  However, Munson turned in a personal best for post-season play with a .529 batting average.  In his MVP season in 1977, the Yankees won 100 regular season games and defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.  1978 was practically an identical season for the Yankees:  winning 100 games, beating the Royals in the League Championship Series, and repeating as World Series champions over the Dodgers.  Munson contributed his part by batting .320 in each of the Series with the Dodgers.  Teammate Lou Piniella said about Munson’s post-season play, “I think it goes without saying, when it comes to the big games, Thurman was as clutch as it gets.”


After Munson’s death, the Yankee franchise had a stretch of 17 years with only one World Series appearance.  Munson’s Yankee teammate and best friend, Bobby Murcer, said, “I have no doubt had Thurman lived, he would have played on and played well and made a difference for the Yankees.”


His teammates recognized him for his intangibles on the field:  an occasional stolen base, a pickoff play, playing hurt.  Teammate Chris Chambliss said about Munson, “You had to watch the way Thurman played every day to know what he meant as a leader.  He got dirty all the time, and he did more than just catch…He was a true leader on the field.”


Munson may not have had as extensive of a career as the other Yankees greats who donned the chest protector and shin guards -- Dickey, Berra, Howard, and Posada – but he nonetheless endeared himself to Yankee fans with his highly productive eleven seasons sandwiched in between some lean Yankee stretches.  His plaque is included among the all-time Yankees greats in the illustrious Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.


When I think of players who "played the game the way it was supposed to be played,” I don’ have to go back too far in the history of the game.  For me, that was Thurman Munson.


When "Home Town" Heroes Played In Their Home Town

If you scan the current Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs roster, you won’t find any native New Orleanians playing for the club.  But that’s not really unusual nowadays for most professional teams to not feature local players, because of Major League Baseball drafts that draw from a national pool of amateur players and the significant number of international players who come to the USA.  The traditional newspaper lists of local amateur “home town heroes,” who go on to play professional baseball, usually don’t get a chance to play in their home towns anymore.


However, that wasn’t the case with the local New Orleans professional baseball team, the Pelicans, during the first half of the 1940s.  Of course, it was a different time from today, the main factor being World War II had a dramatic effect on player availability for professional baseball teams.


A significant number of major leaguers entered the military service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  Beginning with the 1942 season, major league teams struggled to keep their rosters filled with experienced players.  The teams drew on their farm clubs to supply fill-in players, which in turn created hardships for the minor league organizations.  It was not uncommon for a minor league team’s roster to have vacancies at various times throughout the season.  This drought of players lasted through the 1945 season.  Major League stars Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams each missed three seasons in the prime years of their careers because of their military service.  They were indicative of the type of impact the war had on the game.


Not unlike many other professional baseball towns during these times, several native New Orleans ballplayers, comprised of former high school stars and minor leaguers who returned to New Orleans during the war, benefitted from the situation.  They signed contracts to play for the home town Pelicans, which was a Class A1 team in the Southern Association.  For some of these players, it was their only opportunity to advance past lower-level clubs.  Furthermore, a few of them also managed to get brief call-ups to the big league teams to fill gaps in their rosters during the war years.


Some of the local ballplayers who were exempted from military service worked in defense-related jobs.  The New Orleans Semi-Professional Baseball League, organized into four teams, was formed in 1943.  Delta Shipyards, for example, fielded one of the teams, and it included New Orleans natives Paul Bruno, who managed the team, Russell Gildig, Eddie Pepper, and Fats Dantonio.  Dantonio, who had played for the Pelicans in 1942, was re-signed by them in 1943, but he only played in home games as he kept his defense job.  He actually continued to play for Delta Shipyards, appearing in their games on Sundays, while also playing for the Pelicans at home.  Pete Modica, a Pelicans player in 1943, pitched for Higgins, another team in the semi-pro league.


During his three seasons with the Pelicans during World War II, Dantonio was a battery-mate of several local pitchers on the team: Jesse Danna, Al Jurisich, and Ray Yochim in 1942; Danna, Modica, and Gus Mills in 1943; and Danna and Al Briede in 1944. Dantonio, Jurisich, and Yochim would eventually get promoted to the major leagues.  Dantonio and Danna had been teammates for Jesuit High School in 1936, when they won the Louisiana state prep baseball championship.  Danna led the Southern Association in victories (22) in 1943.


George Strickland was just out of S. J. Peters High School when he appeared in three games for the Pelicans in 1943.  He would go on to a 10-year major league career and parts of two seasons as manager of the Cleveland Indians.


Eight home-grown players made appearances with the Pelicans in 1944: catcher Dantonio; pitchers Danna and Briede; infielders Martin Shepherd, Russ Gildig, and Mel Rue; and outfielders Paul Bruno and Freddie Helwig.  They could have fielded seven out of the nine positions on the team.


In 1945, James “Pel” Hughes played 72 games with the Pelicans.  At age 30, that season was the extent of his professional baseball career.  Eddie Pepper, who had two fabulous seasons as a pitcher with Class- D New Iberia of the Evangeline League before the war, pitched in only two games for the Pelicans in 1945.  His professional career ended after that.


For several of these players, the highlight of their professional careers was playing in front of the home town crowds in the Crescent City.  Had it not been for the general shortage of players, several of them probably would not have even gotten a shot at minor league baseball, much less the big leagues.


By the way, a quick look at the 2014 Zephyrs roster revealed former Tulane All-American Brian Bogusevic having played 56 games this season, although he is not a native of New Orleans.  Beau Jones, a former Number 1 MLB draft pick from Destrehan High, appeared in 22 games for the Zephyrs in 2012, and former Slidell Northshore High School player Logan Morrison performed briefly for the Zephyrs in 2010 and 2011.


The New Orleans area players mentioned in this article are included in the New Orleans Area Player Database located at http://thetenthinning.com/articles.html.


A Look Back at the Career of "Le Grande Orange"

Mike Trout captured the attention of the baseball world in 2012 as a 20-year-old rookie phenom, and he’s already being tagged as one of the game’s best players.  Back in 1963, New Orleans native Rusty Staub made his major league debut at age 19.  However, he didn’t quite make the same impression as Trout, yet his 23-year career turned out to be a very productive one nonetheless—one that most professional players would be delighted to have.  Recent efforts to update my New Orleans Area Player Database prompted me to look back in time at Rusty’s celebrated career.


Nicknamed for his reddish-blonde hair, Daniel Joseph “Rusty” Staub frequently made the headlines in New Orleans as an amateur baseball player in the playgrounds and at Jesuit High School.  His towering home runs became legendary in the city.  He was instrumental in his American Legion team, the Tulane Shirts, winning the World Series in 1960.


Rusty signed a $125,000 bonus package with the Houston Colt .45s organization out of high school in September 1961.  Houston played its inaugural season as a National League expansion team in 1962.  As with other expansion franchises, they were dependent on a draft of un-claimed players from other teams and did not have the benefit of an established pipeline of prospects in the minor leagues.  Thus, when 18-year-old Rusty excelled in his first professional season (23 HR, 93 RBI, and .293 batting average) at Class-B Durham in 1962, Houston thrust him into its major league lineup the next season as the starting first baseman.  However, even though Houston had touted Rusty as the Ted Williams of the next baseball generation, the left-handed hitter was hardly ready for the big-leagues.  He made his major league debut on April 9, 1963, just a few days after his 19th birthday.


In fact, Rusty did struggle offensively in his first two major league seasons, even being sent down to the minors for a spell during 1964.  The fledgling Colts made history in 1963 by fielding an all-rookie team on September 27, which included Rusty at first base.  Future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, and Jerry Grote were also members of that team.


In 1965, Houston’s first season in the Astrodome, Rusty’s batting improved, as he hit 14 HR and 63 RBI, while averaging .256.  He was switched to the outfield where he would establish himself as a top-flight fielder.  Two years later, he batted .333, which was good enough for fifth place in the National League, while also leading the league in doubles with 44.  In 1967, at age 23, Rusty was selected to the first of his six all-star teams.


In 1969, Rusty contributed to the ground floor of another new National League franchise, when he was traded to the Montreal Expos in January.  He was a popular player among Canadian fans, and it was there that Rusty acquired his French nickname “Le Grande Orange.”   He was clearly the best player on the new team with 29 HR, 79 RBI, and a .303 batting average, but the team won only 52 games. By this time, Rusty had become a perennial all-star in the National League. 


After two more superb seasons with the hapless Expos, Rusty was traded to the New York Mets for three players prior to the 1972 season.  With the Mets, he finally got a chance to become part of a winning team.  The Mets defeated Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” for the National League pennant in 1973, but then lost to the Oakland A’s, who won their second of three consecutive World Series.


Defensively, Rusty excelled as an outfielder.  Between 1965 and 1975, he led National League right- fielders in assists for five years and ranked in the top four in assists for four additional seasons.


During the winter of 1975, Rusty was traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he was used as their primary designated hitter.  The veteran hitter put together his best three consecutive seasons (1976-1978) when he averaged 20 home runs and 106 RBI. In 1978, he became the first major leaguer to play 162 regular-season games exclusively as a designated hitter.


Rusty had short stints with Montreal and Texas before returning to the New York Mets for his final five seasons.  He was used primarily as a pinch-hitter during his last three campaigns with the Mets, when they twice finished in second place in the National League East Division. He completed his career at age 41 in 1985.


Rusty remained a celebrity after his career on the diamond.  He was a TV broadcaster for the Mets, paired with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver during 1986-1995.  He also owned two popular Manhattan restaurants, “Rusty’s” and “Rusty Staub’s on Fifth.”


During his career, Rusty had more than 500 hits for four different teams.  Ty Cobb, Gary Sheffield, and Rusty are the only players in major league history to hit home runs before age 20 and after age 40.  He is currently 61st all-time in career hits with 2,716, while compiling a .279 careering batting average.  He hit 292 home runs and drove in 1,466 runs and is currently 13th all-time in games played with 2,951.  Thus, while Rusty may not have measured up to Houston’s Ted Williams expectations, he certainly had nothing to apologize for in his career.


Rusty never got serious consideration for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He was often put into a category with major league stars like Bill Buckner, Al Oliver, and Steve Garvey, who got close to the magic number of 3,000 career hits and garnered their share of all-star selections, but never quite distinguished themselves as being the best among their peers.


Rusty ranks among the best major leaguers from the New Orleans area, along with Hall of Famer Mel Ott and fellow Jesuit High School alumni Will Clark.  Rusty’s baseball pedigree stems from his father, Ray Sr., who played minor league baseball in 1937 and 1938 in the Cleveland Indians organization.  Also, Rusty’s brother, Ray Jr. (Chuck), played in the Houston Astros organization in 1962 and 1963.


"Thrill" of the 1989 Season

In my blog post last week about New Orleans area baseball players, I mentioned some of the city’s great players who were former Major League All-Stars.  With the All-Star Game coming up Tuesday, I am reminded about one of my favorite players, New Orleans native Will Clark, who was a six-time all-star during his 15-year career.  Twenty-five years ago, in just his fourth big-league season, Clark’s 1989 campaign was one of his best and it included one of his All-Star appearances.


“Thrill” and “The Natural” were nicknames the popular Clark acquired early in his major league career.  These nicknames stuck with him because the left-handed hitting first baseman didn’t disappoint fans after being selected by the San Francisco Giants as the second overall pick in the 1985 Major League Baseball draft.  He was in the big-leagues at the beginning of the next season, hitting a home run off Nolan Ryan in his first major league at-bat, and finishing fifth in the voting for National League Rookie of the Year.  In 1988, he had progressed to the point of finishing fifth on the ballot for MVP of the league, leading the league in RBI and walks, while finishing third in runs scored.


By 1989, the 25-year-old Clark was a frequent cover boy for sports magazines such as Sports Illustrated, SPORT, and The Sporting News.  His popularity was peaking and causing quite a stir in the San Francisco Bay area, along with Giants teammate Kevin Mitchell and the Oakland A’s big boppers, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco.  Collectively, the four players were being labeled the “Bay Bombers” for their slugging prowess.  In fact, I remember thinking Clark was on a Hall of Fame track, and consequently I began a quest to collect every one of his baseball cards during the late ‘80s collecting craze.


The Giants had finished fourth in the six-team National League West Division in 1988.  The 1989 season was dramatically different and marked a return to glory for the Giants, who had not won a pennant since the Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal days of 1962.  Mitchell and Clark were as formidable a hitting duo as any in baseball that year, validated by their finishing first and second, respectively, in the National League MVP voting.


Mitchell wound up leading the National League in home runs (47), RBI (125), slugging percentage (.635) and a 1.023 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).  Clark wasn’t too far behind him, with 23 HR, 114 RBI, and OPS (.953).  He lead the National League in runs scored (104) and compiled a career-high batting average of .333.


 

About the only time Clark’s bat was silent in 1989 was during the All-Star Game in Anaheim.  Clark went hitless in two at-bats in the National League’s loss in the mid-season classic. 


When the Giants defeated the Chicago Cubs in the League Championship Series that year, Clark had one of the most memorable LCS performances in history.  He went 13-for-20, with two home runs, eight RBI, and a slugging percentage of 1.200 in five games.


As fate would have it, the San Francisco Giants played Bay rival Oakland A’s in the 1989 World Series, the first cross-city World Series since the Yankees-Dodgers series in 1956.  It became known as the infamous “Earthquake Series”, when a 6.9 rated earthquake shook the Bay Area and Candlestick Park prior to Game 3.  Clark and the Giants lost their steam and succumbed to the A’s in four consecutive games, which included a 10-day disruption due to the earthquake.


Much to my disappointment, Clark was unable to achieve Hall of Fame status.  While he surely had a spectacular career, injuries began to plague him in 1993.  He really had only one more full season, 1998, during the remainder of his career, which ended in 2000.  However, when Clark was on the field, he was always still a threat at the plate.  For his career, his batting average was .303. He hit 284 HR and 1,205 RBI.


Before I wrap up, I have to tell you one of my favorite personal stories involving Will Clark.  When my son Lee was considering high school options in New Orleans in the early ‘90s, he had pretty much set his sights on attending Jesuit High School early in the process.  His Mom and I had some doubts about whether Lee’s aspiration was a realistic goal, thus we tried to be very careful about setting his expectations.  So Mom proceeded to explain to Lee that promising Jesuit candidates generally needed to “know someone” to gain an edge in the competitive selection process, and that we weren’t really connected well enough with Jesuit alumni to enhance his selection.


Already being an avid baseball fan at that age, Lee innocently responded with, “Well, I know Will Clark and he went to Jesuit.”  To which Mom gently responded, “But, Lee, the problem is that Will Clark doesn’t know you.”  Our family still gets a good laugh about that line. (Footnote:  Lee did manage to realize his dream without Clark’s intervention.)

 

And, oh by way, I collected about 1,200 different Clark baseball cards before I stopped.  The countless variations of cardboard players being proliferated by the baseball card manufacturers finally wore me (and my pocketbook) out.  Nevertheless, a testament to Clark’s impact on the game is the fact he still shows up regularly in current baseball card sets highlighting former baseball heroes’ careers.  The “Thrill” ain’t gone!

 

The Rich History of New Orleans Area Baseball Players

I recently completed the 13th version of my compilation of New Orleans area baseball players who played high school baseball in the New Orleans area and then continued to play at the college and/or professional levels, and/or were selected in the annual Major League Baseball draft.   The first version was published almost five years ago, containing a little over 300 players.  From my own research by scouring countless college and major league team media guides and with expert assistance from local New Orleans baseball historians, the latest version now numbers over 1,100 players.


This has been a personal project of mine to catalog these players in an effort to preserve this aspect of baseball history of New Orleans in one comprehensive source.  While some of the information about New Orleans’ major league players can be easily obtained from internet baseball websites, what makes my database unique is that it traces home-grown ballplayers’ careers from high school, to college, to the minor leagues, and to the major leagues. 


The database contains entries of players that go back to the 1880s, up through the present day.  I’m not aware of another publicly available source that provides such an extensive list of local players with these criteria, as well as the levels of biographical detail, as that maintained in my database.  However, there are surely additional players I don’t yet have in the database, and thus I’m always on a quest to make it more complete.


Let’s take a look at some of the players and information in my current list.


Undoubtedly, the most famous local baseball player is Hall of Famer Mel Ott, who was actually from Gretna and attended a high school there that no longer exists.  The playground on the West Bank still bears his name, and there’s a bronze statue depicting him in downtown Gretna.


However, some of the players listed did not have quite the illustrious baseball career as Ott, but New Orleans natives may still know them from their public service careers.  Former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu played for Jesuit High School and Loyola University.  Former Baton Rouge mayor Pat Screen, whom many people know for his football exploits, played baseball for Jesuit and LSU.  Former Jefferson Parish president Tim Coulon  played for Holy Cross High School and went on to play a couple of years of minor league baseball.


As some readers may know, one of my special interests in baseball research is the topic of family relationships in baseball.  As you might expect, family ties are also prevalent in New Orleans baseball circles.  There are a number of three-generation baseball families, including the Whitman, Cesario, Hughes, and Schwaner clans.  Other prominent baseball families whose roots are in the New Orleans area include the Bullinger, Cabeceiras, Graffagnini, Pontiff, Scheuermann, and Staub families.   Several of these families sent players into the major league ranks, including brothers Jim and Kirk Bullinger, Ray and Lenny Yochim, and Charlie and Tookie Gilbert.  There are approximately 150 players in my database whose baseball-playing family members are identified.


New Orleanians appearing in Major League All-Star games include Mel Ott, Will Clark (Jesuit), Rusty Staub (Jesuit), Mel Parnell (S. J. Peters), Howie Pollet (Fortier), and Connie Ryan (Jesuit).


Jack Kramer and Al Jurisich played together at Warren Easton High School and wound up playing against each other in the 1944 World Series.


Local players who went on to play and manage in the major leagues include Met Ott, Lou Klein (S. J. Peters), George Strickland (S. J. Peters), Connie Ryan, and current Texas Rangers skipper Ron Washington (McDonough).


Although the following New Orleans players  did not reach the big-leagues in a player or  managerial capacity, they became prominent baseball coaches at the high school and college levels in New Orleans:  Joe Brockhoff (Tulane), Billy Fitzgerald (Newman), Barry Herbert (Brother Martin), David Moreau (Jesuit),  Johnny Owen (Karr, S. J. Peters, Redeemer, and McDonough), Milt Retif (Tulane), Joe Scheuermann (Delgado), Rags Scheuermann (Fortier and Loyola), Larry Schneider  Sr. (Rummel), Tom Schwaner (Rummel, Brother Martin, and UNO), and Skeeter Theard (Redemptorist and Redeemer).


Jesuit High School leads the other local high schools in the number of players sent to the major league ranks, with twelve.  The school with the next-most players in the majors is S. J. Peters, with four.  The total number of area high school players reaching the majors is 77.  (It should be noted there are additional New Orleans natives to play in the majors, but they moved away from New Orleans before their high school years and thus are not counted in my number.)


The decade of the 1940s sent the most New Orleans players into professional baseball, with 70.  From my research, this was due to two major factors. 


A general shortage of players during World War II allowed local star players to sign up with the minor league New Orleans Pelicans and other regional minor league teams.  They probably would not have otherwise had the opportunity to advance.   For example, during the 1944 season, the Pelicans could have started as many as seven of nine positions with local talent, including such players as Jesse Danna, Russell Gildig, John “Fats” Dantonio, Martin “Bull” Shepherd, and Mel Rue.


Secondly, after World War II, there was a boom in minor league teams across the country, as the big- league organizations sought to capitalize on the growing popularity of the game.  This created additional opportunities for aspiring local ballplayers, such as Frank Azzarello, Charles Danna, Hugh Oser, and Tony Roig, who took their shot at baseball stardom after high school.  However, only a few of these players actually reached the big-leagues, including Roig, Lenny Yochim, and Hal Bevan.


The Major League Baseball amateur draft began in 1965, and through 2014 there have been over 180 New Orleans area players drafted.  Twelve New Orleans area players were Number 1 picks in the Major League Baseball Draft, including Will Clark (Jesuit), Mike Miley (East Jefferson), Frank Wills (De La Salle), Mike Fontenot (Slidell), and Billy Fitzgerald (Jesuit).  The decade of the 2000s saw the most New Orleans area players drafted by major league teams, with over 50.  This situation also resulted in that decade having the second-most number of players in the professional baseball, after the 1940s.  During this time, the vast majority of the drafted players from New Orleans were coming out of college, versus high school.


New Orleans area players who have seen major league action through June of this season include Johnny Giavotella (Jesuit, UNO), Logan Morrison (Northshore), Will Harris (Slidell, LSU), and Aaron Loup (Hahnville, Tulane).


Frequently I get calls and emails from readers requesting additions of missing players in my list, or questioning the baseball background of a family member or acquaintance.  I sometimes have to convey disappointing news that their friend or distant relative didn’t play for the old Brooklyn Dodgers or didn’t play in the minor leagues with an up-and-coming prospect like Tony Gwynn.


So take a look at the list.  If you are a New Orleans native, you may see your high school buddy or your grandfather listed.  Even if you aren’t from the New Orleans area, you will still recognize many of the names of players who advanced to the big-leagues from the Crescent City.


The current list of the New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database can be found at http://thetenthinning.com/articles.html.


A Baseball Tradition I Would Like To See End

The game of baseball is full of traditions, many of which are entrenched because of the long history and lore of the game.  The sport has countless customs, rituals, practices, habits, and institutions that fans have identified with since their earliest memories of the game.  For example, there’s Wrigley’s ivy wall, Yankee pinstripes, “Sweet Caroline” during the middle of the eighth inning at Fenway Park, throwing out the first pitch, and pitchers brushing back batters.


Periodically, there are events that challenge many of these traditions, some of which have been readily accepted, some still debated.    The use of retro-period uniforms as alternatives to the standard home-and-away team uniforms has been popularly endorsed by the teams and their fans.  However, the recent implementation of instant replay has highlighted challenges to some long-standing practices involving catchers blocking the plate and infielders transferring the ball on double plays.  The verdict is still out on whether this will be good for the game.


Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn’s recent death has called attention to another long-standing baseball tradition that many would now like to see discontinued—the use of smokeless tobacco by major league players.  Gwynn suffered from oral cancer, which he attributed to his smokeless tobacco addition. His unfortunate death just may be the event that leads to its eventual demise in baseball.


The use of a “chaw” in baseball circles goes back to its earliest days in the 1870s. It declined somewhat when cigarettes gained traction among baseball players in the 1950s, as emerging TV advertisements contributed to the cigarette smoking trend.  In the 1970s, when the U. S. Government began warnings of the dangers of smoking, the use of smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff) by ballplayers experienced a resurgence. One study showed approximately 30% of major leaguers used it in the ‘70s and ‘80s. 


In 1993, use of smokeless tobacco by minor league baseball players, coaches, and staff was prohibited during games.  Major League Baseball has not yet followed suit yet.  Instead, they did institute a rule in 2011 preventing the tobacco can or pouch from being visible during games and disallowing tobacco use during pre and post-game interviews.   Even though smokeless tobacco use began declining in the late 1990s, there are still a fair number of major league users today.  For example, I read one recent article that reported a poll of Boston Red Sox players in spring training this year revealed that 21 of 58 of the players admitted to using smokeless tobacco.


David Ortiz is one current player who says he uses tobacco as a stimulator when he is batting, but otherwise not during the entire game.  Other players have acknowledged it has just become part of their game routine, which relates to the tradition aspect.  Dizzy Dean, a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher from the 1930s, once said, “Some pitchers can’t even start warmin’ up without at least one good chew.”  Another old-time pitcher, Rex Barney, told the story that he was advised by his coach he could never become a major league pitcher unless he chewed tobacco.  The illegal pitch named “brown spitter” got its moniker from being moistened with chewing tobacco juice by the pitcher.


Gwynn’s fateful death will not be the first time national awareness has attempted to be raised regarding the dangers of smokeless tobacco by baseball players.  Bill Tuttle, a major league player from 1952 to 1963, was an ardent tobacco chewer during his career.  He later developed a tumor in his mouth that eventually protruded through his skin.  His case was so severe that he ultimately had to have many of his teeth, his jawbone, and his right cheekbone removed.  He became the poster boy for the potential consequences of using smokeless tobacco.  Before dying in 1998, Tuttle dedicated the last years of his life speaking to various groups about the risks of chewing tobacco.  During the same time, former baseball player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola also became an outspoken advocate of banning tobacco from baseball.


Since Gwynn’s death, current major league pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Addison Reed, who both played under Gwynn as head baseball coach at San Diego State University, have pledged to stop their use of smokeless tobacco in order to help highlight its health risks.  Hopefully, there will be other players and baseball officials who join the bandwagon to promote its awareness.


As a young boy, one of my favorite players was Nellie Fox.  I think the main reason was that I could relate to his being a smallish, scrappy infielder. Furthermore, I also liked his now-classic baseball card showing him with a big bulge in his cheek from a huge wad of tobacco.   At the time, I thought that was pretty cool.  Nowadays, I vote for the use of Big League Chew bubblegum as a substitute.


Astros' Fans See A Glimmer Of Hope

In past blog posts, I’ve bashed the Houston Astros for the pitiful teams they’ve fielded since 2011.  Last place in the division and worst record in the league have been a seasonal occurrences.  The switch to the American League last year didn’t help their situation any.  But, look what’s happening now!  The Astros are putting together some winning streaks. Some of the fan excitement has returned to Minutemaid Park.  There’s a core of young players accumulating that are reasons to believe the Astros could be headed for a turnaround.


Several years ago, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow embarked on a long-term plan to focus on draft selection and player development and  building its core of players from within the organization rather than competing in the risky, expensive free-agency market.  In the meantime, he has made some acquisitions of low-priced, young talent with high upside potential.  The interim results from Luhnow’s plan are encouraging this season.


The Astros’ record is currently 33-43.  While still last in the American League West Division, they no longer have the worst record in baseball.   They currently have more victories than the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL and more than the Cubs, Padres, and Diamondbacks in the NL.  They are on a pace to win 70 games for the season, a dramatic improvement over last season when they brought home only 51 wins.  Recall in 2012 there were only 55 wins and 56 in 2011, following their decision to practically rebuild the club from scratch by not retaining its best players in Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and Roy Oswalt.


Jose Altuve and George Springer are two players indicative of the grounds to give Astros fans reason for hope.  Second baseman Altuve, leading the AL in hits and runs, is proving to be a legitimate star.  The Astros organization’s top-rated prospect, outfielder George Springer, had been groomed for a couple of years and finally made his major league debut in mid-April.  He has not disappointed the club with his thirteen home runs and 38 RBI in 56 games.


Another top prospect, Jonathan Singleton, was recently added to the major league active roster after signing a five-year extension worth at least $10 million.  The first-baseman’s signing was historic in that he had not yet made his major league debut.  Despite a drug problem that led to a suspension for part of last season, the Astros are banking that Singleton will deliver on his potential.


Dexter Fowler, one of the veterans of the team at only 28 years old, was acquired from the Colorado Rockies during the off-season.  He is credited with bringing along some of the youngsters on the team.


Dallas Keuchel, Jarred Cosart, and free-agent acquisition Scott Feldman (the highest salaried player on the team at $7 million) have provided starting pitching rotation stability early in the season.  Keuchel, a 2009 7thround pick of the Astros, figured to be a fourth or fifth starter at the beginning of this season, but has worked himself into the No. 1 spot in the rotation.


Sure, most of these guys are young and relatively inexperienced.  The average age of the team is 25.7 years, compared to veteran-laden teams like the Yankees (average 33 years) and the Phillies (average age 31.5).  But this was expected as part of the Astros’ master plan.


With overall No. 1 picks in the past three Major League Baseball Drafts, the Astros just keep adding to the stable of impressive prospects.  Shortstop Carlos Correa (2012) is only 19 years old, but already rising quickly through the organization.  Pitcher Mark Appel (2013), although struggling in his early outings this season, figures to be in the big league rotation within a couple of years.  This year’s first-round selection Brady Aikens, a high-school left-handed pitcher, was the highest rated player in the 2014 draft by most baseball draft experts.


In fact, the Astros may have enough highly sought-after talent in the organization that they may be active at the July trade deadline—either trading up for a higher-level prospect or securing a value-driven veteran that can accelerate their competitiveness in their division.  Again, their organization plan puts them in a position to have these options.


I’m not a big fan of Astros manager Bo Porter, but realistically, given the “re-build the club from scratch” role he has been chartered with, perhaps he was the best they could get under those circumstances.  He had been under consideration for several other clubs’ managerial positions, but the Astros were his first big league managerial job.  Given the rise in the Astros’ talent, I suspect he’ll be retained a while longer to field teams with the young upstarts and see if he can get them into winning ways on a regular basis.


I’m sure there are still many doubters about the outlook for the Astros.  Indeed, a case could be made that it’s premature to tout the impending success of the Astros.  However, I keep looking for a ray of hope, and I believe it may have finally arrived.


Baseball Draft Increases The Number of Family Ties

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about how sons and brothers of major leaguer players seem to have an edge in realizing opportunities for professional baseball careers.  The 2014 Major League Baseball Draft earlier this month did not disappoint, in terms of adding to the pool of baseball relatives.  I counted over sixty amateur players selected in this year’s big league draft who have one or more relatives in professional baseball.


Following are a few intriguing highlights from this year’s class.


Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew’s grandson, Grant Hockin, was selected in the second round by the Cleveland Indians.  A few other recognizable last names of drafted sons whose fathers were former all-star players in the major leagues include:  Mariano Rivera III, Ryan Ripken, Benito Santiago Jr., and Brandon Bonilla.  Darryl Strawberry (cousin Derek Hill) and Gary Sheffield (nephew Justus Sheffield) had relatives selected.


Ryan Ripken (father and grandfather both named Cal Ripken) and Jed Sprague (father and grandfather both named Ed Sprague) will be attempting to become members of the elite “three-generation major league” club.


Draftee Bradley Wilpon was selected by the Boston Red Sox, but his father is Jeff Wilpon who is an executive with the Mets, while his grandfather Fred is the Mets owner.


Draftees Kevin Cron and Nick Gordon each have a father and a brother who have major league experience.  Their brothers (CJ Cron and Dee Gordon, respectively) are currently on major league teams.


Cincinnati Reds scout Bill Byckowski had his son Robert drafted by the Reds in the 22nd round.  Do you think there was some nepotism involved there?


For a complete list of the drafted players from the 2014 MLB Draft with relatives in baseball, click this link http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/family-ties-2014-season/  to my “Baseball’s Relatives” website on the MLB Blog Network. 


Baseball Will Surely Miss "Zim"

One of the stories I was fascinated with as a young student of baseball involved a Brooklyn Dodgers player in the 1950s that was beaned and had to have a metal plate inserted into his head in order to protect him from further injury.  I remember admiring the guy for continuing to play, despite the risk of incurring another head injury.  I figured he must have really loved the game.


That player was Don Zimmer, not a name casual baseball fans would routinely remember, but one baseball history buffs will never forget.  Zimmer died on June 4 at age 83, after sixty-six years in the game in various capacities.  To most people in baseball, he was known as “Zim.”


This baseball “lifer” actually came close to ending his career, as well as his life, at age 22, when he was plunked in the head by a pitcher named Jim Kirk in a minor league game on July 7, 1953.  Indeed he was near death, unconscious for almost two weeks and unable to speak for eight weeks.  He had to be fitted with a cranial plate.


Zimmer had been a promising prospect in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, having signed with them out of high school.  Once touted as Pee Wee Reese’s replacement as the regular shortstop for the Dodgers, he never really lived up to those expectations.  However, he did become a serviceable utility player whose major league career spanned from 1954 to 1965.  He played on two Dodger World Series championship teams, in 1955 with Brooklyn and 1959 with Los Angeles.


He was the first third baseman in New York Mets history, when the franchise played its inaugural season in 1962.  However, he wound up playing in only 14 games for them, which included a 0-for-34 hitless streak, beginning what seemed to be an endless run of second-rate third basemen for the Mets.


Zimmer also played with the Cubs, Reds, and Senators during his twelve major league seasons.  He was largely a below-average hitter, but he occasionally showed some home run pop in his bat.  His best season occurred in 1958, when he hit 17 home runs and 60 RBI while compiling a .262 batting average.  He completed his playing career after one season in the Japanese Pacific League in 1966.


Zimmer had several stops as a minor league manager before being named a coach for the Montreal Expos in 1971.  His first major league managerial position came in 1972, when he replaced Preston Gomez and the San Diego Padres manager.


Through his later managerial and coaching stints, he became one of the “characters” of the game.  He took over as manager of the Boston Red Sox in mid-season in 1976.  He often feuded with outspoken Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who dubbed Zimmer a “designated gerbil.”  Zimmer wasn’t able to live down the Red Sox debacle in 1978, when they squandered a 14-game lead and then lost a one-game playoff to the New York Yankees.  New Englanders never forgave him, despite the Red Sox’ turning in three 90+ wins seasons.


After an uneventful stint as the Texas Rangers’ manager, Zimmer seemed to gain resurgence when he took over as manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1988.  His stocky, pop-eyed appearance and his antics on the field, frequently arguing with umpires, made him a popular manager.  Of course, it helped that the Cubs won the division title in 1989, their first in five years.  However, early in the 1991 season, he was replaced.


In 1996, Joe Torre hired Zimmer as his bench coach for the New York Yankees.  Zimmer remained in this capacity with the team until 2003, and even filled in as manager for 36 games when Torre missed time due to surgery.  During that time period, the Yankees won three World Series titles and finished as runner-up in two more seasons.  Even though he was considered an old-school baseball guy, he was a trusted advisor to the players, as well as to Torre, and he continued to demonstrate a deep passion for the game.


One memorable event that characterized Zimmer’s zest for the game involved a bench-clearing with the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.  The Yankees were convinced that Red Sox hurler Pedro Martinez was intentionally throwing at several Yankees’ batters.   Later in the game, Yankees’ pitcher Roger Clemens retaliated against a Red Sox hitter, which prompted both teams to empty their benches.   In a futile attempt to stand up for his Yankee teammates, Zimmer ran up to Martinez with intentions to fight him. Martinez tossed the 72-year-old Zimmer to the ground.  Zimmer was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure, but was not injured after all.  He later publicly apologized for his actions, but his Yankees team was proud of their coach and mentor.


Zimmer is famous for another media moment in 1999 with the Yankees, when he was noticed on a television broadcast wearing a military combat helmet in the dugout one day.  This followed the previous day’s game in which Zimmer was beaned in the dugout by batter Chuck Knoblauch’s foul ball.  Zimmer had to be taken to the clubhouse since he was bleeding profusely, but again he was not seriously injured.  He later said, “All I could think was, this would have been a helluva way to end my career in baseball, especially since this was the way it all started.”


In 2004, Zimmer was named senior baseball advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays. He could be seen in uniform during spring training and during pre-game activities for regular season home games.  For over ten seasons, he maintained this role, which also included community work for the Rays.


Indeed, Zimmer loved the game.  Nicknamed “Popeye,” he practically spent his entire life, parts of seven decades, in some capacity in the game.  The baseball family will miss him.


For more information about the life of Don Zimmer, I recommend two autobiographical books:  Zim: A Baseball Life and The Zen of Zim.


Sons of Major Leaguers Have an Edge

They get to hang out in major league clubhouses.  They take batting practice and shag fly balls in major league parks.  They get advice from their fathers about what’s it’s like to endure a long baseball season.  These are just a few of the benefits of sons of former major leaguers.


When major league baseball scouts are scouring college and high school campuses for draft candidates, you can bet they take into account the prospects’ baseball pedigree, much like prospective owners of race horses.  So it shouldn’t be surprising when we see significant numbers of relatives of professional baseball players taken in the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft later this week.  Last year, for example, Baseball America compiled a pre-draft list of over 150 potential draftees who had family ties in baseball.


Last year’s draft class involved sons of a number of recognizable former major leaguers, including Bucky Dent, Lee Mazzilli, Tim Wallach, Clay Bellinger, Torii Hunter, Andy Pettitte, Craig Biggio, Calvin Schiraldi, John Franco, and Dave Tobik.


Some of this year’s top draft candidates with family relationships in baseball include:  Nick Gordon, the son of Tom Gordon and brother of Dee Gordon; Kevin Cron, brother of C.J. Cron and son of Chris Cron; Dazmon Cameron, son of Mike Cameron; Justus Sheffield, nephew of Gary Sheffield; Jake Cosart, brother of Jarred Cosart; Luke Dykstra, son of Lenny Dykstra and brother of Cutter Dykstra; and Shane Zeile, nephew of Todd Zeile.


Being around a big league clubhouse at an early age gives a young prospect son the incentive to follow in his father’s footsteps.  A likely 2014 first-round draft pick, Nick Gordon says he relished his time spent around his father’s teammates such as all-stars Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter.  What better motivation would a youngster want?


With a major-league father, a developing prospect has a readily accessible resource to advise him on the fundamentals of the game. A son’s baseball IQ is improved by querying his dad about game situations on the field.


Then there is the mental aspect of the game.  Often, while the physical talent of young prospects is present, they may be immature when it comes to handling the grind of a long season, dealing with occasional batting slumps, and making mid-season adjustments to maintain their sharpness.  A father who has been through all those experiences can provide an advantage to his son by sharing those experiences.


Furthermore, the former big league father can counsel his son on the off-the-field situations such as fitting in with teammates in the clubhouse, handling the pressure of competition for a roster spot, and dealing with the media on an everyday basis.  These are areas where big league fathers can impart their knowledge to their sons to enhance their preparation for professional baseball.  The son of a former Chicago Cubs infielder, Shawn Dunston Jr. said, “My father taught me everything about baseball and life in general.”


All of these factors are reasons why a young prospect who is a relative of a professional ballplayer is often preferred by big league clubs, sometimes even if there is a bit less talent than others.  A professional baseball scout acquaintance of mine once told me he generally gives preference to prospects with pro baseball in their family history.


It makes sense that former major league players would encourage their family members to pursue professional baseball careers.  It’s not like years ago, before Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreements, when big league players would have to maintain off-season jobs to supplement their baseball salaries in order to make a decent living.  Nowadays, top draft picks get lucrative signing bonuses.  The minimum annual salary for a major league player is currently $480,000.  Sure, the chances of an average prospect reaching the big leagues are relatively low, since the number of new major leaguers making their debut each year is usually between 150-200 players.  However, it seems to be worth the effort, even if a long shot.


More than ever before, former major leaguers are helping their sons gain the edge.


If you have further interest in baseball’s family relationships, take a look at my list of over 300 baseball relatives for the 2014 season.  It can be viewed on my “Baseball’s Relatives” site on the MLB Blog Network:  http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/family-ties-2014-season/.