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.
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/.


Rarity of the Immaculate Inning

Baseball-Almanac.com website has a page about the “immaculate inning” which is defined as “9 pitches -- 9 strikes – 3 outs.”


That’s exactly what pitcher Cole Hamels accomplished on May 17 for the Philadelphia Phillies.  Well, you might be thinking, “what’s the big deal about that?”  The fact is Hamels’ feat is only the 53rd occurrence of the immaculate inning in over 135 years of major league baseball.   It’s been rarer than the nine-inning no-hitter, of which there have been 282.  It’s been rarer than a batter hitting for the cycle (single, double, triple, and home run in one game), whose total number currently stands at 304.


John Clarkson hurled the first immaculate inning in 1889. Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan are the only pitchers in history to accomplish it twice in their careers.   Both of Grove’s occurrences were a little more than a month apart in 1928.


For Juan Perez, who pitched only 59.1 innings over a five-year career, his immaculate inning in 2011 was the highlight of his career.  Randy Johnson’s achievement in August 2001 occurred in a game in which he struck out a total of sixteen batters.


There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to account for when the incidences of the immaculate inning happened over the course of baseball history.  From Clarkson’s first in 1889, up through 1928, there were a total of eight. There was a stretch from 1929 to 1952 when there were no immaculate innings pitched.  23 (43%) have occurred since 2001, with four in 2002 alone.  Furthermore, there have been all types of pitchers who contributed immaculate innings over the years—from flamethrowers like Koufax, Ryan, and Johnson to finesse pitchers like Bruce Sutter and Buddy Carlyle.


Needless to say, the immaculate inning is an electric moment during any time in a game, but especially when it happens in the first inning of a game, as was the case with Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez in 2002.  He retired Seattle Mariners batters Ichiro Suzuki, Mark McLemore, and Ruben Sierra to begin the game—not too shabby, but indeed rare!


What's Your Favorite Baseball Memory?

At one time or another, we’ve all wished we could witness an historic moment at a professional sports event.  Well, I had one of those wishes come true last week.


It’s not every day you get to see a no-hitter pitched in a game.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a high school, college, or professional game.  It’s something special to watch, even if it is your hometown or favorite team that is putting up the zeroes on the scoreboard.


But that’s exactly what I got to experience last Wednesday when the Triple-A Iowa Cubs played the New Orleans Zephyrs at Zephyr Field in a daytime game.  What made the game even a bit more special was that I was able to watch it with a group of guys (Phil, Bob, Danny, and Charlie) with whom I had played countless softball games for about twenty years.  (We missed you, Steve and Coach Wayne.)


Pitcher Chris Rusin was the hero of the day for the Cubs.  He no-hit the hometown Zephyrs with great control, facing only 30 Zephyrs batters in the game--walking two, with another batter getting on base due to catcher’s interference. However, Rusin isn’t a flamethrower.  He only struck out three in this game, but he was really consistent with keeping the ball over the plate and keeping the Zephyrs’ hitters off balance with only upper-80s speed.

  

Frequently during a no-hitter you see a few defensive gems that contribute to the historic outcome.  Cubs third baseman Christian Villanueva turned in a Brooks Robinson-like play in the middle innings, and centerfielder Matt Szczur raced in to catch a soft, shallow fly ball to end the game and secure Rusin’s place in history.  We also saw Cubs manager Marty Pevey get tossed from the game by the home plate umpire for arguing balls and strikes.  He wound up missing a good game.


None of my buddies or I had ever heard of Chris Rusin before.  We surmised his performance that day would merit his first call-up to the big league Cubs, who could actually use some help since they are currently in last place in their division.  However, checking his playing career after the game, I found out Rusin already had a few “cups of coffee” with the Cubs in 2012 and 2013, and even made a five-inning relief appearance with the Cubs this season on April 12.  I suspect he’ll get another promotion relatively soon.


This was my first time ever watching a no-hitter in person, although I previously experienced two really close situations.  Back in August 1970, I saw Ken Holtzman pitch a one-hitter for the Chicago Cubs in San Francisco.  Giants infielder Hal Lanier hit a two-out single in the 9th inning to spoil Holtzman’s “no-no.”  And ironically, the same group of softball buddies and I saw a near-no-hitter by Philip Humber in August 2007 at Zephyr Field.  He was pitching for the New Orleans Zephyrs (then a Mets affiliate) against the Iowa Cubs and lost his bid for a no-hitter in the ninth inning. Humber later pitched a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox on April 21, 2012.


There was a “school day” promotion at the Zephyrs game last week.  There must have been a couple thousand middle school kids attending the game.  I’d be pretty safe in saying there weren’t more than a handful of them who appreciated the significance of what was happening on the field, and it’s not likely they went home talking about the actual game.


Nevertheless, do you have a memorable baseball game that you would like to share?  Let this audience hear from you by posting a comment on this blog page.


Another Bumper Year For Baseball Relatives

The game of baseball has more family relationships than any other professional sport.   The annual Major League Baseball drafts each year seem to be producing more and more occurrences of sons, grandsons, brothers, nephews, and cousins of major league players.


The 2014 baseball season appears to be another plentiful year of players, managers, and coaches who have relatives in professional baseball.  I’ve completed my initial compilation for this season, and it counts over 300 members in this year’s class of family relationships.  Following are a few of the highlights from the list.


The Rasmus brothers (Colby, Cory and Casey) are looking toward the day when all three of them play in the major leagues at the same time.  Colby and Cory are waiting for Casey to advance through the minors.    There have been only twenty occurrences of multiple brothers in MLB history.  The last set of three big league brothers to play in the majors at the same time was the Molina family (Yadier, Jose, and Bengie) in 2010.   The Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty, and Jesus) made major league history when they played in the same game together for the San Francisco Giants in 1963.


There are fourteen grandsons of former major league players in this year’s list.  Some of the grandfather- grandson combo s include Lew Burdette (Nolan Fontana), Carl Yastrzemski (Mike Yastrzemski), Lee May (Jacob May), and Dick Schofield (Jayson Werth).


If minor leaguer Adam Law reaches the big leagues, he would become part of a three-generation family to play in the majors.  His father (Vance) and grandfather (Vern) preceded him.  There have been only four previous occurrences, including the Bells, Boones, Hairstons, and Colemans.  Currently, David Bell is a coach for the Cardinals, while Scott Hairston plays for the Nationals.


Speaking of multiple generations, Drew Pomeranz of the Oakland A’s is the great grandson of Garland Buckeye, who first played in the majors in 1918 and went on to play five big league seasons.  Drew’s brother Stu also had a short stint in the big leagues.


Avid baseball fans will recall the game’s only midget who made an appearance in a big league game in 1951, when St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck had 26-year-old, 3’ 7” Eddie Gaedel  pinch-hit in a publicity stunt.  Eddie’s nephew Kyle Gaedele, who is ironically 6’ 3” and 220 lbs., is now playing in the Padres organization.


Almost one-fourth of the list this year is comprised of major league managers (13) and coaches (71).  It makes you wonder if having a baseball relative is a job qualification for managerial and coaching staff.


That’s especially true for the Milwaukee Brewers, where seven of their eleven coaching staff positions are filled by men who have relatives in professional baseball:  Ron Roenicke (3), Garth Iorg (5), Mike Guerrero (5), Jerry Narron (4), Johnny Narron (3), John Shelby (3), and Lee Tunnell (1).


Long-time Los Angeles Dodgers coach Manny Mota had five sons who played professionally.  Two of them, Andy and Jose, reached the major leagues.  Manny’s cousin Jose Baez was also a big league player.


A few relatively new sons whose last names will be familiar to most baseball fans include L. J. Mazzilli (Lee), Travis Henke (Tom), Cody Dent (Bucky), and Dante Bichette Jr. (Dante).


The complete list of baseball relatives for the 2014 season can be found on my “Baseball Relatives” website on the MLBlogs Network http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/family-ties-2014-season/.  The list will be updated later in the summer after the MLB draft.


My book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives has compiled over 3,500 players, coaches, managers, scouts, executives, owners, broadcasters, and umpires who had family relationships in baseball through the 2011 season.  More information about the book can be viewed at http://thetenthinning.com/booksreviews.html.


Connie Marrero, Oldest Surviving MLB Player, Dies at 102

Conrado “Connie” Marrero didn’t pitch in his first major league game until age 39, because his trek to the big leagues didn’t take the traditional path.  The Cuban-born pitcher’s career largely goes unnoticed these days, yet he was one of the Latin players in the 1950s who helped usher in a wave of Latino ballplayers into the Major Leagues which is still prevalent in the game today.  Marrero died on April 23 only two days shy of his 103rd birthday, the oldest surviving former player to have appeared in the Major Leagues.  The only former Major Leaguer who lived longer than Marrero was Chester “Red” Hoff, who died at the age of 105 in 1998.


Marrero began pitching in organized amateur baseball leagues in Cuba in the late-1930s at age 27.  He gained international attention in 1939 and 1940 when he led Cuba to International Baseball Federation (IBAF) world championships.  After losing to Venezuela in 1941 in a classic pitchers’ duel against their star hurler, Marrero defeated them in a shutout the next season.  He achieved legendary status in Cuba that would follow him during the rest of his baseball career.


Marrero’s amateur success led to his pitching in Cuban and Mexican professional leagues, before he finally signed with the Washington Senators organization in 1947. He was 36 years old, an age when most players are winding down their careers.   Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 also widened the doors for more Latin Americans to pursue professional baseball careers in the United States.  Prior to that time, there had been relatively small numbers of Latino players to have significant careers in the major leagues.


Marrero spent three seasons pitching for hometown Havana in the Florida International League.  Ten years older than the average age of the players in the Class B/C league, the diminutive (5’ 5”, 158 lbs) hurler blew away the opposition as he won 25, 20, and 25 games in his three campaigns. 


He earned a promotion to the big league Senators for the 1950 season.  They had habitually been a second-division club in desperate need of pitching.  Marrero logged 19 starts in 27 appearances, including eight complete games, and finished with a 6-10 won-loss record.


In 1951, he was joined by two fellow Cuban pitchers, Sandy Consuegra and Julio Moreno.  Marrero led the Senators’ staff that season with eleven victories, including sixteen complete games in 25 starts.  On April 26, he one-hit the Philadelphia A’s, allowing only a home run to Barney McCosly.  Even at his advanced age, he proved to be a durable pitcher.  His windmill windup on the field and cigar-puffing antics off the field gained him popularity in the American League, and added to his legendary status in his home country.  His exact birthdate became somewhat of a joke, as he was quoted with different ages on at least three occasions.


Marrero posted an almost identical statistical season in 1952, except he lowered his ERA by a full run to 2.88.  The next two seasons saw a decline in his innings pitched, and he made his last major league appearance on September 7, 1954.  Overall, his combined won-loss record during his five seasons was 39-40.


During his stint in the major leagues, other Cuban-born players began to gain prominence in the United States.  Minnie Minoso, Sandy Amoros, Willy Miranda, Camilo Pascual, and Pedro Ramos were among the Cubans who became household names among American baseball fans during that era.  Of course, the player pipeline from Cuba largely dried up in 1959 when Fidel Castro took control of Cuba and prevented his countrymen from leaving.  However, during the 1950s, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Dominican Republic also began infusing a number of its players into the United States’ Organized Baseball.


While Marrero’s career in the major leagues was finished, he didn’t stop pitching.  In 1955, he landed a spot with home-town Havana again, which had become a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.  He pitched for them for parts of three seasons and finally retired at age 46 in 1957.


The honor of oldest living Major Leaguer now falls to Mike Sandlock who is 98 years old.  He played fourteen professional seasons between 1938 and 1954, including five major league seasons.


Who Was This Guy, Tommy John?

I imagine everybody these days, including non-baseball fans, knows what Tommy John surgery is.  But do they know who Tommy John, the baseball player, was?


Tommy John had a 26-year pitching career in Major League Baseball, but it was only because of an orthopedist named Dr. Frank Jobe that he was able to accomplish this.  In 1974, at age 31, John tore an elbow ligament in his left arm while pitching in a game for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Dr. Jobe, who had attended the game, performed the landmark surgery to replace the torn ligament with a tendon from John’s right wrist.   John agreed to Jobe’s recommendation for this uncertain, yet innovative, procedure, because his baseball career would have otherwise ended.


As a result of his surgery, John was able to extend himself in what could be considered a second major league career.  His first, consisting of twelve seasons prior to the surgery, was just an average one.


John began his professional career with the Cleveland Indians organization in 1961 as an 18-year-old from Indiana.  He quickly progressed to the big leagues, earning a permanent spot on the Indians’ roster in May 1964.  Over the next ten seasons, he recorded double-digit wins in all but one of the seasons, as he played with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.  However, in five of those seasons, he also posted double-digit losses, including 17 and 16 defeats in back-to-back seasons.  His 124-106 won-loss record was indicative of being an average, but durable, hurler at that point in his career.  He did have one selection to the All-Star Game in 1968.


Then in 1974, John was off to one of his best seasons (13-3 record, 2.59 ERA), when he suffered the fateful injury on July 17 while pitching for the Dodgers against the Montreal Expos.  In his autobiography, TJ: My Twenty-Six Years In Baseball, John recalled that he threw a couple of wild pitches in the third inning and heard what sounded like a “collision coming from inside his elbow.”


John waited three weeks before trying to pitch again.  In a batting practice session, John couldn’t throw, confirming he had torn elbow ligaments.  Despite Dr. Jobe’s estimated odds of 100-1 for his return to the mound, John underwent the surgery anyway in September.  In addition to the transplant, John had muscle and nerve damage repaired during the surgery.  In December, he underwent a second operation   to re-route the nerve because his left hand had gone numb.


John sat out the entire 1975 season rehabilitating from the surgery.  In spring training camp with the Dodgers in 1976, he was given little chance for a comeback at age 33.  However, he finished with a 10-10 record and 3.09 ERA in remarkable 207 innings pitched.  His surprising performance was acknowledged by The Sporting News, who named him the Comeback Player of the Year.  Thus, his second career was underway.


With his “miracle” arm, John’s best seasons were ahead of him.  In 1977, John won 14 of his last 17 decisions to post a 20-7 record and 2.78 ERA for the season.  He finished second to Steve Carlton in the Cy Young Award voting.  The Dodgers won the National League pennant but lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.


The Dodgers repeated at National League champs 1978.  John was part of a starting rotation that had four pitchers with fifteen or more victories.  He compiled a 17-10 record and was selected for his second All-Star Game.  This time the Dodgers defeated the Yankees for the World Series championship, with John getting two post-season victories.


The 36-year-old John signed with the rival Yankees as a free agent during the offseason.  He rewarded them with a 21-9 record and 2.96 ERA in 1979, while again finishing second in the Cy Young Award balloting.  He won a career-high 22 games in 1980 when the Yankees captured the American League East Division title.


In the strike-shortened season in 1981, John posted a 9-8 record as the Yankees returned to the World Series again, only to lose to his former Dodger teammates.


When most pitchers his age had already called it quits, John went on to pitch eight more seasons in the big leagues.  After his surgery in 1974, he compiled 164 victories in 14 seasons.  He was one of the oldest full-time pitchers in baseball history at age 46, only surpassed later by Nolan Ryan and Jamie Moyer.


Despite his 288 career victories (26th best of all time), John didn’t get serious consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame, gaining 31.7% of the vote in his final year on the ballot, well below the minimum requirement.  Unfortunately, he was among those players that Hall voters considered “accumulators”, those who compiled impressive statistics largely due to their longevity in the game.


On a side note, if there was a medical wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, certainly Dr. Jobe would be an inductee, because of his impact on the game.


The ground-breaking surgery has been performed thousands of times since John’s, prolonging the careers of many athletes after him.  Recent major league pitchers who have benefitted from Tommy John surgery include star players such as Tim Hudson, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, Stephen Strasburg, Brian Wilson and Matt Harvey.   There have already been fifteen pitchers this season who have suffered elbow injuries which will require Tommy John surgery.   If Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had the opportunity for such a surgery, his fabulous career may not have ended at age 31.


Dr. Jobe did not specifically name the surgery after Tommy John.  Instead, John’s name became frequently used over the years to symbolize the procedure, whose technical medical description is “ulnar collateral ligament construction while using the palmaris longus tendon.” With a complex description like that, you can understand why it became popular for people to just call it “Tommy John surgery.”  Sort of reminds us of another legendary ballplayer, Lou Gehrig, whose name is frequently associated with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) disease.


Early Season Awards

The 2014 Major League Baseball season is only two weeks old, but it’s not too soon to take notice of some of the best performances, prospects, and milestones of the new campaign.  There were some off-the-field incidents which also captured fans’ attention. 


I came up with the following “awards” to illustrate a few of the early highlights of the new season.


Best Pitching Performance

Andrew Cashner of the San Diego Padres pitched a one-hit shutout over the Detroit Tigers on April 11.  After giving up a single to the first batter he faced, he wound up pitching to the minimum number of batters in the game, while striking out eleven.  Cashner hurled a one-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates last September.


Best Hitting Performance

Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies went 6-for-6 with five RBI in a 12-2 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 4.  He was the first player in history with a home run and three doubles in a six-hit game.


Best Newcomer

Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox is making an early-season splash in the big leagues.  The first-year Cuban player is among league leaders in home runs and RBI after the first two weeks and is giving the White Sox hope for a competitive team.


Best Comeback Player

Until Opening Day this season, Grady Sizemore had not played baseball since 2011, because of back and knee injuries kept him off of the field.  Considered somewhat of a “project” during spring training camp, he wound up winning the starting centerfielder job for the Boston Red Sox.  Sizemore has demonstrated he has re-gained much of the speed and power that made him one of the best outfielders during 2006-2008.  He is hitting .333 with a couple of home runs during the first two weeks of the season.


Hottest Team

The Milwaukee Brewers have a nine-game winning streak through Sunday and lead the National League Central Division with Major League Baseball’s best record, 10-2.  Their pitching staff has started strong, leading the league with a combined 1.87 ERA.  They also won nine in a row in April in 2013, but that followed a 2-8 start to the season.   Will they be able to put away the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates in the coming months?


Fastest Player

Speedster Billy Hamilton is generally acknowledged as the fastest base runner in the big leagues.  He broke string training camp with the Cincinnati Reds, but has yet to make an impact with his legs.  He has managed only two stolen bases so far, since he is struggling to get on base.   However, after he adjusts to big league pitching, look out!  In 2012, he stole 155 bases at the minor league level.  Last year he stole 13 bases in 22 plate appearances in a late-season call-up with the Reds, after swiping 75 bases at the Triple-A level.


Most Impressive Milestone

Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera recorded his 2,000th career hit on April 4.  His 2-run home run in the eighth inning was the milestone hit.  Cabrera is the ninth player to reach this mark before his 31st birthday and the seventh youngest in history.


Friendliest Confines

Wrigley Field in Chicago is nicknamed “The Friendly Confines“, a phrase popularized by former Chicago Cub Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.  Wrigley Field is celebrating its 100th anniversary this season.  It is the second oldest major league stadium, after Fenway Park in Boston.  However, Wrigley hasn’t been so friendly to its host team, as the Cubs have finished in last place in the NL Central Division for the past four seasons.  The Cubs are off to a 4-7 start this season.


Most Valuable Dad

The New York Mets Daniel Murphy garnered a lot of attention when he missed the first two games of the season to be present for the birth of his child.  Talk show host Boomer Esiason of WFAN Radio in New York criticized Murphy for not insisting his wife have a C-Section before the start of the regular season, so that he would not miss any games.  Esiason later apologized to Murphy for his insensitive remarks.  However, there was overwhelming support for Murphy and his decision to be a father first, not a baseball player.


Most Unfortunate Catch

This award doesn’t go to a player, but rather to Don Baylor, a coach for the Los Angeles Angels.  Baylor was the honorary catcher for the ceremonial first pitch by retired Vladimir Guerrero at an Angels’ home game against the Seattle Mariners.  It turned out that Baylor fractured his right femur while catching the first pitch from Guerrero.  Baylor had to be helped off the field and underwent surgery the next day.


Most Syllables in a Name

The Chicago Cubs’ Emelio Bonifacio leads the Majors with nine syllables in his first and last names.  Through Sunday, he is also leading the National League in hits with 20, and is currently batting .435.  He could on his way to a record for most teams played with--the Cubs are his sixth major league team in his eighth big league season.


Best R-Rated Salute

On April 3, first baseman Matt Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals reached into the stands to catch a foul ball in a game against the Cincinnati Reds.  A fan out-gloved Adams for the ball, after which Adams showed his disgust by giving the fan a nudge in the chest with his glove.  In turn, the fan responded by giving Adams the “middle-finger” salute.


Baseball's Not Always A Family-Friendly Affair

A few weeks ago, there was a wire report of a baseball player trade involving minor leaguers Matt Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels organization and Trevor Gretzky of the Chicago Cubs.  It was noteworthy because they are the sons of famous sports fathers.  Matt is the son of Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, while Trevor is the son of “The Great One”, hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky.   There was another interesting twist to this transaction.  Matt was a prospect in the same organization as his father, but the Angels’ front office decided to part ways with Matt.  It’s not exactly the best way to enhance a family relationship.


Throughout baseball history, there have been numerous instances where family members in baseball were affected by similar front-office transactions or events on the field.  Some of these involved not-so- pleasant decisions or actions.   Following are some examples from my book Family Ties:  A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives.


Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith traded his niece’s husband Joe Cronin in 1934 and also his son-in-law Joe Haynes in 1948.  For the players’ sakes, hopefully these were just “business” transactions.


Al Campanis, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, traded his son Jim to the Kansas City Royals in 1968.  Jim had played sparingly behind veteran catchers John Roseboro and Tom Haller for three years and didn’t figure into the Dodgers long-term plan.  It could be argued Al did his son a favor!


The daughter of San Diego Padres general manager Jack McKeon married Padres pitcher Greg Booker.  Booker played with the Padres from 1983 through 1988, but was considered an embarrassment because of his mediocre performance.  McKeon, not wanting to upset his daughter by trading him, kept Booker even though the Padres fans booed him mercilessly.  However, McKeon, whose nickname was “Trader Jack,” finally unloaded his son-in-law to the Minnesota Twins in 1989.


In Milt May’s second season at minor league Gastonia in the Carolina League, his father Pinky May was manager for Monroe in the same league.  Milt hit eleven home runs that year and ten were against his father’s team.  On several occasions when their teams opposed each other, Pinky had his son knocked down when batting, because Milt was such a threat at the plate.


Jeff Weaver was pitching for the Los Angeles Angels in 2006 but wasn’t pitching well, posting a 3-10 won-lost record.  In July, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals to make room for his brother Jered on the Angels team.  Jered went on to win ten straight games for the Angels that year.  Jeff wound up helping the Cardinals to a World Series championship.  I guess one could say it turned out to be a “win-win” for both brothers.


George Susce Sr. did not try to put pressure on his son George Jr. to get into baseball.  He allowed his son to make up his own mind about which team to sign with.  In 1951 at age seventeen, George Jr. made a decision that cost his father his job in baseball.  George Sr. was a coach for the Cleveland Indians, when his son accepted a bonus for signing with the Boston Red Sox instead of the Indians.  This prompted the Indians to fire the father, although the Red Sox later hired him.


In the spring of 2010, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen became embroiled with his son Oney, who at the time was working in the scouting department for the White Sox.  When the outspoken Oney became publicly critical of the White Sox organization in a Twitter dialog, Ozzie put pressure on his son to resign, in order to avoid more trouble with the team.  And this advice came from a person who had a history of his own problems with public relations gaffes!


As Roger Clemens was training for his participation in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, he pitched batting practice at the Houston Astros spring training camp.  The first batter he faced was his son Koby, a 2005 high school signee of the Astros.  Koby hit his father’s first pitch over the left field fence.  The next time Roger faced Koby, he showed who was in charge, when he jokingly brushed back Koby with a high, inside fastball.

 


Why Baseball's Opening Day Should Be A National Holiday

I know this idea sounds like a cock-eyed one to some people, generated by some nerdy baseball fanatics.  But, in fact, an initiative spearheaded by Baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, with the help of Budweiser, was mounted to propose such an idea to the White House.  Over 100,000 signatures were collected for a petition, which was the minimum required to receive an official response from the White House.


Absurd idea?  Maybe, but hear me out.


National holidays are generally reserved for people or events we want to honor as foundational to our country’s history and heritage.   Over the years, I believe the game of baseball has been fundamental in promoting sports and leisure activities which have become integral to our American culture and life style.  Baseball’s Opening Day is a sports tradition that’s been around for over one hundred years.  There was even a time when United States Presidents routinely threw out the first ball in Opening Day ceremonies.


Opponents of this idea will argue that baseball is not the national sport any more, that we already have too many paid holidays for government workers, and that a baseball-related holiday would be a misuse of a long-standing practice.


Indeed, football fanatics believe baseball has been surpassed as America’s national pastime.   If you listen to radio talk shows and still read a newspaper, you might come to the same conclusion.  For example, in New Orleans, according to WWL 870 Radio and The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans Saints and LSU football are the only newsworthy sports, year-round!


However, as far as I know, “baseball” hasn’t been removed from the popular jingle which symbolizes some of the best traditions of our country, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chrevrolet.”


Opening Day is indeed about tradition.  For a long time, the city of Cincinnati was awarded the privilege of “opening the Opening Day” every year with a home game by its Cincinnati Reds, which happens to be the first-ever professional baseball team.  For major league cities, it’s a common practice for fans to take off from work and school to attend the first game of the baseball season.  It’s an event they plan for.  Nowadays, many fans will even travel long distances to attend their favorite team’s Opening Day game.


Even in places where there isn’t a big league team, rabid baseball fans take a day off from work, or play hooky from school, and glue themselves to their TV sets or internet devices to catch as many MLB games as they can during the 10-12 hours of games are broadcast on Opening Day.  Fathers and sons cook hamburgers and hot dogs, play some catch in between games, and (if old enough) drink a few beers together to round out the special day.  My 35-year-old son and I still do that.  I suspect we’re not alone.


What was the White House’s response to Ozzie Smith’s petition?  Paraphrased, its message was, “while we are sympathetic to your request, it’s up to Congress to create permanent federal holidays.”  Well, at least there wasn‘t a “no” answer.  Maybe there’s still hope.


If someone on Capitol Hill thinks we need to restrict the number of national holidays, then I personally vote for dumping President’s Day and replacing it with Opening Day.  After all, Derek Jeter, Clayton Kershaw, and Miguel Cabrera are more popular today than Presidents Washington and Lincoln.


Thus, since Opening Day has the historical and sentimental tradition already associated with it, why not officially recognize it as a permanent national holiday?


Of course, Major League Baseball would have to stop hosting opening day games in places like Tokyo, Sydney, and Mexico City.  That’s just downright un-American and wouldn’t be fitting with an officially observed holiday!


Injury to Aroldis Chapman Reminiscent of Herb Score's, Almost 60 Years Ago

Last week the Cincinnati Reds’ fireballing closer was hit in the face by a line drive by Kansas City Royals’ batter Salvador Perez in a spring training exhibition game.  He is the latest of several major league pitchers who have been similarly hit in the past two seasons, spurring the on-going debate about whether pitchers should wear some type of protective cap.  It’s been a debate that actually started almost 60 years ago when Cleveland Indians pitcher Herb Score’s career was tragically derailed by a similar incident.


Score was heralded as legendary Hall of Famer Bob Feller’s successor with the Indians.  Between 1938 and 1952, Feller was among the most dominating pitcher in the big leagues.  His fastball was practically unmatched, among the first that was clocked at over 100 mph.  Then along came Score in 1955, as Feller was winding down his historic career. 


Score burst onto the scene in 1955 when he won sixteen games and led the American League with245 strikeouts, an American League rookie record and the highest total by a big leaguer since Feller set the top mark of 338 strikeouts in 1946.  Score struck out sixteen Red Sox in one game, nine in the first three innings.  It was no surprise when he was named Rookie of the Year for his performance.


He followed that sensational season with an even better one in 1956, as he posted a 20-9 won-lost record while compiling a league-leading 263 strikeouts and five shutouts.  At 23 years old, he was the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.


Score started off the 1957 season in a similar fashion.  Reportedly, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey offered the Cleveland Indians $1 million in cash for Score.  On May 17, when the Yankees were opposed by the New York Yankees, Score was hit in the eye by a riveting line drive back through the pitcher’s box by Gil McDougald.  Score had no time to react in an attempt to dodge the batted ball or put up his glove to protect himself.


At first, Score could not see out of his injured eye.  As part of his initial recovery, he spent eight motionless days in a hospital while in total darkness.  He was not able to finish the 1957 season.  Fortunately, it turned out he didn’t suffer permanent vision impairment, but he was never the same when he returned to the playing field.  He won only eighteen more games in his five remaining seasons, although some arm problems also contributed to his ineffectiveness.


A potential Hall of Fame career was derailed with one pitch over which Score had no control.  Not too many years before this incident, major league batters had routinely begun wearing batting helmets to avoid head injuries from off-the-mark pitches.  The question started being asked, “what about protecting the pitchers?”


Fortunately, Chapman’s injury isn’t expected to be debilitating.  He had surgery to repair a broken bone above his left eye.  He had a titanium plate inserted to stabilize the fracture.  The 22-year-old Cuban left-hander, whose fastball has been clocked at 105 mph, is expected to begin throwing within a couple of weeks and could pitch in game conditions in four to six weeks.


A much more serious injury was sustained by Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy on September 5, 2012.  He was hit near the left ear on a comebacker off the bat of Erick Aybar of the Los Angeles Angels.  McCarthy suffered a life-threatening brain contusion, epidural hemorrhage, and skull fracture.  He required brain surgery, but remarkably returned for the start of the 2013 season.


During the remainder of the 2012 season, after McCarthy’s incident, pitchers Mickey Storey of the Houston Astros and Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers were also hit in the head by batted balls.  However, neither occurrence resulted in loss of playing time.


Then last season, Toronto Blue Jays’ hurler J. A. Happ suffered a fractured skull and ear contusions as a result of a line drive by Tampa Bay Rays’ batter Desmond Jennings.  Happ went on the disabled list but later returned during the season.  The Rays’ Alex Cobb was hit on the ear by batter Kansas City Royals’ Eric Hosmer and went on the seven-day concussion disabled list.


So, in this era of increasing protection of athletes from serious head injuries, including the recent emphasis in professional football, where does the idea of protective headgear for baseball’s pitchers stand today?


Major League Baseball approved the use of protective caps for pitchers in time for 2014 spring training.  Their use is optional.  The caps contain a soft padding that is a bit more than a half-inch thicker in the front and an inch thicker on the sides than standard caps.  The engineered padding is designed to disperse energy of a batted ball upon impact with the protected area.  The padding adds seven ounces to the weight of a standard cap which currently weighs three to four ounces.


To date, big league pitchers are not lining up to test or adopt the new cap.  That’s somewhat understandable, as the cap may not be major league-ready just yet.  Even Brandon McCarthy’s initial reaction about the model he tried was that it was “too heavy” and “too hot” and “didn’t pass the eye test.”  However, he did acknowledge the product was headed in the right direction.


Others have noted that the new cap would not prevent some of the types of injuries that have occurred, like Chapman’s, since the ball struck him below the cap line.  Since the new protective cap covers only about 40% of the head, there have been suggestions that helmets or face masks should be incorporated into the protective headgear, in order to cover more of the pitcher’s face and temples.  However, Major League Baseball has not pursued that direction yet.  In any case, I can just see some of baseball’s traditionalists “poo-pooing” that idea.


It’s probably just a matter of time before some type of protective headgear will be adopted by some of the players.  But then we’ll always have the Fernando Rodneys of the game where the cap wouldn’t fit his purpose.  Rodney is a relief pitcher who routinely wears his cap a little off-centered because he thinks it throws off batters and would-be base-stealers.  In the meantime, we can only hope there no more players like Score, McCarthy and Chapman who incur life-threatening head injuries.


Opening Day Down Under

A Major League Baseball game will be played in Australia for the first time on March 22nd and23rd in Sydney, when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks open the 2014 baseball season there.  Reportedly, some of the players are not too happy with disrupting their spring training schedules caused by the travel logistics required to play the two regular season games during the trip.  Despite that, Major League Baseball seems intent on continuing to spread the word about its brand to the rest of the world.


Opening Day games have been played outside the United States and Canada since 1999, when contests were played in Monterrey, Mexico.  Tokyo was host to major league teams in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.  San Juan, Puerto Rico was a site in 2001.


Actually, Australian natives’ participation as major league players goes back to some of baseball’s earliest beginnings in the 19th century in the United States.  As a 19-year-old, Joe Quinn was the first Australian-born major league player in 1884.  He went on to play fifteen seasons in the National League and one season in the newly-formed American League in 1901.


Craig Shipley was the first modern-day major leaguer from Australia.  By way of college baseball at the University of Alabama, he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1984 and made his major league debut in 1986.  He had an eleven-year career in the big leagues for several teams, primarily as a utility infielder.


According to Baseball-Reference.com, a total of 28 Australian natives have played in the Major Leagues.  Among the current players from last season are Grant Balfour, Peter Moylan, Travis Blackley, and Liam Hendriks.


Over the years, hundreds of Australian players have made their way to United States to play professional baseball, although most of them never advanced past the minor league level.  However, many started their professional careers in the Australian Baseball League, which is partially owned by Major League Baseball, and predecessor pro leagues in Australia.  Additionally, the Major League Baseball Academy Program in Australia is providing baseball training and playing experience to amateur players.  Australia fielded a team in the Olympics, when baseball was still a sponsored sport.  More recently the Aussies have participated in the World Baseball Classic, although they have won only one game in the three years the tournament has been played.


Relief pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, who last appeared in the majors in 2010 with the Seattle Mariners, is on the Arizona Diamondbacks spring training roster this season.  He is a native of Sydney, and is slated to pitch for Team Australia in an exhibition game on Thursday against the Dodgers and then on Friday for the Diamondbacks in another exhibition game against Team Australia.  Undoubtedly, he’ll be pretty pumped up to pitch in his hometown.


However, not all the players are approaching the trip with the enthusiasm as Rowland-Smith.  Most notably, the Dodgers’ star pitcher Zach Greinke, who injured his calf on the first day of spring training, created a bit of a stir when he initially complained that he shouldn’t have to make the time-consuming trip, because he needed the rehab time.  He has since back-tracked on his controversial comments.


Indeed, such a trip overseas causes a bit of disruption to the teams during the final days of Spring Training.  However, that seems to be taking a back seat to the MLB’s objective of expanding the world-wide appeal for its product.


Today we see major league players in the USA from all sorts of foreign countries.  Will we ever see big league baseball being played in other countries for an entire season?  It’s not likely in the near-term, unless a team is based in the Caribbean region, possibly San Juan or Mexico City, or maybe even in Havana someday.  League schedules and team travel between games wouldn’t be entirely impractical in one of those cases.  On the other hand, in the future it could be plausible for the MLB to expand its minor league systems to play in countries, such as Australia or The Netherlands.  Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see a big league batting champ who got promoted from an overseas minor league team!


My Quest for Derek Jeter's Autograph

Contributed by Mary Delhomme Cuicchi, guest blogger for TheTenthInning.com


I attended my first Spring Training games with my husband last week.  He is a Yankees fan, but did not yet have Derek Jeter’s autograph among his collection.  So my goal for the trip was to get Derek to sign a baseball.  I learned this would be Derek’s last season, so the pressure was on.


We attended a night game in Tampa where the Yankees played the Orioles.  I figured this might be my best chance to get Derek’s signature.  I wore my Yankees T-shirt and my “I Love Jeter” cap to enhance my chances to get him to sign for me.  However, since we did not arrive at the ballpark until about 30 minutes before the start of the game (since we had to drive from an afternoon game in Lakeland), I really did not get any chances before the game.  Fortunately, Derek was the DH in the game.  We had really good seats behind the Yankees dugout, but my screams to Derek, as he was on-deck, to get his attention went unnoticed.  So, I struck out in my attempt for that game.  But tomorrow would be another day.


The next afternoon, we saw the Yankees play the Rays in Port Charlotte.  This time, we got to the stadium when the gates opened.  I quickly identified the entrance to the Yankees dugout.  The advice from my husband was to push my way to the front, because ballplayers usually gave preference to young kids and pretty girls for autographs.  I tried to elbow my way into the crowd that had accumulated there and eventually got to the front with the help of a seasoned Yankees autograph-hound.


I soon realized there was no etiquette among the autograph seekers.  Grown men tried their best to muscle me (5’ 2” 130 pounds) out of the way.  Personal hygiene amongst these guys was apparently not a high priority.  After waiting for about 45 minutes and missing a chance at Ichiro’s autograph, I found out Derek was not even at the ballpark that day.  Struck out again!


My only hope now is that my cousins Jennifer and Christie, who live in Tampa and have season tickets to the Yankees spring training games, are able to charm Derek into signing a baseball for me.  I entrusted them with my newly learned autograph-seeking experience.


On a different note, for a “rookie” attending Spring Training for my first time, I learned some new baseball terminology during last week.  Getting “smoked” does not mean going out for a cigarette.  A “can of corn” is not something you get at the grocery store.  “Uncle Charlie” is not that elderly guy on the old TV series “My Three Sons.”  “Cup of coffee” doesn’t have anything to do with taking a trip to Starbucks.  You can’t simply say a batted ball bounced off the outfield fence--it “caromed”.  And “chin music” has no melody in the game of baseball.


So, I had my “cup of coffee” at major league autograph seeking.  I’ll hone my skills at some Zephyrs minor league games in New Orleans this season, and maybe I’ll get another shot in the big leagues soon.


There's Nothing Like Spring Training To Kick-Start The Season

Attending baseball’s Spring Training games is a good way to get you kick-started with the upcoming season.  You get to see some of the players with their new teams as a result of winter transactions.  You get a sneak-peak at the leading prospects the major league teams are touting.  You get to root for on-the-bubble veterans who are struggling to stay on a major league roster.  You can see many teams play in a short period of time.


Then there’s the non-baseball side of Spring Training where you get to visit the quaint, charming communities that host spring training sites, meet the rabid and hopeful fans of each team, and experience the gorgeous weather.


I got a chance to attend Spring Training games in Florida last week, escaping the Mardi Gras hoopla and what turned out to be horrible weather in New Orleans.  The trip included six games in four days at training sites in Clearwater, Bradenton, Lakeland, Port Charlotte, Fort Meyers, and Tampa, watching eight different teams.  My wife Mary, former-soccer-Mom-turned-baseball-fan, was my sidekick for the week.  (See her account of her first Spring Training experience in a separate blog post on this website.)


With all the extremely bitter cold weather in the Northeast and Midwest, the “snow-birds” were out in full force in Florida.  At each park we met some delightful baseball fans who were fortunate enough to escape the snow and ice in their hometowns.  They generally scoffed at our stories of unusually cold weather in the New Orleans area this winter-- several days barely below freezing temperatures. We found several fans who didn’t mind getting sun-burned in Florida’s 75-80 degree weather, because they could show off to their family and friends back home who were had been trapped in the cold weather.


Our ritual for each afternoon game was to get to the ballpark when the gates opened, a couple of hours prior to game time, to watch batting and infield practice.  It was usually a good time to see some of the players we might not see in the actual games.  Where else would one get to see Tigers manager Brad Ausmus taking ground balls at third base with his catcher’s mitt?


I’d have to say the Phillies’ Bright House Field in Clearwater was our favorite park.  It had all the amenities of a major league park, plus it was bordered by several practice fields where one could freely walk around to watch various training activities up close.  Of course, the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa is the “Yankee Stadium” of minor league parks—it’s majestic- looking, embellished by a lot of history, and has the largest team store.


One of my favorite things to do at major league games is to assess if I’m possibly seeing a future Hall of Famer.  On this trip, Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera made my “can’t miss” category, as well former player and now Tigers coach Omar Vizquel.  Carlos Beltran and Ichiro Suzuki are on my “on-the-bubble” list.


I also look for any Louisiana connections among the players.  This time, I was able to see several in the games I saw.   Reid Brignac (St. Amant) of the Phillies and Xavier Paul (Slidell) with the Orioles are veteran utility players trying to secure regular season roster spots.  Garin Cecchini (Lake Charles) was a fourth-round pick of the Red Sox in 2011.  He appears to be in line for a big league role at third base within a couple of years. I was pleasantly surprised to see former LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook (Lafayette) get a start in right field in for the Rays, but I think he is also a few years away from locking in a major league job.


Other top prospects we saw included Nick Castellanos, Gregory Polanco and Byron Buxton.  Castellanos is slated for the starting third base position for the Tigers on Opening Day.  Outfielder Byron Buxton of the Twins is Baseball America’s overall Number 1 rated prospect for 2014, and is expected to be ready for Opening Day in 2015.  Outfielder Gregory Polanco, the Number 1 rated prospect of the Pirates, will likely get a call-up to the majors during this season.  All of these guys lived up to their projections in the games we attended last week.


Since one of my special interests in baseball research is identifying major league baseball players with family relationships in baseball, I’m always looking for new instances for my list.  This past week, I found Nik Turley, a minor league pitcher in the Yankees camp.  If the last name sounds familiar to older Yankees fans, yes, he is a distant relative of Bob Turley, who was a Cy Young Award winner with the Yankees in 1958.  Also, new to my list is Josh Harrison of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  A three-year veteran utility player, he is the cousin of former major leaguer John Shelby.  In one game we saw last week, brothers-in-law Neil Walker (Pirates) and Don Kelly (Tigers) played against each other.


Of course, one of the most talked about topics of the spring is how the Yankees will fare with their new roster additions.  Unfortunately, we did not get to see their new pitcher Masahiro Tanaka play.  However, in one of the Yankees games we attended, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran were in the starting lineup, and Brian McCann had a pinch-hit appearance.  I’m one of the die-hard Yankee fans who believes these guys will bring the Yankees back to prominence.


Needless to say, it was a great trip.  I’d highly recommend it to any baseball fan that hasn’t yet experienced Spring Training.  We saw some good games and good players, had great weather, and met some really nice people (in fact, we have an offer by a couple from Pittsburgh to put us up when we visit there for a baseball trip.)  You can’t beat that!


Now Pitching, Tracy McGrady. What?

Yep, you read it correctly.  Former NBA star Tracy McGrady is trading his roundball for a hardball.  At 34 years of age, the former seven-time NBA All-Star and two-time scoring leader has been working out with the Sugar Land (TX) Skeeters baseball team of the independent Atlantic League.  McGrady last played in the NBA in 2012, but apparently he is not ready to give up on playing professional sports.  He says he wants to realize a childhood dream of playing baseball.


With a little tutoring from one of the all-time best hurlers in Major League Baseball, Roger Clemens, McGrady is trying his hand as a pitcher.  According to his Facebook page, McGrady has been practicing with the Skeeters for the past few months.  Clemens, who briefly played for the Skeeters in 2012 when he was contemplating a return to playing Major League baseball, has attended a few of McGrady’s workout sessions at Constellation Field to provide some pointers on the art of pitching.  Reportedly, McGrady has been able to throw in the 83-85 MPH range.


Chances are this is mostly about McGrady attempting to realize a fantasy through a well-scripted publicity plan.  While the independent baseball leagues are not affiliated with Major League Baseball organizations, their rosters are filled with pretty decent talent, former college and minor league players who are trying to stay active in the game.  There have been more than a few independent league players who eventually worked their way to the big leagues.  So McGrady may be out of his league this time, since he doesn’t have a strong baseball background to lean on.  However, I’m sure the Sugar Land team loves every minute of the recent attention he is garnering.  A contract with a celebrity like McGrady is sure to put some people in their grandstands, even if he turns to be only a “one-time wonder.”


However, there is indeed a precedent for athletes playing in both the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, even some at the same time.  There have been twelve instances of such two-sport athletes.


Most of these occurred in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when salaries of the average athlete playing professional basketball or baseball alone were frequently not enough to support a family.  More often than not, these players had to seek off-season employment in professions like education, sales, or construction.  For a few gifted athletes, a second professional sport was just another job.  It probably beat selling cars or hanging wallpaper during the sport’s off-season.


One of the first professional athletes to compete in both sports was Frankie Baumholtz.  After playing in the inaugural season in what was eventually to become the NBA in 1946, he switched to baseball, where he played ten seasons in the majors compiling a career batting average of .290.


A name perhaps more recognizable to most people is Chuck Connors.  He is best known as the star of the TV series “The Rifleman”, which originally aired from 1958 to 1963, and now airs as re-runs on nostalgia TV channels.  In fact, he was a two-sport professional athlete before his career in TV and movies.  Like Baumholtz, Connors appeared in the first season of the league which was the forerunner of the NBA in 1946, with the newly formed Boston Celtics team.  However, he only played in only two seasons with the Celtics before turning his full-time attention to baseball.  Simultaneous with playing basketball, he had been playing in baseball’s minor league organization of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He made his major league debut with the Dodgers in 1949, but appeared in only one game for them, before being traded to the Chicago Cubs.  With the Cubs in 1951, he played 66 games as a left-handed first baseman and pinch-hitter.  After spending the 1952 season in the Cubs minor league system, he ended his athletic career altogether and pursued his acting career.


Six-foot, eight-inch Gene Conley was the first two-sport player to achieve a level of notoriety in both professional basketball and baseball.  In 1952, he had brief stay with the Boston Braves and also played forward for the Boston Celtics.  In 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves, Conley finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting.  The right-hander went on to being selected to the Major League All-Star team on three occasions.   His Major League baseball career spanned eleven years and also included stints with the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, ending in 1963.  While playing baseball with the Red Sox, Conley also played basketball for the Boston Celtics and was a member of their legendary teams that included Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, and K. C. Jones.  The Celtics won three NBA Championships during Conley’s time there, including 1959, 1960, and 1961.  He played a total of six seasons in the NBA, ending in 1964.


A University of Duke basketball star, Dick Groat played one season in the NBA in 1952-1953, while he also was starting a career in Major League baseball.  He stuck with baseball and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1960 while starring at shortstop for the World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.  In 1963 he was runner-up for this award while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Groat was a five-time All-Star and compiled fourteen seasons in the big leagues, ending in 1967.


Dave DeBusschere was a two-sport star in college and wound up pursuing baseball and basketball simultaneously at the professional level.  However, he pitched in only 36 games for the big league Chicago White Sox during 1962 and 1963, and finished out his baseball career in the minors in 1965.  He debuted with the Detroit Pistons in the NBA in the 1962-1963 season.  At age 24, he was also the head coach for the Pistons for parts of two seasons and one full season.  He wound up playing thirteen seasons between the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks.  DeBusschere was an eight-time All-Star and won NBA titles with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973.  He retired as a player at age 33 and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.


Like DeBusschere, Ron Reed played the two sports simultaneously. In fact, he played two seasons with DeBusschere for the Pistons during the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons.  He made his Major League debut with the Atlanta Braves in 1966, where he began his baseball career as a starting pitcher.  He was selected for the National League All-Star team in 1968.  However, in 1976 with the Philadelphia Phillies, Reed switched to a relief pitcher role and finished his career in 1985 after 19 total years.  He posted a career record of 146-140 with 103 saves.  Reed had the longest baseball career of the twelve two-sport players.


Danny Ainge made his debut in Major League baseball while still in college at Brigham Young University, where he was also playing basketball.  He played parts of three seasons as an infielder with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1979 to 1981.  He was a second-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1981 and decided to give up baseball for a career in hoops.  He played fourteen seasons in the NBA with Boston, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Portland.  He was an All-Star selection for one season and helped Boston to NBA championships in 1984 and 1986.  He finished his NBA career in 1995.


The latest two-sport professional player was Mark Hendrickson.  In 1992, he was the 13th-round draft pick out of high school by the Atlanta Braves.  Instead of signing a contract, he chose to attend Washington State University, where he played both baseball and basketball.  He was drafted by Major League teams four more times while attending college, but decided on a professional basketball career after being the second-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1996.  The 6’ 9” Hendrickson played three seasons as a forward in the NBA with the 76ers, Sacramento Kings, and New Jersey Nets.  After being selected again in the MLB Draft in 1997 by the Toronto Blue Jays, he began playing minor league baseball while still active in the NBA.  He then switched full-time to baseball in 2001, when he reached the Triple-A level as a pitcher.  He made his Major League debut with the Blue Jays in 2002 and proceeded to play ten Major League seasons, split between the Blue Jays, Rays, Dodgers, Marlins, and Orioles.  He ended his baseball career in 2011 with a 58-74 record.


The remainder of the twelve players who played in both the NBA and Major Leagues include:  Steve Hamilton, Cotton Nash, Dick Ricketts, and Howie Shultz.  Though none of them reached any type of star status, they are primarily noted for their baseball careers.  Nash was a highly touted college basketball All-American at the University of Kentucky during the Adolph Rupp years.


According to Baseball-Almanac.com, baseball Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ferguson Jenkins had brief stints playing basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters.


Of course, the most noteworthy NBA player who attempted to break into Major League baseball was Michael Jordan.  After winning three consecutive NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, he turned his attention to pursuing a professional baseball career.  At age 31, Jordan played a full season in the minors in 1994 with the Birmingham Barons of the Chicago White Sox organization.  While he brought a lot of fanfare to minor league baseball, he managed to hit only .202.  He was back in the NBA for the 1994-95 season and eventually led the Bulls to three more NBA championships.


Perhaps Tracy McGrady has dreams of doing what Jordan couldn’t do—getting to baseball’s big leagues.  Although I think it’s highly doubtful McGrady will have much of a career in professional baseball, it makes for a good story, one that trivia buffs will recall for years to come.


Who Says the Braves Weren't Active in the Offseason?

When the Atlanta Braves didn’t acquire some free agents or make some trades during the winter, many baseball analysts and fans thought it was a mistake to stand pat with the team they currently have.  Even though the Braves won the National League East Division by ten games in 2013, there were some sentiments that the Braves needed to replace some key players lost to free agency and have a contingency plan for continued poor performances of a couple of other starters from last year’s team, in order to remain competitive.  However, the Braves took a decidedly different approach to the 2014 season.


During the offseason, the Braves lost one of the premier catchers in baseball, Brian McCann, to the Yankees in free agency.  They didn’t pursue the retention of two of their starting rotation pitchers, Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm.  Plus, with the disappointing performances of B. J. Upton and Dan Uggla last season, there were concerns that the Braves couldn’t afford repeat performances by these two highly priced veterans.  Since the Braves are a young team (slightly over an average age of 26 in 2013), additional veteran leadership in the clubhouse, even if filled by reserve players, would strengthen the team.


However, instead of offseason activity consisting of the usual pursuit of replacement or upgrade players through free agency or trades, the Braves chose to extend the contracts of five existing young players whom they believe will be core to their success for the coming years.  In each case, the extension has occurred before the player was eligible for free agency.  The extensions effectively lock in these key players at salaries which are projected to be considerably less than re-signing them later in free-agent bidding wars.


Braves president John Schuerholz and general manager Frank Wren are the architects of this strategy.  You may recall Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman took this approach several years ago with one of his young stars, Evan Longoria, and it has paid off for the Rays.  But to use this approach for five players at the same time makes a bold statement about the confidence the Braves management has in each of these players.  While they have achieved some level of success in their short careers, it’s probably too early to tell whether they will continue to progress, thereby bringing value on the field commensurate with their salaries in the later years of their contracts.


The Braves are making a huge commitment to its young, home-grown players and are betting their future on them.  For the Braves team, these deals are about the certainty of annual payroll and averting expensive free-agent bidding wars in the future.  For the players, it’s about a long-term guarantee at a relatively young age.


According to MLB.com, in the past three weeks, the Braves have committed close to $225 million for first baseman Freddie Freeman (eight years, $135 million), pitcher Julio Teheran (six years, $32.4 million), closer Craig Kimbrel (four years, $42  million), shortstop Andrelton Simmons (seven years, $58 million), and outfielder Jason Heyward (two years, $13.3 million).  Altogether, these five players have played only a total of twelve full seasons in the big leagues.


In only his third full big league season, 24-year-old Freddie Freeman finished fifth in the voting for National League MVP last season.  He was runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 2011.  26-year-old Craig Kimbrel has put together three of the best seasons for a closer in quite a while, and that includes the stellar career of Mariano Rivera.  He has led the National League in saves for each of these seasons, and compiled ERAs of 2.10, 1.01, and 1.21.  He was Rookie of the Year in 2011.


Last season, 24-year-old Andrelton Simmons was a Gold Glove winner in his first full year in the Major Leagues.  He hit 17 home runs, and if his overall hitting can catch up with his fielding, he figures to be one of the best shortstops in the league.  23-year-old Julio Teheran was fifth in the voting for Rookie of the Year last season, which included a 14-8 record with 170 strikeouts in 185 innings pitched.


24-year-old Jason Heyward missed over 50 games due to injury last season, but he has proven he can play at the big-league level after just his fourth season.  He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2010.  It is expected that Heyward will get another extension after this season so that he can be locked in for a longer term like his teammates.


As evidenced by these five players, the Braves have one of the top minor league systems in the big leagues.  In recent years, the results from their scouting and player development system are perhaps matched only by the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers.


So, will these off-season contract extensions help the Braves in 2014?  Not really.  The Braves didn’t add significant veteran presence and leadership.  They are counting on Evan Gattis, last year’s “feel good” story because of how he got the big leagues, to replace McCann behind the plate.  Brandon Beachy, who was injured most of 2013, and Alex Wood, another newcomer from the farm system last year, will vie for available spots in the starting rotation.  B. J. Upton and Dan Uggla can’t play any worse than they did in 2013, so any individual improvements they make should help boost the team this season.


Once again, the Braves will be looking toward their farm system to source additional regular season players.  Their Number 2 rated prospect, Christian Bethancourt, figures to be their catcher of the future, while Tommy La Stella is a highly regarded second baseman.  Both of them are likely to get a real shot sometime during the season if Gattis or Uggla should falter.


The Braves’ competition in their division should improve in 2014.  The Washington Nationals had an off-year in 2013 and figure to be in the hunt again for the division title they claimed in 2012.  The veteran Philadelphia Phillies team appears to be healthy again and should also be a stronger contender than in the past few seasons.


The New York Yankees had their “Core Four” in Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, and Posada, whom they retained for 15+ seasons as the backbone of the franchise.  Who knows?  A few years from now, we may be referring to these five Braves players as the “Core Five.”


What Derek Jeter Has Meant to the Yankees

Derek Jeter’s announcement this past week that the 2014 season would be his last was not entirely unexpected.  At 40 years of age, he’s coming off an injury season, and it remains to be seen if he can return to the Derek Jeter of 2012, a year in which many thought he might already be washed up.  Yet he delivered a 200-hit campaign.  He’s had one of the most productive careers in all of baseball, on one of the most storied franchises of all time.  On a team that has always had its share of superstars, just what has Jeter meant to the New York Yankees?


Coming out of high school, Jeter was the sixth overall pick of the June 1992 Major League Draft by the Yankees.  They had not had much of a track record with its first round picks, since Thurman Munson in 1968.  In fact, most of their first-round picks since Munson, if they even had a modest major league career, did it with other teams.  The Yankees frequently dealt away its top prospects to acquire highly sought after free agents.  Jeter certainly turned out to be the prize of the Yankees’ draft class in 1992.  Only four of the other Yankees’ fifty draft picks that year later had major league appearances.  Thus, in some respects, based on the Yankees’ draft history, Jeter may have been considered a long-shot at having a significant career with the Bronx Bombers.


At the time the Yankees signed Jeter, they had been in a twelve–year slump when it came to winning the American League pennant.  That would all change soon, as Jeter progressed rapidly through the Yankees farm system.  Combined with their previous signings of Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, the Yankees had formed the nucleus of a team that finally broke through in 1996, when they captured their first World Series title since 1978.


In the 18 seasons since Jeter became their starting shortstop in 1996, the Yankees did not have to worry about who would be at the shortstop position.  Jeter was Mr. Consistency, as he never had an injury-plagued year except for last season.  He has been a 13-time All-Star selection.  His longevity and consistent excellence on the field likely contributed to a situation where many Yankee shortstop prospects were blocked from seeing action at the major league level with the Yankees.


A prior Yankee regime featured Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, for his dramatic home runs in the World Series in 1977 and 1978. Similarly, Jeter acquired the nickname of Mr. November for his superior post-season play and World Series appearances whose final games had extended into the month of November.  Jeter was a key contributor to seven American League pennants and five World Series championships in all.  The team’s seasons from 1996 to 2003 rank among the all-time dynasties of the Yankees’ legendary history, and Jeter was at the heart of that dynasty.


As much as Jeter has excelled on the field, many say his leadership in the clubhouse has meant equally as much to the Yankees team.  In 2003, Jeter was officially named the captain of the Yankees team, their first since Don Mattingly retired in 1995.  Jeter has been the longest tenured Yankee captain, a title he has also shared with Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, and Ron Guidry.  Jeter has been the quiet type of leader, often dealing with player and team issues out of the public eye.  Consequently, he has earned the respect of his teammate, as well as his opponents.


Jeter’s career has spanned the PED era.  Like many other teams, the Yankees have been plagued with admissions and implications of PED use by some its high profile players, including Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, and most recently AlexRodriguez.  However, there has never been even a hint of Jeter’s association with PEDs.  He often denounced its use as having no place in baseball.


In a broader sense, Jeter has demonstrated class and dignity on the field, in his dealings with the press, as well as with the fans.  In an era of players making poor personal decisions in and out of uniform which have affected their careers, he has never publicly disgraced himself or the Yankees.  You never saw Jeter put himself above the team in a TV or newspaper interview.  He always upheld the Yankee traditions and has been an ambassador for the game in general.  Jeter’s personal situation accounts for one of the reasons why he has been the face of the Yankees and, many would say, the face of Major League Baseball during a troubling period for the game.  It’s now wonder why Jeter has appeared on countless baseball cards and magazine covers over the years.


Jeter will go down as one of the all-time Yankee greats.  A few years ago, ESPN New York produced a list of the 50 Greatest Yankees of all time.  Jeter was number 7 on the list, with only Berra, Rivera, Mantle, DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Ruth considered better.


There is a revealing story about one person’s prediction for Jeter’s career.  Then Yankees manager Buck Showalter, when asked what uniform number to assign rookie Jeter, instructed the equipment manager to give him Number 2.  Since the low numbers are generally reserved for Yankee star players, the equipment manager challenged the decision.  However, Showalter re-affirmed his conviction that he thought Jeter would eventually be well-deserving of this honor.  Twenty years later, it’s a certainty no Yankee will wear uniform Number 2 again.


I expect Jeter will get a similar send-off to retirement as former teammate Mariano Rivera did last year, including the heart-felt tributes from all the opposing teams and for his final game at Yankee Stadium.  It should make for an exciting year, especially if Jeter can rebound from last year’s injury and help the Yankees get back to the playoffs.  I personally will be looking forward to this season, to seeing Jeter’s classic inside-out swing that delivered many a clutch hit to right field.


Bullinger Brothers Are In a Rare Class

Brothers Jim and Kirk Bullinger grew up in the New Orleans area playing baseball at multiple levels and wound up realizing every boy’s dream of one day playing professional sports.  Since there have been approximately 18,000 Major League players in its 142 year history, the odds of a boy making the Major Leagues are pretty slim.  When brothers make it, the odds are even lower.  In fact, it turns out the Bullingers are two of approximately 800 players who had brothers that also played in the Major Leagues during those 142 years.  Additionally, by my count, they are among only 77 New Orleans area high school players who reached the Majors.


Both of the Bullingers had long professional baseball careers.  While they got a chance to play in Major League All-Star or World Series games, they each had their moments of fame in the big leagues and were ultimately inducted into the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.  Below are brief recaps of their careers.


If you have further interest in additional New Orleans area high school players who went on to play college, were drafted, or played professionally, check out my latest compilation of over 1,000 players in a document at http://thetenthinning.com/articles.html.  The players’ hometown, high school team, college team, pro draft details, minor league years, and major league years are identified, along with other biographical notes.  You might find a relative or former classmate in the list.


 

Jim Bullinger


Jim graduated from Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, LA, where he was an All-District player in 1982 and 1983.  He attended the University of New Orleans for three seasons, where he played shortstop for Coach Ron Maestri.  As a freshman, he was a member of the Privateers team that went to the College World Series in 1984.


Jim was drafted in the 9th round of the 1986 Major League Draft by the Chicago Cubs.


He spent his first four minor league seasons as a shortstop, but after struggling offensively, he converted to pitching in the 1989 fall Arizona Instructional League.  In 1990, he started 23 games between the Single-A and Double-A levels, posting a 10-10 won-lost record.  In 1991, he was 12-13, including starts in Triple-A.


After starting the 1992 season in Triple-A with 14 saves, Jim earned a promotion to the Cubs.  His first Major League season was full of memorable highlights.  He made his major league debut on May 27.    In just his third week in the Majors, he was named the National League Player of the Week for June8-14, when he recorded his first four saves in five outings.  He hit a home run in his first major league at-bat on June 8, only the third Cub to accomplish this feat, and the tenth pitcher in Major League history.  On August 30 at Wrigley Field, he pitched a one-hit complete game against the San Francisco Giants in just his third major league game as a starting pitcher.  He allowed a solo home run to Kirt Manwaring in the top of the 8th inning.


Jim spent most of the 1993 season back at Triple-A Iowa.  As a reliever, helped them win the American Association title and was named the MVP of the championship series.  Over the next three seasons with the Cubs he split his time between starting and relief roles.  In 24 games started in 1995, he won a career-high 12 games.


Jim was granted free agency by the Cubs after the 1996 season; he then played the 1997 season with Montreal Expos and had a short stint with the Seattle Mariners in 1998, his last in the Majors.  He continued to play professionally until 2005, with most of his seasons in independent baseball leagues.


During his seven-year Major League career, Jim posted a 34-41 record, 11 saves, and 5.06 ERA in 186 games.  All total, he played in 17 professional seasons.  He was inducted into the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013.


 

Kirk Bullinger


Kirk graduated in 1987 from Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, LA.  As the starting shortstop in his senior season, he helped Rummel win the Class 4A state championship.  Kirk started his college career at the University of New Orleans in 1988.  He lettered there in 1989, but then transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University.  In 1992, he was 10-4 with a 3.18 ERA for the Lions.  He was named the MVP of the Trans America Athletic Conference post-season tournament and gained a victory in the NCAA West Regionals.


Kirk was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 32nd round of the 1992 Major League Draft.  His first three seasons in the Cardinals’ organization were characterized by low ERA and WHIP as a relief pitcher.


On April 5, 1995, he was one of three young Cardinals pitchers sent to the Montreal Expos as part of a trade that sent veteran pitcher Ken Hill to St. Louis.


Kirk made his major league debut with the Montreal Expos on August 30, 1998, when he recorded the first of his only two major league wins.  On September 26, he surrendered home run No. 68 to slugger Mark McGwire, when McGwire went on his historic run to break Roger Maris’ home run record with 70.


Kirk had short major league stints with the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies before latching on with the Houston Astros organization as a free agent in December 2001.  He returned to his New Orleans roots and pitched for the New Orleans Zephyrs, Triple-A affiliate of the Astros, from 2002 to 2004, which included seasons with 20 and 14 saves.  Upon the 20th anniversary of the Zephyrs, Kirk was named one of the top 20 players in the minor league franchise’s history.  His most extensive major league season occurred in 2004 with the Astros, when he appeared in 27 games as a reliever.


In 2005 at age 35, Kirk ended his career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.  His professional career spanned 14 seasons.  Over his five Major League seasons, he appeared in 49 games, all in relief.  He compiled a 2-0 won-lost record, recorded one save and posted a 6.53 ERA.


Kirk maintained his New Orleans ties by securing a position with UNO as pitching coach in 2007 through 2009.  He was named the baseball head coach for Archbishop Shaw High School in 2013.  Kirk was inducted into the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009.


Rivera: The Best in a Long Line of Proficient Yankee Relievers

With Mariano Rivera’s historic ride off into the sunset at the end of last season, the New York Yankees will have a new closer this season for the first time in 19 years.  During Mo’s long tenure as the stopper, the Yankees had the luxury of not having to worry during spring training about who would fill this role.  With the exception of the 2012 season when Rivera suffered a season-ending knee injury in May, Rivera has been the one constant on the roster they could always count on.  His place in the Hall of Fame certainly secured, he comes from a long line of Yankee relievers who were key components of many of their championship seasons.


So what will the Yankees do that Rivera has retired?  Over the past several years, there has been much speculation that David Robertson, Yankees middle relief pitcher, was being groomed as Rivera’s replacement.  A former University of Alabama pitcher, Robertson had been Mariano’s primary setup man since 2008.  A very effective one at that.  The 28-year-old right-hander has averaged 68 relief appearances per season, with a 2.76 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per inning pitched.


Hedging their bets on Robertson, the Yankees signed closer Rafael Soriano for the 2011 season, although he wasn’t used in that role, in deference to Rivera.  Then, when Rivera was injured in 2012, Manager Joe Girardi’s original intention was that Robertson and Soriano would share the closer’s role in Rivera’s absence.  However, Robertson went on the disabled list himself from mid-May to mid-June, and Soriano secured the role permanently for the balance of the season.  But Soriano was let go by the Yankees at the end of 2012.


There’s still a lingering question about whether Robertson can effectively transition to the pressure-filled closer role, since the closer’s mentality and approach is somewhat different from the setup role.  During the off-season, the Yankees passed on veteran free agent closers Brian Wilson, Joe Nathan, and Grant Balfour, leaving Robertson the leading candidate on the team’s depth chart for 2014.


Rivera was not only the best-ever reliever for the Yankees; he was the best all-time in the history of the game.  Nevertheless, let’s take a look back at some of the exceptional Yankee relief pitchers that came before him.


Most people associate the great Yankee teams with big bats.  They think of monikers like Bronx Bombers, Murderer’s Row, the M&M Boys, and Mr. October.  Those teams’ starting pitchers weren’t too shabby either, with hurlers like Hoyt, Pennock, Gomez, Reynolds, Lopat, Raschi, Ford, Guidry, and Pettitte toeing the rubber.  


What we don’t generally connect with these dynastic teams are the relief pitchers. In fact, in the 40 years the Yankees have won American League pennants, a Yankee pitcher has led the league in saves 19 times.


In the early days of baseball, there was no such thing as a relief specialist.  That didn’t come about until the mid-1930s.  Starters were expected to pitch complete games and often did.  Whenever a starting pitcher exited a game early, another starter would come in.  Thus, for the first set of Yankee championship seasons in the 1920s, Yankee starting pitchers Carl Mays, Sam Jones, Wilcy Moore and Waite Hoyt also led the American League in saves.  But keep in mind, a saves leader in those days generally had less than ten.


In 1935, 32-year-old Pat Malone was made the Yankees relief pitcher, after having won 20 games twice with the Chicago Cubs.  When the Yankees won the 1936 pennant, all but nine of his 35 appearances were in a reliever role.  He won 12 games and led the league with 9 saves.


At the same time Malone was primarily pitching out of the bullpen for the Yankees, Johnny Murphy came along and was also employed as a relief specialist.  Murphy was the first Yankee relief pitcher who had a noteworthy career in that role.  From 1937 to 1943, he was the “go-to” guy with the game on the line in the late innings.  He won four American League saves titles in years the Yankees won league championships (1938, 1939, 1941, and 1942).  However, World War II would interrupt his career.  Then, 41-year-old Jim Turner served as the primary reliever in 1945 and led the American League in saves.


Joe Page was the next Yankee reliever to receive acclaim for his performance as a reliever.  Despite his occasional fits of wildness, he was the main guy in the Yankees bullpen from 1947 to 1950.  The Yankees won championships in 1947 and 1949, with Page leading the American League in saves with 17 and 27, respectively.  Page’s record of 27 saves (later tied by Ellis Kinder of the Red Sox in 1953) was the most by an American League pitcher until 1961.


When Page blew out his arm after 1950, Yankees Manager Casey Stengel resorted to the old-style bullpen when starters often doubled as relievers.  Allie Reynolds was used in this manner from 1951 to 1954.  Ditto for Johnny Sain in 1952 and 1953.  However, when switched to a full-time reliever in 1954, Sain led the league in saves with 22, although the Yankees finished second to the Cleveland Indians.  Bob Grim, who had won 20 games for the Yankees as a starter in his rookie season in 1954, led the league in saves in 1957 after he was switched to a relief role.  The Yankees won the pennant that year. 


When the Yankees won the league championship in 1958, Ryne Duren was the American League saves leader with 20.  Even with these league leaders on Stengel’s staff during the 1950s, it was not uncommon for front-line starters like Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Bob Turley, and Tom Sturdivant to also pitch out of the bullpen.


Screwball specialist Luis Arroyo led the American League in saves with 29 in 1961, a year in which the Yankees lost only 53 games and captured the pennant.  It would be another 11 years before the Yankees would field another league leader in saves.


The Yankees acquired Sparky Lyle from the Boston Red Sox; he paid immediate dividends by leading the American League in saves in 1972, but the Yankees finished in fourth place in their division.  However, when the Yanks won the pennant in 1976, Lyle was again the league leader.  He also claimed the Cy Young Award in 1977.


Fire-baller Goose Gossage, acquired from Pittsburgh, supplanted Lyle as the Yankees closer in 1978.  He was a key contributor to the Yankees championship team that year, leading the league with 27 saves.  He also led the league in saves in 1980, but the Yankees could not get past Kansas City in the ALCS.


Left-hander Dave Righetti was American League Rookie of the Year as a starting pitcher in 1981, but three years later was transitioned to a full-time reliever by the Yankees.  For seven seasons, Righetti was among the top closers in the American League.  He led the American League in saves in 1986, but the Yankees did not win a pennant during his tenure.


In his second season with the Yankees, closer John Wetteland was a key factor in the Yankees’ return to the World Series in 1996, their first in 15 years.  He led the league in saves with 43 and was named the MVP in the Yankees’ World Series win over the Atlanta Braves.  Wetteland’s setup man in the bullpen in 1996 was Mariano Rivera.  Rivera’s performance was convincing enough to allow the Yankees to release Wetteland to free agency after his spectacular season, and Rivera succeeded him as closer in 1997.


Among his many career records, Rivera contributed three seasons as the saves leader in the American League, two of which occurred in years the Yankees won the league championship (1999 and 2001).


Of course, it remains to be seen if David Robertson will be a capable successor in this long history of former Yankee closers.  He’s been able to observe first-hand the premier closer in the game, Rivera, for the past six seasons, so it’s likely he’s picked up few valuable tips along the way.


Yankees Sign Tanaka, Import of the Year

Masahiro Tanaka will be wearing Yankee pinstripes during spring training in a few weeks, as a result of accepting New York’s offer of $155 million over seven years.  In a move of desperation, the Yankees put aside any lingering thoughts about containing team salaries for now and out-maneuvered Tanaka’s other final suitors, which reportedly included the Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, and Diamondbacks.  The Yankees are hoping Tanaka will help them get back to the World Series, although they’ve had mixed results with previous Asian pitchers over the years.


The 25-year- old Tanaka is the latest edition of “phenom” pitchers to emerge from the Far East.  He posted a 24-0 won-lost record with a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings last season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.  The right-hander gained notoriety last season when he threw 161 pitches in a Japanese championship series game, and then also threw out of the bullpen the next day.  He’s been among the top pitchers in Japan for the past three seasons.


Prior to Tanaka, Yu Darvish, currently the ace of the Texas Rangers staff, was the most recent highly sought-after Asian pitcher by Major League Baseball clubs.  He inked a lucrative deal with the Rangers before the 2012 season, and he’s paid huge dividends over his two seasons with a 29-18 record, 3.34 ERA and 498 strikeouts.  He was the American League Cy Young Award runner-up last season.


Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka signed an historic contract with the Boston Red Sox before the 2007 season, which required a $51 million posting fee by the Red Sox.  He rewarded the Red Sox by helping them win the World Series in his first season with them, and then he followed that with an 18-3 record the next season.


Sandwiched in between head-liners Matsuzaka and Darvish have been several other Asian pitchers to migrate to the USA, although not with the same hoopla that came with the bidding wars among big league clubs.  Chin-Mieng Wang, Huroki Kuroda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara are a few of the more noteworthy examples who were pitching in the majors in 2013.


The Yankees franchise has lost some of their luster over the past few seasons.  They didn’t make the playoffs in 2013, their first absence since 2008.  While they did reach the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, they were solidly thumped by the Detroit Tigers in both years.  Yankee fans are impatient when it comes to not winning World Series.  Recently, this has been reflected by declining attendance at Yankee Stadium and lower TV ratings.  During this past off-season, they lost their best player, Robinson Cano, to Seattle through free agency.  The Yankees were desperate to return to prominence, even if it meant buying their way back.  After all, that’s been their history since current owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner’s father, George, first owned the franchise in 1973.


The Yankees have done a decent job compensating for the loss of Cano, by signing top free agents Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran.  However, they were still missing a key cog—a front-line starting pitcher-- needed to solidify their chances to return as a playoff contender in 2014.  Veteran Andy Pettitte retired after the 2013 season; and the Yankees gave up on one-time 18-game winner Phil Hughes, who logged the worst season of his career last year.


That left the Yankees with CC Sabathia and Huroki Kuroda, both of whom essentially ran out of gas toward the end of last season; four-year veteran Ivan Nova; and a handful of unproven hurlers.  They were frantic to acquire a Number 1 or Number 2 pitcher in the rotation, but none of the available pitchers in free agency (Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Johan Santana) were assessed as being able to fill the bill.  That’s why the Yankees pulled out all of the stops to acquire Tanaka.  Despite some strong competition from the deep-pocket Dodgers and equally pitching-desperate Cubs, the Yankees were not going to be outbid.  They are counting on an immediate investment in Tanaka yielding an immediate return in 2014.


Are the Yankees taking a big gamble with Tanaka?  Most scouting reports by major league suitors revealed he is the real deal, and his skills will translate well in the Major Leagues.  Reportedly, he has a good variety of pitches in his arsenal, although not as many as the successful Darvish.  Tanaka’s split-fingered fastball was called “the best I’ve ever seen” by one Major League GM.  Sure, there will be a transition from the Japanese League to Major League Baseball.  Japanese pitchers generally pitch only once a week, versus every five days in the US.  The strike zone and the baseball are different in Japan.  Japanese hitters generally don’t have as much power as American batters.  However, the better Japanese pitchers have successfully made the transition before.


The Yankees have some history with pitchers from Asian baseball leagues, going back to the 1996 signing of a young pitcher from the Japanese League, Katsuhiro Maeda.  He toiled in the Yankee farm system for five years before the Yankees gave up on him.


In 1997 veteran Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu received highly publicized national attention when the San Diego Padres purchased his contract from his Japanese team.  However, he refused to sign, saying he would only play for the Yankees.  The controversy surrounding his acquisition led to the current posting system which allows American teams to compete for Japanese pitchers, with pre-defined compensation going to the Japanese clubs.


The Yankees took the bait and did trade for the rights to sign Irabu.  After only a handful of minor league games, the Yankees anxiously thrust him into their starting rotation.  However, his pitching was only mediocre in two and one-half seasons with the Yankees.  He posted a 29-20 record for some very good Yankee teams, but had a bloated 4.80 ERA and didn’t often pitch deep into his games.  As evidence of the lack of confidence in him, the Yankees used him in only one playoff game during his three seasons, two of which the Yankees won the World Series.


The Yankees signed 20-year-old Taiwanese pitcher Chien-Ming Wang as a free agent in 2000.  They brought him along slowly until he made his major league debut in 2005.  The Yankees thought they had finally discovered gold in the Orient with Wang.  The right-hander posted three solid seasons, including two 19-win campaigns in 2006 and 2007.  At the top of the Yankees rotation at the beginning of 2008, Wang started off with another set of stellar performances, reaching his 50th career win (after 85 starts) earlier than any Yankee pitcher since Ron Guidry.  However, in mid-June Wang tore a ligament in his right foot while running as a batter in an interleague game, and his season was finished.  He attempted a short comeback in 2009, but was unable to return his former level of play.  Convinced his career was finished, the Yankees released him to free agency after that season.


The Yankees, who had been outbid by the Red Sox for Matusaka in November 2006, signed Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa in a reactionary move.  Igawa turned out to be a major disappointment, as he only made 16 major league appearances in five seasons in the Yankees organization.  That deal cost the Yankees $20 million over five seasons, not counting the $21 million they paid for the Japanese posting fee.


So, which type of pitcher will the Yankees get in Tanaka?  Yu Darvish or Kei Igawa, or someone in between?  Yankee fans are hoping for another Darvish.  The rest of the teams in the American League are hoping for another Igawa.  I suspect the Yankees would be satisfied with another healthy Chien-Ming Wang or younger version of Huroki Kuroda.


Tanaka will don Pinstripe uniform number 19, previously worn by some pretty good Yankee hurlers of the past, Dave Righetti and Bob Turley.  If Tanaka follows in their footsteps, that would be a pretty good outcome, too.


Are Kershaw's Best Years Ahead?

It was somewhat ironic that within a week of each other we saw Major League Baseball drop the hammer on Alex Rodriguez and Clayton Kershaw rewarded with the richest contract in history for a Major League pitcher.  They are both products of record-breaking financial deals for their superior baseball talents, but they are polar opposites in terms of personal makeup and character.  A-Rod’s career is all but done, but have we seen the best of Kershaw yet?


Kershaw’s new seven-year, $215 million dollar contract at age 26 is certainly reminiscent of A-Rod’s contract in 2000, when at age 25 Rodriguez inked a ten-year, $252 million dollar contract.  By age 20, they were both regulars in the big leagues with huge upsides.  In the last three seasons, Kershaw has pitched like a grizzled veteran with the Los Angeles Dodgers—he’s won two Cy Young Awards (oh, by the way, was runner-up for the third year), three consecutive ERA titles, two strikeout titles, and three WHIP titles.  Only a few Major League pitchers have come anywhere close to those accomplishments in their entire 15 to 18-year careers!


This offseason has seen several large deals where players are thought to have been overpaid by team owners in order to attract the talent to rejuvenate their franchises.  Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann are a few examples.  Is Kershaw just another in this era of deep pockets?  Perhaps.


However, consider that the Los Angeles Dodgers did with Kershaw what the St. Louis Cardinals (with Albert Pujols) and the New York Yankees (with Cano) would not—the Dodgers demonstrated a long-term commitment to their best player and their franchise.  Entering the prime years of his career, Kershaw will be the anchor of the Dodgers’ rotation for years to come.  Furthermore, in his short tenure, he has earned the honor of “face of the franchise” for the Dodgers.  Unlike a lot of superstars, he’s overly accessible to the media and fans; hence, his popularity is off the charts.  Sure, the new ownership of the Dodgers has supplanted the Yankees’ as having the deepest pockets in baseball and can afford to overpay, but I believe they made a good business decision, as well as a good baseball decision.  The Dodgers are seeking an immediate return to prominence in baseball, and they see Kershaw’s signing as key factor in getting there.


Of course, Kershaw’s early career has drawn a comparison to former Dodger pitching great, Sandy Koufax.  Koufax debuted in the majors at age 19, but it took him until age 25 before he started putting up “Hall of Fame” credentials.  Starting in 1961, his seventh season in the big leagues, he proceeded to post three Cy Young Award titles, four strikeout titles, and five consecutive ERA titles over six seasons—likely the best stretch of pitching performance in baseball history.  However, by age 30, Koufax’s career was over; his arm was worn out.


You don’t hear much rumbling from baseball players, executives, the media, or the fans about Kershaw getting too much money from this latest contract.  It’s a testament to his perceived value on the field to the Dodgers, as well as the personal respect he gets from his peers.


Part of that respect garnered by Kershaw comes from his personal traits.  I saw an interview with him where he said it was disrespectful of Sandy Koufax for sports writers and baseball analysts to put him in the same category as the legendary Koufax.  Kershaw comes across as having a deep respect for the game.  Some of his peers would be well-served to demonstrate that kind of humility.  Certainly, Rodriguez could have used a few doses of humility, versus PEDs, during his career.


In a similar vein, Kershaw has been acknowledged for his volunteer and philanthropic activities.  He established an organization, Kershaw’s Challenge, whose slogans include “using whatever you have been blessed with—talent, passion, or purpose—to give back to others.” He and his wife have been the sponsors for building and maintaining an orphanage in East Africa.  In fact, one of his remarks upon signing this latest lucrative contract was that they would now have significant additional resources to apply to his “Challenge” causes.  In 2012, he received the Roberto Clemente Award, which is given to the Major League player “who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”


Can Kershaw avoid the same flameout as Koufax at age 30?  Kershaw’s devastating fastball and curveball have been likened to Koufax’s.  While Kershaw has already pitched 1,180 innings in five seasons, his workload has not been in the same realm as Koufax’s days when 300+ innings per season for a starter were not uncommon.  In today’s game, 220 innings pitched during the regular season are pretty much the norm for a front-line starter, especially when considering the use of five-man rotations and today’s heavy reliance on middle relief pitchers.


Kershaw has demonstrated a high level of consistency in his performance over his past three seasons.  One would like to think he can maintain his current domination during most of the seven years of this new contract, which will encompass the usual peak years (age 26 to 30) of a big league pitcher.  But then we are reminded of hurlers like Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito whose arms didn’t last after meteoric starts to their careers.  However, if Kershaw leads the Dodgers to a couple of World Series titles during this timeframe, his own legendary status will be cemented.


In a time when Alex Rodriguez’s character reflects poorly on the game of baseball, it is refreshing to have players like Clayton Kershaw come along; even if you don’t think he’s worth $30M a year or you don’t pull for the Dodgers.

 


Did You Know?

Getting anxious for the new Major League Baseball season to start?  To help tide you over, here’s a random set of notes based on events in baseball within the past few weeks.


Major League pitchers could be wearing protective headgear starting this season to help prevent injury from batted balls.  Brandon McCarthy and Alex Cobb are two recent examples of pitchers suffering serious head injuries from being hit on the mound.


Mark Mulder, who last pitched in the Majors in 2008, will be attempting a comeback this season.  The 36-year-old signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels that would pay him $1M if makes the 25-man roster.  He has been a baseball analyst with ESPN.


Former LSU alum, Ryan Theriot, officially announced his retirement from Major League Baseball this month, after sitting out the 2013 season.  His eight big league seasons include two World Series Championships including one with St. Louis in 2011 and one with San Francisco in 2012.


Ed Lucas finally made his Major League debut at age 31 in 2013 with the Miami Marlins.  His ten seasons in the minors included time with the New Orleans Zephyrs last season.  A total of 230 players made their big league debuts in 2013.


Prior to this past week’s election of Tom Glavine, Mike Maddux, and Frank Thomas to the Hall of Fame, the last time three members were elected by the Baseball Writers Association in the same year was 1991, when Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount, and George Brett were elected.


The last time two 300-game winners were inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same year was 1973, when Warren Spahn (1942-1965) and Mickey Welch (1880-1892) were enshrined.


Rafael Palmeiro will fall off of the Hall of Fame ballot next year since he did not receive the required minimum 5% of the votes this year.  He posted career numbers of 3,020 hits, 569 home runs, 1,835 RBI, and .288 batting average.  He won the American League Gold Glove Award for first-basemen in 1999 even though he started only 28 games at that position.


The Baseball Writers Association revoked Miami sportswriter Dan Le Batard’s membership for one year, as a result of his turning over his ballot to baseball website Deadspin, which conducted a fan poll to determine which players would receive Le Batard’s votes.  Keith Olbermann reported this week that the current Vice President of the BBWAA, Jose DeJesus Ortiz, has publicly admitted in the past to using “crowd-sourcing” to fill out his ballot.  Is there a double standard here?


Masahiro Tanaka is the latest Japanese phenom pitcher to pursue Major League Baseball.  The posting fee set by his Japanese owner is $20M.  In November 2006, the Boston Red Sox won the rights to Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka with a posting fee of $51M.  The first ever Japanese player in the big leagues was Masanori Murakami who played for the San Francisco Giants in 1964.  The Giants bought Murakami’s contract for $10,000.


With Alex Rodriguez’s confirmed suspension for the entire 2014 season by Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees will have a rare opportunity to get under the $189M luxury tax ceiling. or they can enhance their chances to sign Japanese pitcher Tanaka.  The Yankees will not have to pay A-Rod’s 2014 salary of$25M.  His salary for the balance of his contract, 2015-2017, will be $61M.  What are the chances A-Rod will go to Japan to play baseball?


Former Yankee player and San Diego Padres broadcaster, Jerry Coleman, died this past week.  He is the only MLB player to survive combat in both World War II and the Korean War.  The Marine flew 120 missions between the two campaigns.


The first Spring Training game in the Grapefruit League is February 25 and February 26 in the Cactus League.

Yankees Love Red Sox Discards

Jacoby Ellsbury’s decision to bolt from Boston sent Red Sox Nation fans reeling.  How could a key cog in their two most recent World Championships defect to the Evil Empire?  If he had to leave, why didn’t he go some team other than the hated Yankees?  Why not somewhere harmless like Seattle or the New York Mets?


At seven-years and $153 million, the 30-year-old Ellsbury signed a deal with the Yankees, which is the third richest in history by an outfielder (following only Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp).  The New York Daily News dubbed the Yanks’ new acquisition the “Ellsbury Dough Boy.”  You can hardly blame Ellsbury for jumping at that deal.  Plus, he gets to play for the contending Yankees, not the struggling Mets or Mariners.  If there is any consolation for the Red Sox, the Yankees overpaid to get Ellsbury, in their attempt to re-stock the team with some immediate impact players.


More than a few baseball analysts have argued that Ellsbury will not add considerably more production than current Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner, who made just under $3 million in 2013.  Furthermore, the injury-prone Ellsbury played in only 59% of the Red Sox games over the past four years.  However, the Yankees are betting that Ellsbury will take increase his home run totals by taking advantage of the relatively short right field fence at Yankee Stadium and post near-MVP seasons as he did in 2011.


Of course, Ellsbury is not the first Red Sox player to take a hike to the Bronx.  His decision to leave immediately evoked ever-stinging memories of Johnny Damon by angry Red Sox fans.  In a similar situation, Damon left the Red Sox only one year after their 2004 World Championship season to join the hated Yankee rivals.  At that time, Red Sox fans bemoaned the loss of Damon, as they rightfully should have.  He was a similar type of impact player as Ellsbury, as he helped the Yankees win two division titles and a World Series championship in the four seasons he played for them.  The Red Sox managed to win only one division title during that same timeframe.  It turned out the Yankees made a good decision by getting the retread Damon.


If you go back twenty years ago, there was another similar defection from the Red Sox to the Yankees that involved a high-profile player.  After eleven years with the Red Sox, Wade Boggs signed as a free agent with the Yankees for the 1993 season.  Unlike Damon and Ellsbury, Boggs, at age 35, was already on the down-side of his career, having previously claimed five American League batting titles from 1983 to 1988.  However, the hitting machine Boggs helped to propel the resurgence of the Yankees by contributing significantly to their World Series title in 1996, a goal he had not achieved with the Red Sox.


Pitcher Sparky Lyle began his big league career with the Boston Red Sox in 1967.  Within three years he had become their regular closer.  However, after the 1971 season, the Red Sox traded him to the New York Yankees for outfielder Danny Cater.  Lyle would go on to help the Yankees regain prominence in the American League.  He led the American League in saves in 1972 and again in 1976 when the Yankees reached the World Series.  In 1977 Lyle was a huge factor in the Yankees winning their first World Series in 13 years, as he won the American League Cy Young Award.  The Yankees repeated as World Champions in 1978, when Lyle shared the closer role with Goose Gossage.  Much to the chagrin of the Red Sox, Lyle’s acquisition by New York was one of their most gratifying in Yankee history.


However, by any measure, the best acquisition by the Yankees, and probably by any club in Major League history, was the purchase of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox after the 1919 season.  This is a well-chronicled story, but the historical significance of this transaction is that the Yankees, with Ruth, proceeded to become the most feared dynasty in baseball, and it began a period of 85 years of frustration by the Red Sox who were void of a World Series championship ring—hence, the origin of the “curse of the Bambino.”


Furthermore, in the two years following the Ruth acquisition, the Yankees struck two more deals with the Red Sox that further stocked their teams with players who also contributed to the Yankee dynasty with Ruth.  Waite Hoyte, Harry Harper, and Wally Schang were sent by the Red Sox in December 1920 for four Yankee players.  And then the following December, Everett Scott, Joe Bush, and Sad Sam Jones were traded to the Yankees for four players.


In all these cases, the Yankees capitalized on the acquisition of the Red Sox discarded players.  The change in scenery for these players brought championships to the Yankees.  Now the Yankees are hoping for the same outcome from Ellsbury, a return to the World Series.


Mike Trout Nixed Any Possibility of Sophomore Jinx

Do you remember “Super Joe” Charboneau?  1980 American League Rookie of the Year.  Great-sounding name.   Most popular player in Cleveland since Rocky Colavito.  For one season, he had everything, but then became the poster boy for sophomore jinx seasons.


This past season Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout avoided the fate of Super Joe.  In fact, he made a strong case for being named the American League MVP, an honor that also eluded him in 2012, when he couldn’t overcome the Baseball Writers Association’s selection of Miguel Cabrera.  After all, Cabrera had just achieved the first Triple Crown in 35 seasons.


Like Charboneau, Trout was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2012. Sabermetricians thought he had put together one of the best seasons ever as an MVP candidate, with his combination of hitting, power, speed, and defense—even better than a Triple Crown season. 


Trout’s 2013 sophomore season was just as impressive.  However, he finished second again to Cabrera for the coveted MVP Award.  The fact that Cabrera brought all the intangibles, in addition to league-leading offensive numbers, while also playing for a pennant-contending team likely factored into the baseball writers’ thinking.  However, in only two seasons, Trout has become the poster boy for the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) advanced metric.  But it’s not winning him MVP awards just yet.


Charboneau had been a long shot to make the majors in the first place, having quit for a time after his only his second minor league season.  Once in the big leagues, he enhanced his popularity with his flaky antics off the field (such as opening beer bottles with his eye socket).  However, he faded away from the baseball world after he slumped in his second major league season.  The sophomore jinx had taken effect, and he was out of baseball entirely by 1984.


Another flaky player, Mark Fidrych, had a similar career outcome as Charboneau.  Nicknamed “the Bird” for his strikingly wide-eyed resemblance to the popular Sesame Street character, “Big Bird,” the pitcher took the nation by storm in his rookie season in 1976.  His antics included giving the baseballs a pep talk before throwing them to batters.  Even though he didn’t make his first start with the Detroit Tigers until May 1, he started the All-Star game and was named the American League Rookie of the Year with his 19-9 record and league-leading 2.34 ERA.  However, an arm injury the next season jinxed his ascent to long-lived stardom, and he wound up pitching in only 27 more games over the next four seasons.


Sam Bowens wasn’t a Rookie of the Year Award winner, but he posted a solid rookie season in 1964 with the Baltimore Orioles.  The outfielder managed to hit 22 home runs, 25 doubles and 71 RBI for an Orioles team that was on the verge of becoming a perennial playoff team.  However, Bowens flopped after that season, as his batting average dropped 100 points to .163 in 1965.  He never regained his 1964 form.


Walt Dropo burst onto the Boston Red Sox scene in 1950 as a rookie, when he hit 34 home runs and 144 RBI while batting .322, numbers which propelled him to an American League Rookie of the Year selection.  It looked like Boston might have another Ted Williams in their lineup, but the sophomore jinx got the best of Dropo in 1951.  His numbers included a disappointing 11 home runs, 57 RBI and .239 average.  Unlike Charboneau and Bowens, however, Dropo managed to resurrect his career after the fall-off in his second season.  He went on to play in the big leagues for ten more years, although never at the level of his stellar rookie season.


Two other players who rebounded from their sophomore slump seasons were Gary Carter and Rick Sutcliffe.


Carter had been the runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 1975 with the Montreal Expos.  However, in 1976 his production fell off dramatically, when he could not regain his form following an early season thumb injury.  Carter rallied in 1977 by hitting 31 home runs and 84 RBI to go along with a .285 batting average.  He eventually became an 11-time All-Star, World Series winner with the Mets, and Hall of Fame catcher.


Sutcliffe won 17 games in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1979, leading a starting rotation that also included veterans Don Sutton, Burt Hooton, Jerry Reuss, and Andy Messersmith.  For his efforts Sutcliffe was named the National League Rookie of the Year.  But then in his first six starts of 1980, he struggled with getting batters out. His ERA was over 8.00, when the Dodgers finally moved him to the bullpen to work out the kinks.  Sutcliffe’s pitching woes continued such that the Dodgers traded him to the Indians after the 1981 season.  With Cleveland in 1982, Sutcliffe figured out his problems and led the American League in ERA as a starting pitcher again.  His career stats included 171 wins games in his 18-year career.


Jim Nash, Harlin Pool, Roscoe Miller, Sam Mele, Bernie Carbo, and Geovany Soto are a few other Major League players who were impacted by the sophomore jinx.


Mike Trout squelched any thoughts in 2013 that his rookie season might be a fluke.  His major league start has been comparable to some of the best all-time in baseball.  I know it’s too early to predict after only two seasons, but his career as an impact player appears to be on a track to greatness.  Let’s hope he’s able to stay healthy and play for a contending team.


Do you have a favorite recollection about a player who suffered from the sophomore jinx?


First Family of New Orleans Baseball

Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning are often referred to as the “first family of football,” with the father and his two sons each having significant careers in the National Football League.  Another New Orleans-based family, the Gilberts, can make a case for being the “first family of New Orleans baseball.”  However, unless you were a baseball fan of the first half of the 20th century, you may not know about them.  Larry Gilbert and his two sons, Tookie and Charlie, were each major leaguers, with the father also having a significant minor league playing and managerial career.


 Larry Gilbert

At the age of five, Larry’s right foot was caught in the wheel of an ox cart and was so badly torn that doctors wanted to amputate.  His mother convinced doctors to spare him of this surgery and after a year of nursing, Larry was able to walk again.  He first got involved in baseball as scoreboard boy at Athletic Park in New Orleans and later pitched batting practice to the New Orleans Pelicans.  He was originally signed as a pitcher in 1910 by Victoria of the Southwest Texas League, but switched to the outfield the next year.


 After playing two years with Battle Creek in the Southern Michigan League and one with Milwaukee of the American Association, Larry made his major league debut on April 14, 1914.  Larry’s major league career spanned only two seasons, but his 1914 Boston Braves team had one of the most remarkable seasons in major league history.  In last place at the mid-term of the season, the Braves proved to be a “miracle” team by winning the NL pennant.  They then beat Connie Mack’s favored A’s in a four-game sweep in the World Series.  Larry played part-time as an outfielder.  He hit .268 with five home runs and 25 RBI.

 

After 45 games and a .151 batting average in 1915, Larry was demoted to the minors.  After a couple of years in the high minors, he was purchased for $2500 in 1917 by the owner of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association.  It was the highest price ever for a minor league player up to that time.  In 1919 with the Pelicans, he led the Southern Association in batting (.349), hits (171), total bases (237), and stolen bases (42).  When the Pelicans sold him to Cleveland following the season, Larry refused to report, saying he wanted to stay in New Orleans.  This relationship with the Pelicans lasted twenty-two consecutive years, first as a player, then as manager starting in 1923 through 1938, and also included the job of operating executive in 1930.  His last year as a player was 1925, at age 33.

 

Larry was lured away from New Orleans by Fay Murray, Tennessee livestock millionaire, for $100,000 to manage the Nashville Vols in the Southern League.  His annual salary exceeded that of New Yor Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, by $10,000.   Larry managed the Vols from 1939 through 1948, and then as general manager and part owner until 1955.  He had turned down several managerial offers from major league clubs.  In 1940, he was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Manager of the Year.  His Nashville team recorded one of the best minor league seasons in history when they went 101-47 that year.

 

Larry is credited with discovering Mel Ott as a stubby little catcher in Gretna, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.  Not signed by Larry at the time, Ott was sold to the New York Giants by a lumber magnate from Louisiana who had a semi-pro team.

 

Larry spent 25 years as manager of the Pelicans and Vols, and his clubs claimed 2,128 victories.  He won nine pennants and five Dixie Series titles.  He was responsible for sending 48 of his players to the major leagues, including the likes of Buddy Meyer, Zeke Bonura, Johnny Burnett, Tommy Henrich, and Eddie Morgan.

 

Known as a player’s manager, many doubted Larry would make a good manager because of his easy nature.  He was generally known to have no enemies, even players whom he had released.  His fairness and honesty were hallmarks of his character.

 

In his two-year major league career, Larry batted .230 in 117 games.  In 1,690 minor league games he had a .298 batting average, including 1,794 hits, 254 doubles, 101 triples, 59 home runs, and 383 RBI.

 

Larry had three sons who played professional baseball.  Charlie and Harold (Tookie) played in the major leagues.  Larry, Jr. played under his father in 1938 for New Orleans, but was forced to retire from active play due to a heart ailment. 

 

Charlie Gilbert

Charlie was playing for his father, Larry Sr., in Nashville in 1939 when he was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1940 season.  As a prospect, he was said to be reminiscent of his father as a player—natural player, fast, good knowledge of the game.  He was touted as the greatest 20-year-old outfielder the Southern Association had ever produced.

 

Charlie played 57 games with the Dodgers in his debut year, but also played 57 games at Montreal so that he could play regularly. However, he never reached the potential that had been earmarked for him.  In 1941, Charlie was traded to the Cubs, where he played for parts of four seasons.  In his final season, 1947, he led the National League in 40 pinch-hit appearances.  He retired because of an injured back.  Charlie later served as assistant general manager of the Nashville Vols team with his father.

 

Harold “Tookie” Gilbert

Harold got his nickname when his older brothers labeled him “rookie” while playing ball as youngsters, but Harold mispronounced it as “Tookie.”  Tookie, like his brother Charlie, was a highly touted schoolboy sensation in New Orleans.  Tookie was recruited heavily by six major league clubs and he literally picked the club he would sign with by pulling one name from a hat containing all six teams.  The New York Giants won the Gilbert “lottery” and he signed for $50,000.  Tookie excelled in his minor league debut in 1947.  In 1949, like his brother before him, Tookie played for his father at Nashville.  He blossomed with 33 home runs and a .334 average.

 

After starting the 1950 season at Minneapolis, Tookie was called up by the New York Giants to fill a talent shortage at first base.  He played in 113 games, but hit only .220 and four home runs.  However, he spent the next two years at Minneapolis and Oakland, hitting 29 and 31 homers respectively.  He returned to the Giants in 1953, but again he did not display the power he had shown in the minors.  He retired before the 1954 season, when it announced he would start the season in Minneapolis again.

 

In 1959, still only 30 years old, Tookie made a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in his hometown, in an attempt to help save the struggling Southern Association franchise.  He was twice elected civil sheriff in New Orleans before dying of a heart attack that resulted in car accident in 1967.

 

 

Seahawks' Russell Wilson to Play Baseball?

Last week the Texas Rangers drafted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson during the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft at the conclusion of baseball’s winter meetings.  It wasn’t entirely a gimmick to garner attention by the Rangers, since Wilson has previously played professional baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization prior to playing in the NFL.  But I doubt that the Rangers have high hopes of convincing Wilson to change sports at this time, considering his current success as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.  Or even persuading him to play baseball during the football off-season.


But don’t automatically rule out any possibilities.  As improbable as it may sound, in fact, there is some history of cross-over between the two sports by professional athletes.  Two of the most noteworthy examples are Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, both of whom played in Major League Baseball and the NFL at the same time.  There have also been a number of other two-sport players, although not as successful in both.  Nevertheless, being able to play professionally in two sports requires exceptional athleticism.


Russell Wilson was first drafted out of high school by a Major League club in 2007, in the 40th round by the Baltimore Orioles, but he chose to attend college.  In 2010, while playing baseball at North Carolina State University, he was selected by the Rockies in the fourth round.  He played two seasons of Single-A ball as a second baseman, but managed to hit only .229 and five home runs in 93 games.  At the same time, he was also playing football at NC State.  In 2011, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 2011 to play football, where the Seahawks drafted him in the3rd round in 2012.


When Bo Jackson left Auburn University in 1986, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the first overall pick in the NFL draft.  Not wanting to play for the hapless Bucs, he opted to pursue professional baseball with the Kansas City Royals who had drafted him in the fourth round that year.  He was called up to the big league club in September 1986, and he went on to play eight seasons in the Major Leagues, including one All-Star season in 1989.  In 1987, the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL drafted Jackson in the seventh round, and he played with them for four seasons, including one All-Pro season.  Jackson was successful in using his power and speed in both sports.  As an outfielder, he hit 31 home runs one season, and as a running back, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry during his career.  However, his career in both sports was cut short when he was plagued by hip injuries.  He actually attempted a brief return to baseball after hip replacement surgery.


Deion Sanders was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 1988 Major League Draft in the 30th round and began his professional baseball career that season.  He was the fifth overall pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 1989 NFL draft.  He began playing both sports in 1989, and once hit a Major League home run and scored an NFL touchdown in the same week.  Sanders was later signed by the Atlanta Braves, where he played in the 1992 World Series.  In all, he played nine seasons in the Majors and fourteen seasons in the NFL, where he was voted to the Football Hall of Fame as a cornerback and kick returner.


Brian Jordan played three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons as a defensive back, while he was also pursuing a professional baseball career.  He switched permanently to baseball after his 1991 NFL season, and wound up playing fifteen seasons in the Majors as an outfielder, including one All-Star season and one appearance in the World Series.


Football Hall of Famer John Elway signed to play baseball with the New York Yankees organization in 1982 after being drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts as the first overall pick in the 1982 draft.  Elway refused to sign with the Colts and used a season in baseball to defer his arrival in the NFL so that he could sign with a different team.  In one season of Single-A ball with the Yankees, he hit a respectable .318 in 42 games.  In 1983, the quarterback signed with the Denver Broncos for whom he went on to play sixteen seasons, including two Super Bowl championships.


A second-round Major League Draft pick out of high school in 1990, Chris Weinke tried his hand at professional baseball for six seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization before starting his college football career at age 26, playing for Florida State University.  The quarterback was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 2000 and later played four seasons in the NFL.  Weinke never appeared in a Major League Baseball game.


Ricky Williams played four seasons of professional baseball while attending college at the University of Texas on a football scholarship.  In the Philadelphia Phillies minor league organization from 1995-1998, Williams never played above the Single-A level, and wound up dropping the sport after he was selected as the fifth overall pick of the New Orleans Saints in the 1999 draft.  Williams played eleven seasons in the NFL, rushing for over 10,000 yards in his career and making the All-Pro Team in 2002.


An All-State football and baseball player at a Louisiana high school, Josh Booty chose baseball after being drafted by the Florida Marlins as the fifth overall pick in the 1994 Major League Draft.  He played in only 13 big league games over three seasons with the Marlins and finally gave it up to return to football.  He played quarterback for two seasons at LSU in 1999 and 2000.  Booty was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 6th round of the NFL 2001 draft, but never played in the NFL’s regular season.


The most recent Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2012, and he also plays baseball at Florida State University.  A pitcher/outfielder on the 2013 Seminoles team, Winston, who says he plans to play baseball again this coming spring, was quoted as saying he “wanted to be better than Bo Jackson.”


The above examples of two-sport stars all occurred in the past 30 years.  Going further back to the 1950s and 1960s, some Major League Baseball players who enjoyed stellar college football careers included Jackie Jensen, Carroll Hardy, Harry Agganis, Chuck Essegian, and Jake Gibbs.


Other former Major Leaguers who also played professional football include Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, Ace Parker, and Tom Yewcic.


So don’t count out Russell Wilson just yet.  If he and his Seahawks teammates win a Super Bowl this year, he just may be looking for his next challenge to be in baseball.


Free Agents Reaping Benefits of Baseball Owners' Big Pockets

One of the signs that Major League Baseball is doing well is the availability of money to sign free agents this off-season.  It seems baseball owners go through cycles of conservatism and free-wheeling with baseball salaries, and this year it appears to be an off- season of wheeling and dealing.


According to Forbes, Major League Baseball franchises are seeing continued increases in year-over-year revenues.  The rapid rise in local and network television rights, as well as the success of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, are major contributors to the increase in valuations of baseball clubs.


As a result, we are seeing situations where clubs are not afraid to spend big money on player contracts as well as overpaying on free agent signings.


We thought baseball owners and general managers had learned their lessons with long-term, mega-deals such as those inked by Alex Rodriguez, Barry Zito, Albert Pujols, Jayson Werth, and, Prince Fielder.


However, Robinson Cano is the latest beneficiary of such a deal, as a result of his agreement this past week with the Seattle Mariners to a 10-year, $240 million pact.  The Yankees made it clear early on they were not interested in making a deal above $180 million, so Cano’s new agency, headed by popular rapper, record producer, and entrepreneur Jay-Z, looked for other options and found a taker.


For the 2013 season, the Red Sox went to the free agent market to fill gaps in their lineup.  Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and Shane Victorino wound up making significant contributions to help the Red Sox win the World Series.  It looks like some clubs are trying to emulate that success with a willingness to overpay free agents to get the ones they believe will make them relevant for the 2014 season.


The New York Yankees are an example of baseball clubs who are making good business decisions, but not necessarily good baseball decisions.  They were not relevant in 2013 despite having a club that hung in the race for a good period of time.  When they fell victim to significant player injuries on an already aging team, they turned to a group of second or third tier players like Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, and Lyle Overbay whom the fans dismissed because these players no longer carried a big-name status.


Now, the Yankees’ off-season acquisitions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran remind us of the 1980s era of George Steinbrenner—signing big-name free agent players in their 30s to try to bring an immediate pennant.  These three players will automatically bring the Yankees into the relevancy discussion again and consequently will create some excitement for the fans.  That’s good business, but bad baseball, because both Ellsbury and McCann signed relatively long-term deals as “middle-agers”, and Beltran will be 37 years old next year with a three-year contract.  The Yankees are not re-stocking the team with younger players, and their farm system is pretty dried up at the moment for big league-ready prospects.


It used to be that players in the last year of their contract had to put up big numbers to capitalize on the free agent market.  Phil Hughes is a prime example this off-season.  He won only four games for the Yankees in 2013, yet he signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Minnesota Twins.  Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants is another.  He signed a two-year contract extension for $35 million despite the fact that for his last two seasons he has been the worst starting pitcher in baseball.


On the surface, these two signings appear to be “overpay” situations, but are indicative of the mindset of some GMs.  Another example involved the Phillies who signed veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher Carlos Ruiz to deals that are paying generous salaries for players nearing the end of their careers.


On the other hand there are still a couple of clubs who are building their teams through player development, generally avoiding the big free-agent signings.  In recent years the Cardinals and Rays have been turning out some very productive players through their farm systems and translating that into success on the field.  Some other smaller-market teams are following this philosophy, but understand it will take years to achieve results.


With all the big-name player signings before baseball’s Winter Meetings this week, it makes you wonder else could happen?  It just might be a boring week, if general managers have already exhausted their trade budgets.  But somehow, I doubt it.


If I Had A Baseball Hall of Fame Vote

The official 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot was released last week and unfortunately (at least for me) I’m not on the list of members of the Baseball Writers’ Association who receive the ballot.  Maybe we should have some sort of “fantasy league” for the annual Hall of Fame voting, where baseball enthusiasts could cast their votes and have them tallied to compare with the writers.


The usual debates have begun about who will be announced as the selections on January 8.  Will there be any first-ballot picks this year?  Will any of the carryover players from last year be selected?  Was the shutout of all candidates last year warranted?  Should the players linked with suspected performance-enhancing drug (PED) use be voted in?  Are “clean” players of the PED era being unjustifiably snubbed by some voters?  I have my own thoughts about these as a “fantasy” voter.


First of all, my criteria for voting for a player would include the following factors:  the player has to be dominant at his position in his era, as evidenced by repeated seasons among the league leaders in several categories; the player has been recognized for “best player” awards such as MVP, Cy Young, Gold Glove, and Silver Sluggers; the player’s career has included appearances and performances in post-season play, as an indicator that he was a key contributor to winning teams in the most competitive games. 


My over-riding philosophy is that the Hall of Fame should include only the “best of the best” players.  My expectation is that the Hall includes only the top 1-2% of the players in the game.  Admittedly that will exclude a lot of really fine players over the years.  Hence, this approach requires a somewhat arguable dividing line that separates the stars from the superstars when making my selections.


So here are my fantasy 2014 votes.


Let’s start with the new entrants on the ballot this year.  The cast of superstars who are eligible for election the first time this year include Frank Thomas , Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Larry Walker, Jeff Kent, and Mike Mussina.


Maddux and Glavine are unquestionably atop my list this year.  I think they are both legitimate first-rounders in any era.  In fact, I don’t know why Maddux would not be on 100% of the ballots this year, surpassing Tom Seaver who has the record for being on 98.84% of the ballots in his first year.  By the way, the last time former teammates were elected to the Hall in the same year was 1984, when Dodgers greats Don Drysdale and Pee Wee Reese were enshrined.


Frank Thomas is my other selection from the 2014 eligible players.  Besides his outstanding seasons in the 1990s, anyone with the nickname of “Big Hurt” has to be in the Hall, right?  I drew the line on Walker, Kent, and Mussina , not viewing them in the “best of the best” category.


From the list of carryovers from previous years, pitcher Jack Morris, who is in his 15th and final year of eligibility, gets my vote.  He gets considerable criticism for his career 3.90 ERA, but he won more games in the 1980s than any American League pitcher and his teams won three World Series.


Relief specialist Lee Smith also earns my vote.  He’s definitely in the same class as current Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage as all-time best stoppers.


I thought Craig Biggio should have been selected as a first-rounder last year (getting close to the required vote with 68.2%), but I believe he was a victim of some voters choosing to send in blank ballots in protest over the PED issues.  He gets my vote, since he is among the career leaders in hits, runs scored, and doubles.  Oh, by the way, he excelled as a starter at three positions over his career—catcher, second base, and outfielder.


Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza suffered unfairly from the veil of suspicion around their possible PED use.  However, they are both on my list of vote-getters this year.  Mike Piazza may be the best offensive catcher to ever play the game.  If elected, he would undoubtedly be the lowest draft pick (62nd round in 1988) that was selected to the Hall.  Talk about a guy who exceeded everyone’s expectations!


Bagwell, one of Biggio’s “Killer Bs” teammates with the Astros, was a perennial leader for MVP voting during most of his career, winning in 1996.  In addition to his average of 34 home runs as season, he was an adept fielder at first base, a high total bases hitter, and even stole 30 bases in two different seasons.


I’m passing over the rest of the prior year carryovers highlighted by Fred McGriff, Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, and Curt Schilling.  They were all fantastic players but they don’t make my cut for “best of the best.”


The question then arises about the prominent players who have been at the center of the PED era, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa.  In their first year on the ballot in 2013, Bonds and Clemens garnered only 36-37% of the vote.  Obviously, many of the voters were trying to send a strong message of disapproval.  Before last year, McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro never received any serious consideration either.


Normally, I’m fairly conservative or “old-school” around such controversial issues that challenge the history and tradition of the game.  However, on this one, I think a look back in history several years from now will show the PED era was just another dark period which challenged the integrity of the game, but was remediated.  Players’ use of foreign substances, corked bats, and amphetamines during past years were not among baseball’s brightest moments either.


I think Bonds and Clemens are two of the greatest players in history and hence deserve to be inducted, despite the dark cloud cast by the PED era.  I shouldn’t have to take the stance that they were both Hall of Fame caliber players before their suspected PED use or that they never failed a publicly disclosed drug test administered by Major League Baseball.  But if those factors actually make a difference to someone, then that just makes my case stronger.  By any measure, Bonds and Clemens were outstanding talents and among the “best of the best.”


Thus, I’ve cast all of my ten votes.  Realistically however, based on past years’ voting (except for last year when there was a shutout), only two or three candidates will get enough votes to be inducted in this year’s class, despite the fact we have the deepest ballot of exceptional candidates in several years.  Who would be your fantasy picks?


Fathers Enjoying Their Son's Success

Former New York Mets player, Lee Mazzilli, was labelled a “phenom” at age 18, being drafted directly out of a Brooklyn high school as a first-round pick in 1973.  Three years later, he made his Major League debut with the Mets and made the National League All-Star team within four seasons.  Fast forward forty years and Lee’s son, L. J., joined the professional ranks this season as the fourth-round pick of his father’s former team.  The Mazzillis are just one example of many incidences of former Major League fathers seeing their sons follow in their footsteps, start to enjoy some success, and pursue making their own name in the sport.


The younger Mazzilli played his first professional season in his father’s home town of Brooklyn for the Mets’ Class-A affiliate.  He is playing in ballparks where his father previously coached and managed at the minor league level before becoming manager of the Baltimore Orioles for two seasons.  As his career progresses, L. J. will have the advantage of advice from a father who knows what it’s like to play in New York City, as well as having hung around the stadium environment while growing up.


Eric Young Jr. was headed to Villanova on a football scholarship when, after some heart-to-heart discussions with his father, he decided he would make baseball his career profession.  Eric Sr. was an experienced advisor, since he was a 15-year veteran of the Major Leagues.  Eric Jr. reached the big leagues himself in 2009 with the Colorado Rockies, but got a change in scenery this season, being picked up as a free agent by the New York Mets, where he broke into an everyday outfielder role.


Eric Jr. wound up leading the National League in stolen bases this season and is expected to be a part of the Mets’ rebuilding.  His father, who also had a stint with the Rockies, was a similar type of player, excelling on the base paths, accumulating 465 stolen bases over his career.  Now a baseball analyst for the Houston Astros’ broadcasts, Eric Sr. relishes the idea of being able to work in games in which his son plays.


After ten Major League seasons as journeyman middle reliever, 36-year-old Jason Grilli had a breakout year in 2013, as he was entrusted with the closer role for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He responded with a league-leading 29 saves and 1.99 ERA by the All-Star break, before suffering an injury that sidelined him for almost six weeks.  Jason was a big component of the Pirates’ resurgence as a playoff team in 2013.


Jason’s father, Steve, had also been a Major League pitcher in the 1970’s, but appeared in only 70 games during his four-year career.  Hence, he never achieved the success of his son, so he was indeed a proud papa when Jason pitched the final inning for the National League in the All-Star Game in New York this season.


Wanting to give his son Jacob every chance to succeed in professional ball, Lee May Jr. taught him to switch-hit while he was playing at the college level.  It paid off, as Jacob was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the third-round of the June 2013 draft.  Lee Jr. had also been a high draft pick in 1986, the 21st overall selection by the New York Mets, and he wound up playing in the minors from 1986-1993.  Their bloodlines also include Jacob’s grandfather, Lee Sr., who was a three-time All-Star during his eighteen-year Major League career from 1965-1982.  With Jacob’s switch-hitting plus his speed, he projects to be a player more like his father than his grandfather, a power hitter who slugged 354 career home runs in the big league.


Baseball runs deep in another May family.  Derrick May Jr. is an outfielder drafted in 2012 by the St. Louis Cardinals, but he chose to attend college over signing. Both his father (Derrick Sr.) and grandfather (Dave) were former Major League players.  If Derrick Jr. can reach also the big leagues, their family would be only the fifth three-generation combination in history.


Delino DeShields is an up and coming prospect in the Houston Astros organization.  He was a first-round selection out of high school in the 2010 Major League Draft.  As a kid, he got a taste of the Major League environment while accompanying his father in big league clubhouses.  He got to hang around such stars as Ripken, McGwire, and Sosa, since they were teammates of his father, also named Delino, a thirteen-year veteran of the Major Leagues.


It turns out the younger Delino is a base-stealer in his father’s mold.  Now the elder Delino is pulling for his son to gain some maturity on the field so that he can become an integral part of a revitalized Astros franchise.


Kevin Romine has reason to be doubly proud of his baseball family, since he has two sons, Andrew and Austin, who have reached the Major League level.  He coached them from the time they played tee ball as children.  Kevin had a seven-year big league career as a reserve player for the Boston Red Sox.  So when he got calls from Austin, a second-year catcher with the Yankees this season, about helping him with his swing, Kevin was all too ready to provide objective advice.  Andrew, who played at Arizona State University like his father, was a fourth-year big leaguer this season with the Angels.


During the 2013 season, George Frazier and his son Parker shared a common dream, more than the normal aspirations of your average father and son.  They both had careers in the Colorado Rockies organization.  George, a former Major League relief pitcher from 1978-1987, had been a member of the Rockies broadcast team for seventeen years.  Parker, a pitcher like his father, came up through the Rockies organization reaching the Triple-A level.


Thus, George waited anxiously for the day when he could do play-by-play with his son on the field for the Rockies.  However, their unique dream ended with Parker being traded to the Cincinnati Reds organization during the season.  George will have to settle for calling a game with Parker on the opposing side of the Rockies, still destined to be a special moment.


In early April of the 2013 season, big league fathers of several Cleveland Indians were honored at Progressive Field with ceremonial first pitches before the game.  Five current Indians, including manager Terry Francona, coach Sandy Alomar Jr., and players Nick Swisher, Michael Brantley, and Zach McAllister, caught tosses from their respective fathers who were wearing their son’s uniform.


Francona’s father, Tito, spent fifteen seasons in the majors from 1956 to 1970.  Alomar’s father, Sandy Sr., was an infielder from 1964 to 1978 and then served a long-time big league coach.  Swisher’s father, Steve, was a reserve catcher from 1974 to 1982.  Brantley’s father, Mickey, was an outfielder for the Mariners from 1986 to 1989.  McAllister’s father, Steve, was the only father of this group who did not appear in the majors.  However, after a short minor league stint, Steve has been a Major League scout.


For these guys, it was like playing catch in the back yard again.  It was probably hard to tell who was more proud—the fathers or the sons.


Naturally, every father wants to see his son have success in life.  But it’s an especially proud feeling when the son achieves success in the same profession.  Baseball fathers are no different.


These are just a few of the father-son combinations in professional baseball today.  I was able to count over 150 such combinations where the son was active in 2013, either in the majors or the minors.


If this article has peeked your interest in baseball’s many family relationships, check out my book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives, which contains over 3,500 players, managers, coaches, scouts, owners, executives, umpires, and broadcasters who have a relative in professional baseball.  The book can be purchased at http://thetenthinning.com/booksreviews.html.


History Shows Yankee Backstops Are Key To Dynasty Teams

Several times in New York Yankees history there have been periods of “Dynasty” teams, more than any other franchise.  Most of these Yankees’ teams were carried by the big bats of “Bronx Bombers” like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson, and Jeter, and pitching staffs that included aces such as Hoyt, Pennock, Gomez, Lopat, Ford, Guidry, Rivera, and Pettit.


If you study carefully the makeup of these teams throughout the years, there has been another consistent component among them.  They each featured outstanding catchers, guys who helped carry the Yankees to multiple World Series championships, while also achieving individual honors such as multiple All-Star selections that further illustrated their dominance. 


In the 113 years of the Yankees franchise, 60 of their seasons were manned by only six players who served as the primary catcher of the team.  These six catchers were involved in 35 of the 40 World Series appearances the Yankees achieved, and they also contributed for 24 of the 27 World Championship teams in the franchise’s history.  To help put those startling numbers into perspective, during the Yankees’ longest dry spell without a post-season appearance (1982-1994), they had seven different regular catchers in just those thirteen seasons.


Following is a brief rundown of these six Yankee Dynasty catchers.


Wally Schang had the shortest stint as the Yankees’ primary catcher of this group and is also the least well-known.  However, from 1921 to 1924, Schang put together four solid seasons as he helped the Yankees to three World Series appearances, including their first ever championship in 1921.  He had previously played in World Series contests with the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Red Sox.  Noted for his defensive skills, Schang was a career .284 hitter over 19 major league seasons.  He was the only one of this Yankee catching group who did not come up through the Yankees’ farm system.


Bill Dickey had the longest tenure in this group as the Yankees’ backstop.  At age 22 he became the regular catcher in 1929, and he filled that role until 1943.  During that stretch, the Yankees made eight World Series appearances, winning seven of them, including five consecutive titles from 1936-1939.  Dickey was among the top six players in the American League MVP voting in each of those five seasons.  Serving as the bridge between the Gehrig/Ruth and DiMaggio years of the Yankees, Dickey was selected to All-Star teams in ten of his seventeen career seasons.  Dickey was Number 57 of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players of the 20th Century as determined by The Sporting News in 1999.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.


Yogi Berra is the most famous of the catchers in the group.  Tutored by Bill Dickey on his catching skills, he became the regular Yankees catcher in 1947 at age 22, which began a string of fourteen seasons as catcher, including thirteen as an All-Star selection.  During that stretch, he was a participant in eleven World Series, winning eight of them, including five consecutive titles from 1949-1953.  Berra was the American League MVP in 1951, 1954, and 1955.  In 1960, he started sharing significant time with Elston Howard as the team’s catcher.  Later, primarily an outfielder from 1961 to 1963, Yogi made an additional three World Series appearances.  Altogether, he is the all-time leader in World Series appearances with fourteen.  Over his 19-year career, he was selected to the American League All-Star team in fifteen consecutive seasons.  Berra was also honored on the 100 Greatest Players roster as the Number 40 selection.  He was voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.


Elston Howard began his Yankee career in 1955, but since he was essentially blocked from attaining the starting catcher’s position by All-Star Berra, he did not become the primary starter until 1961.  Used as an outfielder, first baseman, and part-time catcher up until then, 1960 was a turning point season when Howard and Berra largely split catching duties.  Howard made the most of his time as the regular catcher beginning in 1961, when he contributed to the Yankees’ consecutive World Series appearances from 1961 to 1964, while winning in 1961 and 1962.  Over his entire career, Howard played in nine of the Yankees’ World Series.  He was voted the American League MVP in 1963 and was selected to All-Star teams from 1957 to 1965, during his 14-year career.


Thurman Munson became the regular catcher for the Yankees in 1970, a season in which he was named the American League Rookie of the Year.  Unlike his predecessors in this elite group of catchers, it took six seasons for Munson to make his first World Series appearance in 1976.  The Yankees repeated in 1977 and 1978, winning two of the three years.  Munson’s career was cut short at age 32 when he was tragically killed in a private airplane crash during the 1979 season.  He was named the American League MVP in 1976 and was selected to seven All-Star teams during his 11-year career.


Jorge Posada spent parts of three seasons with the Yankees before becoming the regular starting catcher in 1998.  His starting role began a string of six years in which the Yankees dominated the American League with five league championships from 1998 to 2003.  Although they were a perennial post-season team during the balance of Posada’s career, the Yankees made only one other World Series appearance in 2009.  Posada played on World Series championship teams in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009.  He was selected to the American League All-Star team five times during his 17-year career.  Posada was among the top six MVP vote-getters in 2003 and 2007 and twice won the Silver Slugger Award.


It could be argued that Yankee catcher Pat Collins should be included in this group.  However, he played only three seasons (1926-1928) with the Yankees during his career, although each of those seasons involved a World Series appearance.  However, I decided not to include Collins since the Yankees used many part-time catchers during those seasons, with Collins starting only 93, 74, and 45 games, respectively.  I don’t believe he was a dominant catcher like the other six I have presented.


Thus, I believe there is a strong correlation between the Yankees’ dominant catchers and their teams’ dominance over the years.  Besides the three seasons mentioned above involving Collins, there has been only one other season (1981) in which the Yankees won an American League pennant without the presence of a dominant catcher.


In looking at some other franchises that could be classified as dynasties for a period of time, I can make a similar argument about their catchers being at the heart of their dominance.  Johnny Bench was the key cog in the Big Red Machine years from 1970 to 1976, when Cincinnati went to four World Series.  Mickey Cochrane helped two different teams (A’s and Tigers) get to five World Series between them during 1929-1935.  Roy Campanella was a mainstay with the Dodgers from the late‘40s to the mid ‘50s, when they won the National League pennant five times in eight years.


Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals certainly makes my case from the current big league players.  With Molina as the primary catcher from 2005 to 2013, the Cardinals have reached the World Series three times.  Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants might eventually be considered in this category as well.


So what does this portend for the current and future New York Yankees?  In 2013, their catcher position was filled with what I consider a group of “back-up” players.  A few years ago, it appeared as though prospect Jesus Montero was being groomed by the Yankees to assume the catcher’s spot after Posada.  However, Montero was dealt in a trade with Seattle before the 2012 season for some much-needed pitching.


There is currently a catcher from the Dominican Republic in the Yankees farm system, Gary Sanchez, who has been on numerous “top prospects” lists since he first signed professionally at age 17.  However, after his fourth professional season in 2013, he has played in only 23 games above the Single-A level.  Sanchez will still be only 21 years old next season, so maybe he just needs more seasoning and could possibly be ready by 2016.  Will the Yankees wait that long and gamble that Sanchez will actually pan out?


Surely, they won’t want to wait too long before getting back into contention for the playoffs and beginning the next “Dynasty.”