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.
Farewell to Turner Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were the Yankees the Biggest Winner as Big Sellers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Experiences Helped Shape Lawton Brothers' Baseball Careers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sellers

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

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

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

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

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

Buyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid-Season Report Card Offers Hope for High Marks

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Series – Rangers and Giants

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Ties Prominent Again in this Year's MLB Draft

Following the MLB Draft in June of every year, I try to identify those drafted amateur players who have a relative in professional baseball.  I’ve found 48 players so far who fit this criteria this year.  They represent the latest crop of relatives that have infused baseball rosters since the sport’s professional beginnings in the 1870s.

Every year there are intriguing backgrounds for several of the drafted players.  This year is no exception.  Here’s a look at some of the highlights of this year’s players with family ties in baseball.

One of the headliners in this year’s major-league draft class probably won’t attempt to play professional baseball at all.  Trey Griffey was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 24th round, even though he hasn’t played baseball since grade school.  He is currently a senior wide receiver for the University of Arizona.  Trey has one of the most recognizable last names in baseball.  His father is Ken Griffey Jr., who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame later this summer.  His grandfather is Ken Griffey Sr., who was a 19-year veteran of the majors.  The Mariners actually selected Trey as a tribute to his father, who played a significant portion of his career in Seattle, wearing uniform Number 24.

Torii Hunter Jr. is another college football player selected in this year’s draft, except he also played baseball, albeit sparingly, at Notre Dame for two seasons.  His father is Torii Hunter Sr., who retired only last year after playing 19 years in the majors.  Torii Jr. had been drafted out of high school in 2013 by the Detroit Tigers, but chose to attend Notre Dame to play football and baseball.  However, football became his primary sport, as he has played on special teams and as a wide receiver.  He wound up playing only a handful of baseball games for The Fighting Irish.  Because of his athleticism and family bloodlines, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 23rd round this year and proceeded to sign a pro contract with them.  He still intends to play football at Notre Dame this fall.  Who knows?  He may be the next Deion Sanders, who played professionally in both football and baseball.

Bo Bichette was encouraged by his father, Dante Bichette, to play tennis as a youngster, but he wound up following in his father’s baseball footsteps.  Bo was drafted out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2nd round, after becoming one of the top prep pitchers in the country.  The elder Bichette was a four-time major-league all-star during his 14-year career.  Bo’s older brother, Dante Jr., is currently an infield prospect in the New York Yankees organization.

Cavan Biggio, son of 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Craig Biggio, was drafted this year by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 5th round.  The infielder had previously been drafted out of high school in 2013 by the Phillies, but chose to attend college at Notre Dame, where he was a starter for three seasons.  Cavan’s brother, Conor, was drafted last year by his father’s major league team, the Houston Astros, after also playing for Notre Dame, but he did not sign a pro contract.

Chad Hockin is the grandson of another Hall of Famer, Harmon Killebrew.  He was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 6th round, after completing his third season as a pitcher for Cal State Fullerton.  Grandfather Killebrew was one of the all-time great sluggers in baseball, recording 573 career home runs.  He was selected to all-star teams on eleven occasions and was American League MVP in 1969.  Chad’s brother, Grant, was a 2nd round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2014.  His uncle, Cameron Killebrew, played in the Texas Rangers organization and unaffiliated baseball from 1978-1981.

Grae Kessinger is a third-generation baseball player that was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 26th round.  His grandfather is Don Kessinger, a six-time all-star shortstop for the Chicago Cubs who also managed in the majors for the Chicago White Sox.  Grae’s father is Kevin Kessinger, who played in the Cubs organization in 1989, while his uncle, Keith Kessinger, played part of one major-league season for the Cincinnati Reds in 1993.  It is likely Grae will opt to attend Ole Miss on a baseball scholarship, where his grandfather, father, and uncle also played collegiately.

Brandon Bossard’s baseball bloodlines go back three generations before him.  The shortstop was drafted out of high school by the Chicago White Sox in the 31st round.  However, his forefathers didn’t play the game, but instead worked as groundskeepers for the White Sox.  His great-grandfather, Emeril, was the first in the family to hold the position, followed by his grandfather, Gene, and his father, Roger, who is currently the head groundskeeper at U. S. Cellular Field.

JaVon Shelby, drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 5th round out of the University of Kentucky, also comes from a large baseball family.  His father, John Shelby, was a big league outfielder from 1981 to 1991, primarily for the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers.  JaVon has three brothers who also played baseball.  John III played in the minors from 2006 to 2012 for the White Sox and Rays organizations, while Jeremy played briefly in the Orioles organization in 2010.  Youngest brother Jaren, this year’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Kentucky, has signed a letter of intent to play for Kentucky next year and projects to be a future major league draft pick.  JaVon’s cousins, Josh Harrison and Vince Harrison Jr., both played baseball professionally, with Josh currently playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Brothers Joshua and Nathaniel Lowe were both drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays.  Joshua was a top high school third baseman in Georgia, while Nathaniel played first base for Mississippi State University.  Joshua was selected in the first round, the 13th overall pick, and Nathaniel was picked in the 13th round.  They are the sons of David Lowe, who was drafted out of high school by the Seattle Mariners in the 5th round in 1986, but did not play professional baseball.

Every year there are also a handful of major-league draftees whose bloodlines don’t include a baseball background.  This year’s list includes pitcher Matt Manning, son of Rich Manning who played in the NBA for two seasons (1995-1996).  Matt was a first-round pick of the Detroit Tigers.  Pitcher Griffin Jax, the son of NFL linebacker Garth Jax (1986-1995), was the third-round pick of the Minnesota Twins.  Outfielder Chris Bono, the 37th round pick of the San Francisco Giants, is the son of former NFL quarterback Steve Bono, a veteran of 14 pro seasons (1985-1999).

A full list of the players from the 2016 MLB Draft with relatives in professional baseball can be viewed at http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/2016-family-ties/.

Checking off PNC Park on the List of MLB Stadiums

Every once in a while, you hear about baseball fans who take the challenge of seeing a major-league game in every major league ballpark in a single season.  It’s quite a feat just scheduling all the travel logistics, not even considering the cost and time investment to do it.

Well, when my son Lee and I attended a Pirates-Dodgers series in Pittsburgh this past weekend, it was my 20th major league city to see a game, but it’s taken me 54 years to get this far.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park was the 26th major league ballpark at which I have attended major league games, although only half of those have been to the thirty current major league venues.  Over the years, I went to eleven stadiums that no longer exist, including places like Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Shea Stadium in New York, and the Astrodome in Houston.

On a family vacation to visit relatives near Philadelphia in 1962, I attended my first major league game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, which was ultimately replaced by Camden Yards, the first of the new-style stadiums that dramatically changed the fan experience.

I had heard a lot of good things about PNC Park, even claims that it might be the best stadium from a fan’s perspective.  The view of the stadium from behind home plate is truly awesome, with the city’s downtown skyline hovering behind it.  It has the Clemente Bridge, crossing the Allegheny River, as one of the main thoroughfares for fans to walk into the stadium area.  And it has the famous Primanti Brothers sandwiches and local beers to refresh you during the games.  There’s a lot of Pirates’ history incorporated into the overall structure and character of the stadium.  For example, the fence in right field is 21 feet high, as a tribute to Roberto Clemente’s uniform Number 21.  There are a number of carryover features from the Pirates’ old Forbes Field.  The stadium indeed lived up to its billing.

In the Pirates’ series with the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend, the highlights included getting to see former Mississippi State second baseman, Adam Frazier, get a hit in his first major-league at-bat in the Pirates’ win on Friday.  Although somewhat currently in a slump, Andrew McCutchen hit two homers in Saturday’s win.  Then we got to see the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, perhaps on his way to a fourth Cy Young Award this season, pitch on Sunday, although he wound up taking the loss.  Frazier rose to the occasion again, when he subbed for an injured Bucs player in right field, not his usual position.  Frazier responded with two hits off of Kershaw, while scoring a run and driving in one.  Lee and I happened to be sitting in the right field stands, and we got Frazier’s attention in between innings with shouts of “Go ‘Dawgs” and “Hail State.”  He acknowledged us by tossing a practice ball our way, but it sailed over our heads to fans a few rows behind us.

In between the games at Baltimore in 1962 and Pittsburgh this weekend, I’ve had the good fortune to see games at some of the all-time iconic stadiums—old Yankee Stadium (the cathedral of stadiums), Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field.  But then there were also some which were very forgettable—Dolphin Stadium (Marlins), Arlington Stadium (Rangers), and Metropolitan Stadium (Twins).

Over the weekend, my son and I were comparing memorable games we each had attended over the years.  A few of them we shared together, but mine included a few before he was born:

  • The Chicago Cubs’ Ken Holtzman tossed a 1-hitter vs. Giants on August 22, 1970, in Candlestick Park.  The Cubs had future Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Ron Santo leading the charge in a 15-0 route by the Cubbies.  Hal Lanier got the only Giants’ hit with one out in the bottom of the 8th inning.  Giants’ future Hall of Famer, pitcher Gaylord Perry, wasn’t so legendary that day, giving up eight runs in 1 1/3 innings.

 

  • Pete Rose’s streak of 44 consecutive games with a hit was broken on August 1, 1978, in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.  It left him tied for second place with Willie Keeler on the all-time list, both behind Joe DiMaggio’s historic 56-game streak.  The 38-year-old Rose was just coming off his 3,000th hit milestone.  He was able to draw only a walk in five at-bats in the game.  Braves closer, Gene Garber, struck out Rose to end the game, won by the Braves, 16-4.

 

 

  • New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine got thrown out in a Shea Stadium game on June 9, 1999, arguing an umpire’s call of interference by catcher Mike Piazza in the 12th inning.  Valentine later re-appeared in the dugout with a mustache disguise, looking like Groucho Marx with sunglasses.  He was subsequently fined $5,000 and suspended for two games for his rebellious deed.  The Mets did win the game in the 14th inning over the Toronto Blue Jays, 4-3.

 

 

  • The Chicago White Sox’ Freddy Garcia shut down the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the 2005 World Series on October 26 in Minute Maid Park.  He gave up only four hits in seven innings pitched, as the White Sox swept the Astros for their first World Series championship since 1917.  I had won tickets in a lottery for Series games 3 and 4, but I wasn’t able to attend Game 3.  Fortunately, my daughter, Joni, was able to sub for me, and she and Lee saw the longest game in World Series history--14 innings in 5 hours and 41 minutes.  It’s one of their favorite memories together.

 

 

  • In what was called the “Mother’s Day Miracle” on May 13, 2007, in Fenway Park, the Red Sox scored six runs in the bottom of the 9th inning to beat the Baltimore Orioles, 6-5. Oriole pitcher Jeremy Guthrie was cruising to a shutout when the wheels fell off the bus for the O’s.  Fenway Park was the scene of Lee’s bachelor party for that weekend series.

 

 

  • How about this for waiting until the last minute?  In all the years of watching baseball games, I had never been to the original Yankee Stadium, until the year it was scheduled to close.  On August 27 and 28, 2008, in the 16th and 15th last games of the historic stadium, Lee and I saw the Yankees play the Boston Red Sox.  Dustin Pedroia hit a grand slam in an 11-3 route by the Red Sox on August 27.  The Yankees captured a walk-off win in the next game, 3-2, with Mariano Rivera picking up the win.

Altogether, I figured the three games in PNC Park added to a total of 70 major league games I have attended, not counting major league exhibition games in the Louisiana Superdome (remember that?) and spring training games in Florida.

I’m really looking forward to another baseball trip to Atlanta later in August with two of my daughters’ families.  After this season, Turner Field will be among those stadiums on the extinct list, as the Braves prepare for a new stadium in 2017.

Hopefully, I’ll get a few more years to complete the rest of the stadiums on the list.

Father's Day All-Star Team Rooting for Potential Major League Sons

On Father’s Day last year, I compiled a list of major-league all-stars who were fathers of major-league players. The mythical team represented a good look back in history at some dads who were among the best players in the game. There were some pretty good names on the list—Berra, Griffey, Bonds, Raines, and Rose.

To honor baseball dads this year, I’m taking a different twist on the same subject.

The all-star team I’ve compiled this time is indeed comprised of fathers who starred in the big-leagues.  However, their sons, who are currently following in their dad’s baseball footsteps, are prospects still grinding their way through college and the minors. 

Not that long ago, most of these sons were hanging out with their dads in major league clubhouses or shagging balls in the outfield during dad’s batting practices before games.  Those early childhood experiences likely fueled their aspirations to ultimately join the ranks of “major leaguers” like their fathers.

On this Father’s Day, the tables will be turned, since these all-star dads will be pulling for their sons to pitch and hit well enough, so as to improve their chances of one day getting to the “Big Show” themselves.

Starting Pitcher – Roger Clemens won 354 career games and is 3rd on the all-time leader list in career strikeouts.  He won the Cy Young Award a record seven times.  Twice he struck out 20 batters in a game.  He would already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame if it were not for his suspected involvement with PEDs.  Three of Clemens’ sons have followed in his footsteps.  (Note that all the sons’ names begin with “K” – the symbol for “strikeout.”)  Kacy and Kody played for the University of Texas this year, after having been drafted by major league teams out of high school.  Koby has played in the minors for the Astros and Blue Jays organization and later in independent league baseball.

Relief Pitcher – Mariano Rivera is the all-time saves leader in baseball with 652.  He pitched in seven World Series for the Yankees and recorded an astonishing 0.70 ERA and 42 saves during his post-season career that included 96 games.  He is a lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.  Mariano’s son, Mariano III, is a relief pitcher like his father.  He was the 4th round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2015 and is currently pitching at the Class-A level.

Catcher – Mike Matheny played thirteen major league seasons for the Brewers, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Giants.  While he never played at an all-star level during his career, Matheny developed a keen sense for the game that has allowed him to become one of the top young managers in major league baseball today.  Matheny’s son, Tate, was a fourth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2015, and the outfielder currently plays at the Class-A level.  Mike has two other sons with futures in pro baseball.  Jake has committed to play for Indiana University, while Luke has committed to Oklahoma State University.

First-Base – Rafael Palmeiro is one of only five players in history to get 3,000 hits and slam 500 home runs in his career.  However, his fabulous career has been stained by failing a drug test during his last season.  Consequently, he won’t likely get elected to what would have otherwise been a sure spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  However, his sons have put on the spikes to follow in dad’s footsteps.  Patrick played in the Chicago White Sox organization for three seasons and is currently playing in the independent leagues.  Last year, his 50-year-old father came out of retirement for one game to play with Patrick in a league game. Rafael’s other son, Preston, was drafted this year out of North Carolina State University by the Baltimore Orioles in the 7th round.

Second Base – Craig Biggio could have landed a spot on this imaginary all-star team at three different positions.  He has the distinction of being a regular starter for the Houston Astros at three different positions during his career: catcher, second base, and centerfield.  He attained all-star status as a catcher and second baseman.  He compiled over 3,000 hits, 660 doubles, and 1,800 runs scored during a Hall of Fame career. Biggio coached his two sons in high school, and both went on to play baseball at the University of Notre Dame.  Cavan was drafted this year by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 5th round.  Conor was selected by his dad’s team, the Astros, in the 34th round of the 2015 draft.

Third Base – Dante Bichette was a four-time National League all-star for the Colorado Rockies and was runner-up in the MVP voting in 1995.  He compiled a .299 batting average, 274 home runs, and 1,142 RBI during his 14-year career.  Bichette, coached his son, Dante Jr., in the Little League World Series completion in 2005, and Dante Jr. is now playing in his sixth season in the New York Yankees organization.  Bichette’s other son, Bo, was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2nd round of this year’s draft.

Shortstop – Cal Ripken Jr. is the Hall of Fame shortstop best known for his consecutive game streak of 2,632 for the Baltimore Orioles.  He was a 19-time all-star and two-time American League MVP.  His physical size of 6’ 4” and 200 lbs. re-defined the shortstop position in the major leagues during the 1980s.  Ripken comes from a baseball family, as his father was a long-time coach and manager of the Orioles, while his brother Billy played in twelve major league seasons as an infielder.  Cal’s son, Ryan, was drafted in 2012 and then again in 2014, and is now playing at the Single-A level in the Washington Nationals organization.

Outfield – Vladimir Guerrero was often noted as wild-swinging hitter, but he managed to hit 449 home runs, drive in 1,496 runs, and hit for a .318 average during his sixteen-year career.  He was the American League MVP in 2004 and was an all-star selection nine times.  His performance should earn him a spot in Cooperstown.  Guerrero’s 17-year-old son from the Dominican Republic, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., was one of the top international free agents last year and was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays for $3.9 million. However, he has yet to play in the minor leagues in the U. S.  Guerrero Sr. had a brother who also played in the major leagues, and his nephew, Gabby Guerrero, is currently a top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.

Outfield – Carl Yastrzemski is one of the all-time great Boston Red Sox players.  He’s in the Hall of Fame based on his career numbers of 452 home runs, 1,844 RBI, and .285 batting average.  He was an all-star in three different decades, the Triple Crown winner in 1967, and MVP of the American League in 1967.  He’s on my list of all-star dads, but in fact he is the grandfather of Mike Yastrzemski, currently playing at the Triple-A level in the Baltimore Orioles organization.  Mike is a third-generation professional player, as his father, also named Mike, played five seasons of minor league baseball.

Outfield – Magglio Ordonez was a six-time all-star in the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers organizations.  During his 15-year career, he managed to hit for a .309 average, slugged 294 home runs and 1,236 RBI.  In 2007, he finished second in MVP voting in the American League.  Ordonez’ 20-year-old son, Magglio Jr., played for Detroit’s rookie league team last season.

Manager – John Farrell is currently in his fourth year as manager of the Boston Red Sox, having claimed a World Series championship in 2013.  A former major league pitcher, Farrell has three sons involved in professional baseball.  Luke is currently pitching in the Kansas City Royals organization at the Triple-A level.  Jeremy was drafted in 2008 and played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization last season.  Shane was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, but chose a career as a pro scout, currently working in the Chicago Cubs organization.  The three Farrell sons represent a third generation of ballplayers, as their grandfather, Tom, played briefly in the minors in the mid-1950s.

Make room, Pete, for another "Hit King"

He’s one of the few major-league players in history who’s known by only his first name, Ichiro.  He’s the only player to wears his first name, not his last name, on the back of his jersey.  Consequently, there are probably many fans who don’t even know his last name is Suzuki.  Somewhat quietly this season, he’s closing in on Pete Rose’s record of 4,256 career hits.

As of Saturday, Ichiro Suzuki currently has 4,252 hits in his pro career.  However, those familiar with his background are quick to point out that 30% (1,278) of Ichiro’s career hits came while playing professionally in Japan.

Nevertheless, Ichiro still has a compelling case for being recognized as the new all-time “Hit King,” as Rose is commonly referred to today.  A similar argument, centered around home runs, occurred back in the 1970s when Sadaharu Oh, who played his entire career in Japan, surpassed Hank Aaron for most home runs in a professional career.

Ichiro began his pro baseball journey in Japan at age 18.  He wound up playing nine seasons there before signing with the Seattle Mariners.  Arguably, his hits in Japan shouldn’t be included in the comparison with Rose, as many observers would say the Japanese Professional Baseball League is more comparable to Triple-A minor-league baseball than the major-leagues in the U. S. 

Yet he hit the ground running (and hitting) upon his arrival in Seattle in 2001.  What he did in his first major-league season with the Mariners was nothing short of a miracle, even for a top American prospect who would have advanced through the traditional minor-league system of organized baseball.

The 27-year-old Ichiro proved he was already capable of playing at the highest level in 2001 when he led the American League in hits (242), stolen bases (56), and batting average (.350), on his way to capturing the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player crowns in his initial season.  That hadn’t been accomplished in the same year since Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975.

Looking only at his major-league career, Ichiro is currently less than 30 hits from attaining the 3,000-hit benchmark for sure-fire Hall of Famers.  He would become only the 32nd player in history to reach that mark.  When he does, he will have reached the celebrated mark in only sixteen seasons, the same as Rose.  Over the course of his entire major-league career, Ichiro has a 162-game average of 200 hits per season, compared to Rose’s 205 in his first sixteen years.  In Ichiro’s first ten seasons in the big-leagues, he averaged 224 hits per season, the only player in history to attain 200+ for ten straight seasons.  Rose also had ten 200-hit seasons during his 24-year career, but not consecutively.

The left-handed hitting Ichiro holds the major-league record for number of hits in a season, accumulating 262 in 2004, which surpassed George Sisler’s 84-year-old record of 257.  Ichiro’s batting average was a phenomenal .372 that year.

The ten-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner will surely be a Hall of Fame selection, the first Asian player to attain this honor. While Ichiro will not have eclipsed Pete Rose’s record for career hits in Major League Baseball, he’ll be one-up on Rose in another significant category--he’ll ultimately have his bronze likeness enshrined in the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown.

In a season when Boston’s David Ortiz is getting much-deserved attention and adulation in his farewell campaign, Ichiro’s career merits some love from the baseball community, too.  As a 42-year-old, this is likely his final season, especially if he reaches the 3,000-hit milestone.  He won’t get the same type of send-off as Big Papi, but baseball fans would do well to pay homage to this future Hall of Famer during the balance of this season.

Family Ties Part of the Zephyrs' Game

Nowadays, there is hardly a baseball game played, college or professional, in which there isn’t at least one player who had a family relative that also played the sport at a professional level.  Over the years, baseball has had a long tradition of being a game of fathers, son, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins, and even in-laws.  And it seems to be a growing trend.  For example, now we are seeing more instances of a third generation of families taking their cuts at professional baseball.

Major league organizations usually view a prospect that has family ties in baseball as a plus, since they bring a background to the sport that has been influenced by a relative who’s already been through the pro ranks.  That usually translates to the prospect being able to better cope with the ups and downs of playing the sport, often reflected by demonstrating more maturity and professionalism on the job than other players.  Consequently, having a relative in pro baseball is one of the factors major league scouts look for in player selection.

The local Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs are certainly no exception to the prevalence of family ties.  In a recent game against their Pacific Coast League opponent Colorado Springs, the Zephyrs featured five members of its team with relatives in pro baseball, while the Sky Sox had six players in that elite category.

For the Zephyrs outfielder Isaac Galloway, it was a family goal to reach the big leagues.   His father, Isaac III, played two seasons of pro baseball in the Phillies organization, while his grandfather, Isaac Jr., played eight seasons in the Orioles organization.  Neither was able to reach the major-league level.  In an interview in TCPalm.com three years ago, the youngest Galloway recalled how he would go out to hit and throw a baseball after his father came home from work each day.  He wanted to be a professional baseball player from an early age.  “It’s just something I always knew I would do.” 

Injuries slowed Isaac’s progression through the minors after being an eighth-round pick in the draft by the Marlins organization.  He is currently in his ninth season of professional baseball, having not yet attained a big league roster spot.  Still only 26 years old, Galloway still has a decent chance of getting there.

Austin Nola is in his second season with the Zephyrs.  He is three years older than his brother Aaron Nola, who is currently a pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies.   Austin showed his little brother the ropes of the game through high school and college, how to carry himself and how to deal with the highs and lows of the game.  However, due to their age difference, they had been teammates only once, at LSU, when Aaron was a freshman and Austin was a senior.  Aaron was then often referred to as “Austin’s little brother.” 

With Aaron breaking into the majors before Austin last year, Austin is now referred to as “Aaron’s big brother.” In any case, their goal is now to face each other in the majors.   A dream matchup is in the making, as Austin pursues a spot on the Marlins’ big league roster. 

Jarred Cosart is in his third season with the Marlins organization, after spending parts of two seasons with the Houston Astros. The pitcher had a brief call-up with the Marlins earlier this season. Cosart comes from an athletic family.

He is the grandson of former major leaguer Ed Donnelly who had nine appearance with the Chicago Cubs in 1959.  Cosart’s mother and aunt played softball at high school and college levels.  His brother Jake is a pitching prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization.

Don Kelly is in his second season in the Marlins organization, after spending six seasons with the Detroit Tigers.  He’s been a valuable utility infielder with the Zephyrs this season.  His baseball relationship came through marriage, when he wed the daughter of former Pittsburgh Pirates major-leaguer Tom Walker, who also has a son, Neil, currently the second baseman with the New York Mets.  Kelly met Neil’s sister, Carrie, when she and Kelly’s sister played against each other in college basketball.

Kelly and Neil Walker once played on the same minor-league team in 2007 when they were both in the Pirates organization.  On occasion they have opposed each other as major-leaguers.  Walker’s baseball lineage also extends to his brother and uncle who were professional ballplayers.

However, a baseball player’s connection to professional sports is not always through a relative that played the game.  For the Zephyrs’ Dylan Axelrod, his family ties include his uncle Barry Axelrod, a professional sports agent representing several high-profile major-leaguers.  Dylan has been in the starting rotation for the Zephyrs this season, after pitching five seasons in the major-leagues with the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds.

Baseball continues its rich history of family ties, and it appears the Zephyrs are doing their part to extend it.

By the way, on the day Colorado Springs played the Zephyrs, the Sky Sox roster included the following players with relatives in professional baseball:  Eric Young Jr., Garin Cecchini, Tim Dillard, Brent Suter, Orlando Arcia, and Michael Reed.

Super Utility Players are Managers' Best Friends

Being labelled a utility player is normally not the most prestigious designation a ball player can have, but most major league managers would give their right arm for a good one on their roster.

In an era of increasing specialization in the game, utility players seem out of place. However, for a big league manager, it’s like having 26, 27 or 28 players on the roster because a utility player can fill multiple roles for a team on a day-to-day basis if needed.

Being a utility player often carries a connotation of being a journeymen or commodity player.  It used to be that a utility player was strictly used as backup, often a young player on his way up or an older player on the downside of his career.  Nowadays it’s more of a strategic role because their value to the team is higher since they can play multiple starting roles on any given day.

With a versatile utility player, a manager the flexibility to juggle his lineup to give opposing pitchers different looks, give a starting position player a day off when he has minor strains and bruises, or avoid having to put a regular starter on the disabled list when there is nagging injury that just requires several days’ rest.

Preparation for a “super sub” can be tricky.  He has to keep fresh at all the positions at which he might be used.  That means having to frequently take fielding practice for multiple positions and keeping up to date on current defensive positioning information about the opposition.  His mindset and approach for each game could be different depending on which position he is playing.  It’s not easy because the player has to be ready for so many aspects of the game.

There are several utility players in the game today that do a good job of using their multiple talents to benefit their teams.

On any given day, Josh Harrison of the Pittsburgh Pirates could be lacing up his spikes to play infield or outfield positions, or serve as the designated hitter.  He’s been a major component of the Pirates’ recent resurgence as a perennial playoff contender.  Over the course of last year he played three infield and two outfield positions.  Harrison has been more settled in at second base this season, as a result of the Pirates dealing last year’s regular second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets during the offseason.    His value was recognized in 2014 with an all-star selection.

Ben Zobrist, currently with the Chicago Cubs, has been another super utility guy during his career.  He played nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, before spending time with both Oakland and Kansas City last season.  He was a key part of the Royals’ World Series championship team, as he played all three outfield positions, as well as third base, after being acquired at the trade deadline.  As a free agent over the winter, one of Zobrist’s requirements for the teams he was considering was that he would have one primary role on the roster, versus splitting time among several positions.  The Cubs committed to that requirement and consequently Zobrist has been playing second base, with only a few appearances in the outfield so far this season.  Zobrist has been a two-time all-star during his career.

Brock Holt played every position except pitcher and catcher for the struggling Boston Red Sox last season, and he managed to earn an all-star spot on the American League roster.  This season he is still making the rounds on the field at multiple positions for a much better team.

In previous years, players such as Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark DeRosa, and Willie Bloomquist, made big impacts on their respective teams as utility players.

Looking further back in baseball history, if there were such an honor as Utility Player Hall of Fame, it would have to include Billy Goodman.  He won the American League batting title with a whopping .352 average for the Boston Red Sox in 1950, while not holding down a regular position.  Coming up to the big leagues as an infielder, the 24-year-old was competing against veterans Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Vern Stephens for a regular job in the Red Sox infield.  In the outfield the Red Sox had Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams, so his opportunities for a regular job were limited.  However, Goodman wound up appearing in 110 games that season, including 45 games as an outfielder, 27 at third base, 21 a first base, 5 at second base, and one at shortstop.  Remarkably, Goodman finished second in the league’s MVP voting that season.

Most aspiring baseball prospects don’t usually have a goal of being a utility player.  However, it is a niche role that has become more valuable to teams.  As demonstrated by several players over the years, high-performing utility players can gain comparable recognition as their teammates who have regular starting jobs at a position.  They also allow their managers to sleep better at night.

Braves Make Fredi Gonzalez the Fall Guy for its Pathetic Team

The Atlanta Braves fired its manager Fredi Gonzalez last week in a move in which he was made the scapegoat for a team that was playing 9-28 ball.  But all the arrows shouldn’t have been pointed at Gonzalez.  The NL East Division last-place team is in the midst of a rebuilding transition in which the roster was completely overhauled from just a few years ago.  Frankly, the disheveled roster the team is fielding currently is the primary reason the team is doing their best imitation of the 1962 New York Mets which won only 40 games.

Gonzalez was metaphorically at the helm of a sinking ship whose deck hands were on their first voyage or were castoffs from their previous ships.  The Braves team is a mixture of young, inexperienced pitchers and journeyman position players.  Only first baseman Freddie Freeman can be considered a legitimate star on the team, and he’s the last holdover from the club that won the NL East Division in 2013.

Just a few seasons ago, the Braves featured a team under Gonzalez with as much potential as any in the major leagues.  On a team that was largely sourced from its farm system by GM Frank Wren, they had rising stars like Freeman, Brian McCann, Jacob Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, and Evan Gattis.  As for pitching, the Braves had developed some outstanding young arms such as Julio Teheran, Kris Medlin, Alex Wood, Mike Minor, and Craig Kimbrel, who became one of the best closers in baseball.  It appeared as though the Braves were on the verge of having another dynasty team like the Braves of the 1990s. 

The Braves had a second-place finish in 2014, although they did suffer a losing season with 79 wins. Braves management, under interim GM John Hart, decided over the winter of that year the team needed to re-make itself, similar to what the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros were in the process of doing.  The Braves didn’t re-sign young players who were eligible for free agency and traded away others for prospects, supposedly as part of their plan to stock their farm system with a new crop of budding stars. 

At about the same time, the Braves announced they would be building a new stadium in Atlanta for the 2017 season.  That planned event essentially became the target for putting the re-built team in place.

Consequently, the 2015 team, and currently the 2016 team, became devoid of players who could actually contribute to winning games.  Of the six starters used by the Braves this season, only two have more than 1-2 years of major league experience.  As a group, they average only 25 years of age.  Teheran is the only starting pitcher left from the young corps of a few years ago.  On offense, the Braves have scored the least number of runs in the National League, over a 100 less than the league-leading Cardinals, and have the least number of total bases, almost one-third less than the league-leading Diamondbacks.  They have hit only 18 home runs as a team, while Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies each have 14 home runs individually.

Since Gonzalez took over from legendary Bobby Cox as manager of the Braves in 2011, his teams have posted one first-place finish, three second-place finishes, and a fourth-place finish.  His overall record through 2015 was 425-385.  That’s not the record of a bad manager.

However, it’s not unusual that managers of major league teams in rebuilding mode get the ax from management.  Bo Porter of the Astros and Rick Renteria of the Cubs are the most recent examples.  But Gonzalez had to know he was in a fairly tenuous situation.  Yet there was never any evidence he gave up or slacked off in getting the team to be competitive every day.  Even during last year’s losing season, Gonzalez got the diminished Braves off to a good start in April and May, before eventually succumbing to the rest of the division for a last-place finish.  Yet with one quarter of the season under the belt already, the 2016 version of the team is currently on a pace to win only 40-45 games this season.

If the Braves’ front office already knew that Gonzalez was not going to be the 2017 Opening Day manager, why did they start this season with him?  They probably they took advantage of his loyalty to the organization to shepherd what they figured would be a struggling team in 2016, while allowing the organization an opportunity to secure another skipper for the next year. The team’s poor performance likely pressured them to make the move with Gonzalez sooner.

Braves minor league manager, Brian Snitker, was promoted as the interim manager of the big league club.  While he has been a rising star in the managerial ranks, it’s not clear he will be retained either as the permanent manager next year.  The Braves have left open an option to find someone else.

It’s also not clear how the Braves will improve the team for the next season’s opening of the long-awaited new ballpark.  The pitching-heavy group of prospects they accumulated in the rebuilding process will still be untested.  However, they could use some of them in trades for more veteran players who can be immediately productive.  They could start that process later this year at the July 31 trade deadline, when major league teams starting juggling rosters again.  They should be an active participant in offseason player acquisitions.  In any case, they have their work cut out for them to field a competitive team for next year.

It’s a shame “good guys” of the game like Gonzalez sometimes get treated like he did.  With Gonzalez’ firing, the Braves’ front office deflected the attention from themselves for the team’s poor performance going back to last season.  It remains to be seen whether they can recover in time to meet their expectations for next season.

Could We See a Rare Chi-Town World Series?

This year’s versions of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox are riding high right now, as both are in first place of their respective divisions.  The Cubs were largely expected to continue their winning ways from last season, while the White Sox are the surprise team of the American League this season.  It’s still early yet, but we could be witnessing the makings of a World Series between the two cross-town rivals.

A Chicago-centric World Series actually happened once before, in 1906, when the White Sox defeated the Cubs in only the third-ever World Series. Neither franchise has been highly successful in World Series contests since then. The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908 and their last appearance in the Fall Classic was in 1945 when they were beaten by the Detroit Tigers. The White Sox did manage to beat the Houston Astros as recent as 2005, but their previous championship occurred in 1917 against the New York Giants.  The Cubs are the ill-fated owners of the longest championship drought (107 years) of any professional franchise in all of the major sports.

In the history of the World Series, there have been 110 championship series between the American League and National League pennant winners.  In sixteen of those World Series, two teams from the same city opposed each other, the last in 2000 when the New York Yankees defeated the New York Mets.

Except for the World Series in 1944 when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the now defunct St. Louis Browns, the Yankees have been a participant in the other fourteen World Series involving same-city opponents.  The storied Yankee Dynasty teams squared off with the Brooklyn Dodgers seven times during the 1940s and 1950s and the New York Giants six times during the 1920s, 1930s and in 1951.  

However, these counts don’t include the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants, who faced each other in the 1989 World Series. Some might consider the Bay Area teams to be in the same city.  Other cities to have been home to two major league teams at a point in history include Boston (Red Sox and Braves), Philadelphia (Phillies and A’s), and Los Angeles (Dodgers and Angels), but none of them have hosted World Series between their two teams.

This year’s Cubs currently possess the best record in both leagues.  Their torrid start of the season is their best since 1907, as Manager Joe Maddon has the club hitting on all cylinders.  Everyone expected their offense to be highly productive this year; it’s their pitching that has really exceeded pre-season expectations.

The starting rotation is headlined by Jake Arrieta, the best pitcher in the league, who has already hurled a no-hitter.  He has won seven of his eight starts and currently sports a 1.29 ERA.  John Lester and Jason Hammel aren’t too far behind, sporting four wins/1.96 ERA and five wins/1.77 ERA, respectively.  John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks round out the rotation which has stayed healthy so far.

Hector Rondon and Adam Warren, a solid offseason pickup from the Yankees, lead the bullpen staff.  Overall, the Cubs’ pitching leads the National League in ERA, least runs allowed, and WHIP.

The Cubs’ offense is scoring almost six runs a game.  Even though they lost Kyle Schwarber to the disabled list for the remainder of the season after only two games, their batting lineup has still been potent with Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell leading the way.

The White Sox have been almost equally impressive in the American League.  They find themselves among the top three teams in the league with the best record, after fourth-place finishes in their division the last two seasons.

Todd Frazier, who came from the Reds in the offseason, has been everything the White Sox had hope for from a slugging standpoint.  He leads the team with 12 home runs and 32 RBI.  Jose Abreu and Brett Lawrie have provided good offensive support around Frazier.

From a pitching standpoint, lefthander Chris Sale has been as good as the Cubs’ Arrieta this year.  He currently has eight wins in as many decisions and boasts a 1.67 ERA and 0.758 WHIP.  He’s been complemented by fellow starters Jose Quintana and Mat Latos, who have five victories apiece.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura is on the hot seat to produce a winner this season, since his teams have had only one winning season since his tenure started in 2012.  Over the past few years, his lackluster performance at the helm has challenged the recent trend of new breed of major league managers that didn’t have any prior managerial experience.  A division-winning team, and certainly a World Series appearance, would secure his job for a while.

Both the White Sox and Cubs face stiff competition to remain atop their respective divisions for the rest of the season.

In the AL Central, the White Sox have two-time defending American League champion Kansas City Royals to contend with.  With a record hovering around .500, the Royals have had an uncharacteristically slow start of the season but can’t be counted out yet.  The Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers figure to remain close as well.

Even though the Cubs currently have a nine-game lead, the NL Central is likely to shape up as a repeat of last year with the Cubs, St Louis Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Pirates vying for the division title and playoff spots.

It would be big news if either team would secure a World Series berth, especially the Cubs with their pathetic post-season history.  But it would be even bigger news if both of the Chicago clubs managed to face off against each other in the Fall Classic.  North Siders vs. South Siders.  Wouldn’t that be something?

NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick, Jared Goff, forsakes baseball heritage

When the Los Angeles Rams selected Jared Goff as the overall first pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, perhaps more than anyone else his father, Jerry, was well aware of the impact of the occasion.

Jerry Goff had some prior experience with pro sports drafts himself, since he was the third-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in the 1986 Major League Baseball Draft.  His career was comprised primarily of over 900 minor league games over twelve seasons, although he did manage to appear in 90 major league games with the Montreal Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Houston Astros.  It’s likely that the biggest moment of his nondescript major league career came in his last game when he hit a home run.  He toiled for a dozen years and never made the big bucks as a baseball player.

The younger Goff was a three-sport standout in high school, but wound up deciding on football when he went to the University of California at Berkeley to play quarterback.  His career decision has now paid off, since he stands to sign for a substantial bonus and will likely be a starter within a couple of years.

In an interview on the MLB Radio Network, the elder Goff said he never pushed Jared towards baseball, although he was a standout shortstop through high school.  Ultimately, Jared showed better skills in football, and Jerry fully supported his son’s pursuit of the sport at the college level.

The vast majority of relatives of professional baseball players pursue baseball rather than choosing another professional sport.  As an indicator of this situation, over 800 professional baseball players, managers, and coaches in 2015 had a relative in pro baseball.  When considering the relatively few number of major leaguers whose sons choose professional football as a career, Jared Goff is in select company as the NFL’s No. 1 pick this year.

 

A look at a few of Jared Goff’s predecessors

Prior to Goff, the most notable son of a former major league player to pursue professional football was Tom Mack.  His father, Ray, had been a second baseman during nine major league seasons from 1938 to 1947.  Ray primarily played for the Cleveland Indians which included an all-star season in 1940.  Tom was the No. 2 overall pick of the 1966 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams, and went on to an NFL Hall of Fame career as an offensive guard with the Rams for 13 seasons.

Ernie Koy Jr. was an 11th-round pick of the New York Giants in the 1965 NFL Draft.  He had been a standout running back at the University of Texas and became a punter and halfback for the Giants from 1965 to 1970.  Ernie’s father, Ernie Sr., had been an outfielder for four National League teams from 1938 to 1942, when he compiled a career .279 batting average in 558 games.

Lee Riley Sr. was in the major leagues for only a cup of coffee (four games) in 1944, when most of the regular players were in the military service during World War II.  His son, Lee Jr., had a more substantial career in the NFL and AFL as a defensive back from 1955 to 1962 for the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and New York Titans.  However, another son of Lee Sr. would become more recognizable.  Pat Riley was the highly successful player and coach in the NBA.

New York Yankee immortal Yogi Berra also had sons who chose different paths in professional sports.  Tim Berra was the 17th round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts in 1974, but played only one NFL season as a receiver/punt returner.  Dale Berra played for eleven seasons in the major leagues, primarily with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The shortstop/third baseman posted a .236 career batting average in 853 games.  Yogi had another son, Laurence, who played sparingly for two seasons in the New York Mets organization.

Cory Harkey is the son of Mike Harkey, a former major league pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and four other teams during 1988 to 1997.  Mike is currently the bullpen coach for the New York Yankees.  Cory has been a tight end for the Los Angeles Rams for the past four seasons after attending UCLA.

 

A future in pro football?

There are several sons of former major leaguers who are currently playing football at the college level.  Perhaps we’ll see a few of them in the NFL soon.

Trey Griffey may have the best baseball lineage of all time.  He is the son of Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. and grandson of Ken Griffey Sr., a three-time all-star and owner of a .296 career batting average over 19 seasons.  Yet Trey chose football as his primary sport.  He is currently a senior wide receiver for the University of Arizona.

Torii Hunter Jr. was drafted by the Detroit Tigers out of high school in 2013, but chose to attend Notre Dame instead, where he currently plays both football and baseball for the Fighting Irish.  The wide receiver will be a starting senior in the coming season, while he has been a back-up outfielder on the baseball team.  Torii’s father, Torii Sr., was a five-time all-star and nine-time Gold Glove outfielder during his twenty years in the major leagues.

After leading his high school team to two state baseball championships, Patrick Mahomes chose to play football in college.  He is currently one of the nation’s leading college quarterbacks at Texas Tech.  In 2015 he completed his sophomore season with over 4,600 yards passing and 36 touchdowns.  Patrick is the son of Pat Mahomes, who had an eleven-year career as a major league pitcher, primarily as a relief specialist, during 1992 to 2003.

Dante Pettis is currently a junior wide receiver and punt returner for the University of Washington.  His father is Gary Pettis, a veteran of eleven major league years which included five Gold Glove awards as an outfielder.  Gary is currently a coach for the Houston Astros.

What's Wrong with the Astros?

Based on last year’s unexpected success, the Houston Astros were picked by many baseball analysts in this year’s pre-season prognostications to repeat their winning ways from last season.  However, despite those expectations, the Astros have struggled to win games so far this season.  Were they a fluke last year?  Did they overachieve?  Can they rebound this year?

In 2015 the Houston Astros surprised a lot of folks by leading the American League West Division from the start of the season until the middle of September, but finally succumbing to the Texas Rangers for the division title.  Yet they still made the playoffs, winning the American League wild-card game before losing to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in the Division Series.  It appeared the young Astros team had matured and jelled sooner than expected, after going through a complete rebuilding process the preceding four seasons.  Their organizational plan didn’t have them being competitive before 2016-2017.

So why have the Astros labored to put up Ws in the win column in April?  It’s actually pretty simple.  Pitching.  Their staff has given up the most runs in the league, and their ERA is over 5.00, almost double that of the league-leading Chicago White Sox.  They also have the worst WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in the league as well.  They have one of the worse run differentials in the league, giving up 31 more than they have scored to date, an average of 1 1/2 runs per game.

Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Kuechel, had two good outings at the start of the season, but now seems to be struggling with his consistency.  Collin McHugh has been the biggest disappointment among the starting staff.  After having a breakout season in 2015, it appears he may have over-achieved last season when he won 19 games and posted a 3.89 ERA.  This year his ERA is 6.65 in his first five starts, while yielding an average of 15 hits per nine innings pitched.

In an off-season acquisition, Astros starting pitcher Doug Fister seemed like a good pick-up at the time.  However, he hasn’t been effective either, not getting past six innings in any of his starts.  Veterans Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman haven’t fared much better either.  There’s some hope that Lance McCullers Jr. will provide a much-needed boost to the starting rotation when he returns from the disabled list around mid-May.  As a rookie last season, he was a pleasant surprise with a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts and an average of over nine strikeouts per nine innings.

The Astros bullpen has been similary mediocre as well.  Relief pitcher Ken Giles, another off-season acquisition who was thought to be a contender for the closer role, has been a bust.  He’s given up ten runs in 11 innings.  Closer Luke Gregerson has picked up only four saves so far, as his opportunities have been limited.

On the offensive side of the ledger, the Astros have been in the middle of the pack of the American League in terms of production.  While last year’s Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa hasn’t hit full stride yet this spring, newcomer Tyler White has picked up his slack.  Second baseman Jose Altuve has found a new power stroke with six home runs (he hit 15 in all of last year), while Colby Rasmus has been effective in the cleanup spot, leading the team in RBI.

Outfielder Carlos Gomez has yet to get untracked as a hitter, with a dismal slash line of .213/.241/.275, including no home runs and only two RBI.  Evan Gattis, who put up 27 home runs last year, hasn’t been on the field much due to injuries.

So, while a few of the Astros’ bats have yet to wake up in April, their offense still has the potential to be one of the best in the league.

2015 was manager A. J. Hinch’s first year at the helm of the Astros.  Since the club was in first place most of the season, he didn’t develop too many battle scars.  However, given this year’s rough start, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to fully test his managerial skills as he strives to get the team back into contention.  How he deals with the adversity of a struggling pitching staff and a team in last place will be key to their ability to rebound.

On their current path, the Astros are digging a big hole for themselves that could be very difficult to get out of.  Their only saving grace may be that the two leading teams in their division are currently playing a little over .500 ball, so no one has built an insurmountable lead thus far.  It’s not time for the Astros to panic yet; there’s still a lot of baseball to be played.  But some extreme concern would certainly be in order for the team and its fans at this point.  Stay tuned.

Trevor Story's Major League Debut Recalls a Story about a Player Named Boo

Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies took everyone by surprise when he smacked two home runs in his major league debut game on Opening Day. He didn’t stop there, as he hit another four home runs through his fourth game.  Story is currently tied for second place in the home run category in the National League with eight home runs after eighteen games.

Story had previously played in the minors for five seasons, with only 61 games under his belt at the Triple-A level.  He hadn’t expected to be on the major league roster when spring training ended, but he got his opportunity with the Rockies when starting shortstop Jose Reyes didn’t participate in spring training while he was dealing with a spousal assault charge that occurred during the offseason.

Now, Story is making Rockies fans forget all about Troy Tulowitski, their former perennial all-star shortstop who was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays late in the 2015 season.

Story’s story has been truly amazing, but he’s not the first big league player to come out of nowhere to display such an unforeseen start.

Back in April 1945, Dave “Boo” Ferriss had as improbable a start to his career as anyone before him, Although the circumstances of Ferriss’s beginning of his major league career was somewhat different from Story’s, the result was nevertheless similarly unexpected and record-setting at the time.

Ferriss had been discharged from the Army Air Corps on February 24, 1945, because of an asthma condition.  Before his stint in military service during World War II, Ferriss’s actual pro experience was comprised of only 130 innings pitched in 1942 for Class B Greensboro, a Boston Red Sox affiliate. However, he had gained considerable experience when he pitched for service teams while stationed for two years as a physical training instructor at Randolph Field in Texas.

Like all the other teams in major league baseball, the Boston Red Sox roster had been depleted of its best players who were pressed into military service during World War II. In 1945 their regular pitchers, Tex Hughson, Joe Dobson, Mickey Harris, Earl Johnson, and Mace Brown, were serving in the military.

Ferriss was assigned to Boston’s Louisville minor league affiliate during spring training to start the 1945 season, but when the Red Sox lost their first eight regular season games, manager Joe Cronin immediately looked to his farm system for help.  Before making even one regular season start for Louisville, Ferriss was called up to join the Red Sox.

After five days on the bench he got the starting nod at Shibe Park to face the Philadelphia A’s in the first game of a Sunday doubleheader on April 29.  Before a crowd of 23,828, the 23-year-old right-hander from Shaw, Mississippi, got off to an inauspicious start in the bottom of the first inning. He walked the first two A’s batters on four balls; and after two more balls to the third hitter, he finally retired his first batter on a pop fly.  Ferriss wasn’t out of the water yet, as he walked the fourth batter in the lineup to load the bases.  However, he was able to get out of the nerve-wracking inning on a double play.

Ferriss would go on to yield five hits and three more walks to the A’s, but with the help of three double plays managed to hold them scoreless in his major league debut.  In the meantime, the left-handed hitting Ferriss was a perfect 3-for-3 at the plate, as the Red Sox won, 2-0.  Ferriss’s pitching gem over Connie Mack’s A’s was the first time that season a Red Sox pitcher had held the opposition to less than four runs in a game.

Ferriss got his second start of the season on May 6 against the New York Yankees.  Although the game was interrupted by several rain delays, including one of 47 minutes duration, Ferriss managed to complete the game and hold the Yankees scoreless, even though he surrendered six hits and four walks.  Ferriss collected two more hits and a walk, as the Red Sox put up five runs for the victory.

The Daily Boston Globe reported about the May 6th game, “In the opener, the Yankees, like the Nazis and Japs, learned that ‘Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps,’” referring to Ferriss’s second consecutive shutout win.

On May 13 Ferriss drew his third start against the Detroit Tigers.  He yielded his first run of the season in the bottom of the 5th inning with one out, ending a remarkable 22 1/3 scoreless inning streak at the beginning of his career.  His string of scoreless innings established a new American League record, formerly held by Buck O’Brien with 19 2/3 innings in 1911.

Ferriss went on to complete the game, although he wasn’t particularly efficient.  He gave up nine hits and four walks, but countered that with a season-high ten strikeouts.  Ferriss extended his hitting streak to three games with an RBI single, as the Red Sox won, 8-2.

Ferriss’s sensational start of his career became the talk of the New England area.  In an article about the ex-soldier’s three consecutive wins and his batting performances, the Daily Boston Globe drew a comparison of him with former Red Sox player Babe Ruth, as a pitcher who might also have a future as a slugging outfielder.

Part of the Ferriss fairytale that had built up through his first three big league games was based on a story about him that he had previously pitched ambidextrously in semi-pro leagues, having once pitched the first five innings of a game right-handed, then switched gloves to pitch the last four as a left-hander. Furthermore, while playing at Mississippi State College, he played first base left-handed and pitched right-handed.  While he would sometimes take fielding practice as a left-handed first-baseman, Ferriss never did pitch left-handed in a major league game.

On May 18, Ferriss was the starting pitcher against the first-place Chicago White Sox.  He pitched his best game to that point by giving up only one walk and four singles in a complete game shutout, 2-0.

Ferriss defeated the St. Louis Browns, 4-1, on May 23, then overwhelmed the White Sox, 7-0, for the second time on May 27.  On only three days’ rest against the White Sox, Ferriss tossed a one-hitter as he racked up his fourth shutout and sixth consecutive win.  He had now hurled 51 of his 54 innings without giving up a run, compiling an unbelievable 0.50 ERA.  Baseball pundits were beginning to wonder how long his winning streak could last.

In describing Ferriss’s popularity in New England and among fans across the nation, The Sporting News used a carnival ferriss wheel as an analogy for Ferriss’s thrilling consecutive winning streak over six different opponents, “Round and round the Ferriss wheel goes, and where it stops nobody knows.”

On May 31 Ferriss won his seventh consecutive game by striking out three and issuing three walks in the Red Sox victory over the Cleveland Indians, 6-2.  He continued to show his hitting prowess by contributing two hits in four at-bats.

At that point in the season, Ferriss was sporting a lofty .444 batting average and .545 on-base percentage.  In between Ferriss’s starts on the mound, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin was using his hitting talents as a pinch-hitter.  Four of Ferriss’s hits had come in pinch-hit situations.  Over the course of his career, Ferriss would go on to compile a .250 batting average, which is atypical for a pitcher.

After a relief appearance on June 3, Ferriss returned to his normal starting pitcher role on June 6 against the Philadelphia A’s, the team he defeated in this debut game.

In his quest for his eighth consecutive win in the first game of a doubleheader against the A’s, Ferriss had his worst outing to that point in the season, although he and the Red Sox ultimately claimed the victory.  He generously gave up fourteen hits and three walks, but the A’s batters weren’t able to capitalize on the flock of baserunners, leaving fourteen stranded.  Amazingly, Ferriss wound up yielding only two runs in the complete game win, 5-2.

Ferriss would lose his next start on June 10 against the Yankees, thus ending his impressive streak of eight consecutive wins.

At midseason Ferriss was on pace for a 30-win season, but he struggled with asthma during the last two months and had to settle for a 21-10 record.  Despite the rookie’s heroic efforts, the Red Sox ended the season in seventh place.

Many observers surmised that Ferriss’s success in 1945 was due in large part to having faced weak lineups of opposing teams because of the shortage of experienced players during the war. However Red Sox manager Joe Cronin, said about him, “That boy is no wartime ball player. He’d be outstanding in any era.” Ted Williams confirmed Cronin’s observation after hitting against Ferriss in spring training in 1946. Williams told reporters, “Ferriss will win. Don’t worry about him.”

Indeed in 1946 when all of the soldiers had returned from the war and team rosters were largely restored with its pre-war players, Ferriss proved he was no fluke, since he would win 25 games.  He would lead the American League with a winning percentage of .806, while helping the Red Sox to their first pennant since 1918.  He won Game 3 of the 1946 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Unfortunately, Ferriss’s career was cut short by an arm injury suffered during the 1947 season. Consequently, he would make only nine starts from 1948 to 1950.  Ferriss was the pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox from 1955 to 1959, and despite his shortened career he was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2002.

Of course it remains to be seen how Trevor Story’s season will play out.  In any case, like Ferriss, he has already secured his place in baseball history for an improbable major league debut and start of his big league career.

Profile of 2016 Metro New Orleans Area College Players

I’ve updated my list of high school players from the Metro New Orleans area who went on to play at the collegiate and professional levels.  The list now numbers over 1,300 players and can be viewed at http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.

I did some analysis of the 126 active college players from metro New Orleans, looking at various demographics of the high schools at which they prepped and the colleges they attend.  I realize this is probably of interest only to my readers from the New Orleans area, but here’s what I found.

Where Did They Came From?

Top 10 High Schools Attended

Jesuit (15)

Holy Cross (10)

Shaw (8)

Brother Martin (8)

Rummel (7)

Hahnville (6)

Mandeville (6)

Northshore (6)

St. Paul’s (6)

Lutcher (5)

 

Metro Region of High School Attended

Eastbank (47%)

Northshore (25%)

River Parishes (15%)

Westbank (13%)

 

Public vs. Private High School Attended

Private (56%)

Public (44%)

 

Where Did They Go?

 

Top 12 Colleges Attended

Delgado Community College (28)

Loyola University (14)

Spring Hill College (8)

Southern University (8)

Southeastern Louisiana (8)

Louisiana College (7)

William Carey College (6)

Nicholls State University (6)

University of New Orleans (6)

Tulane University (5)

Louisiana State University (5)

University of Louisiana – Monroe (3)

 

There are an additional nine former Delgado CC players who transferred to four-year universities.

 

College Level Attended

Division I (36%)

JUCO (28%)

NAIA (26%)

Division II (10%)

 

College Debut Years of the Players

2016 (36%)

2015 (28%)

2014 (20%)

2013 (15%)

2012 (1%)

 

State Attended

Louisiana (83%)

Mississippi (9%)

Alabama (7%)

Virginia (1%)

Legendary Scully to Hang up his Mike After This Season

Vince Scully is arguably the most popular Dodger since the franchise moved West in 1958.  He announced his retirement for the end of the 2016 season, and he won’t be hanging up baseball spikes, but rather his baseball microphone.

Scully’s field of play hasn’t been on the baseball diamond but instead in the broadcast booth, where he is starting his 67th consecutive year as the Dodgers’ broadcaster this season.  He never hit a home run in a World Series or pitched a no-hitter, yet his calls of some of the most unforgettable moments in baseball history during his tenure are just as memorable.

Scully’s patented voice is addictive.  Once you turn him on for a broadcast, he’s hard to turn off.  With Scully, you get more than the just balls and strikes called on every play.  His story-telling style sets the context for the player and the play with insightful stories and little gems of information that make listening to one of his broadcasts like sitting in a history class on baseball.

Scully’s voice has been likened to a musical performance because of the cadences and rhythm he employs to describe the baseball action.  His musicality is what people often remember.  It is little wonder he is often referred to as “The Voice.”

Since Dodger home games were two hours later than the time zone I live in, I have often gone to bed with ear plugs listening to Scully.  I remember how he once described a tense situation in a game, “There’s 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies.”

While Scully has called a lot of home runs, he could never be called a “homer” (a broadcaster who shows bias for their home team).  Scully says he learned early in his career to control his emotions and recognized he was broadcasting to fans of both teams.  Thus, he’s been one of the most objective broadcasters as you’ll ever find.

Scully got his start in major league baseball in 1950, teaming with future Hall of Famer Red Barber to call Brooklyn Dodger games.  When Barber resigned over a contract dispute with the Dodgers in 1953, Scully became the main guy behind the mike.

He moved to Los Angeles with the Dodgers in 1958, and he immediately endeared himself to new West Coast fans.  At about the time hand-held transistor radios became popular, fans began bringing them to the ballgames to listen to Scully call the action.

The Yankees offered Scully a job in 1964 to take Mel Allen’s place in the broadcast booth, but he turned it down to stay in Los Angeles.

In addition to calling Dodger baseball games, the versatile Scully was also a broadcaster for football, tennis and golf.  He teamed with color analysts like Hank Stram, Sonny Jurgensen, and John Madden to announce NFL games for CBS Sports.  He paired with the ever-popular Joe Garagiola to do NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week broadcasts and Lee Trevino for NBC’s PGA Tour golf coverage.

Scully was behind the mike for such momentous games as Fred Lynn’s grand slam in the 1983 All-Star game, Ozzie Smith’s game winning home run in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS, the first official night game in Wrigley Field in 1988, and Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Due to health reasons, around 2005 he began to limit his Dodger broadcasts to non-playoff games east of Phoenix.  Lately, the 88-year-old has been calling approximately 100 games a season, including all Dodger home games and selected games in San Francisco, San Diego and Anaheim.

Baseball fans have one more year to hear “The Voice.”  If Scully were still making all the Dodger road trips in this last season, I’m sure the Dodgers’ opposing teams and fans would be inundating him with adulation and fond farewells similar to the way Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter exited their careers.

So if you’ve never ever heard Vince Scully call a game, or it’s been a while since the last one, make a point to tune in one of his broadcasts sometime during the rest of his last season.  It will certainly be a baseball memory to cherish for a long time.

Which Opening Day is the Real Opening Day?

There’s nothing like waiting until after the baseball season starts to make your pick for this year’s winners of the pennant races.  Hey, why not get all the last-minute advantages you can?  But then we now have three Opening Days for the Major League Baseball season, so maybe I’m not late after all in submitting my selections today.

In the interest of extreme prime time TV coverage, MLB has decided this year to add yet another full day to Opening Day.  For quite a few years now, the big league teams had been playing their first game on a Monday or a Tuesday (except for a single Sunday night game) to start the season in the first week of April.

That was bad enough for old-school baseball traditionalists like me, but now they’ve added Sunday, with a slate of three games, to the lineup of multiple Opening Days.  This just makes my annual case for making Opening Day a national holiday that much weaker—which day would we actually celebrate?

I say let’s bring back the old days when every MLB team started their season on Monday, and each year the start time of the Reds’ game in Cincinnati (as a tribute for being the first-ever professional baseball team) was purposefully ahead of all the other games that day.  Now that’s a genuine Opening Day.

2016 Season Predictions

I’ll get off my soapbox and get on with my predictions for this year’s division winners, playoff teams, and World Series champion.

I don’t know if it’s just me or not, but I’m finding it harder and harder to pick some clear winners in each baseball division.  Some say there is more parity among the divisions now, the MLB’s dream situation.  But I’m not so sure the parity is a result of more high-performing teams, but rather their mediocrity in some aspects of the game.  There are only a handful of the thirty MLB teams that have real balance between offense, defense and pitching.

My picks in the American League look strikingly familiar to last year’s playoff teams, but I may have a few surprise picks in the National League.

AL West

The Texas Rangers surprised everyone last season by winning this division, overcoming the Astros, another surprise team who had led for most of the year.  I’m picking the Rangers to repeat.  I like their offense, largely intact from last season.  They will be even better with a full year of Rougned Odor, the rookie who has already emerged as one of the best second basemen in the league.  The Rangers will also have the advantage of a full season of Cole Hamels in their starting rotation.

Last year’s results by the Astros advanced their expected timetable for being competitive by at least a year following their re-building efforts over the past 4-5 years.  Shortstop Carlos Correa showed he might be the next Alex Rodriguez, while Jose Altuve and George Springer will again be key to their lineup which strikes out a lot.  However, I believe their pitching staff, which included a Cy Young performance by Dallas Keuchel, over-performed last year.  I’m picking the Astros to finish in second place again.

Seattle under-performed in all areas as a team last year, and I see them staying in the middle of the pack again, unless Robinson Cano begins to excel like he did as a Yankee.  A shaky Angels‘ pitching staff and a weak A’s offense will keep them both contending for the cellar.

AL Central

As I suggested in my blog post in February, the Kansas City Royals are the “new” Yankees, a team which could compete for a World Series on a regular basis.  They have a deliberate design to their roster architected by GM Drayton Moore, and it is poised to produce for several more years.  I’m picking them to repeat again as division winner.

Second place is a toss-up for me, as all of the remaining teams could contend for different reasons.  However, I finally settled on the Detroit Tigers to edge out the Cleveland Indians.  While the Indians might have one of the best pitching staffs in the league, I believe the Tigers have better overall balance.  During the winter they addressed their pitching needs and then added Justin Upton to bolster an already pretty good hitting team.

While on improving tracks, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins will fall short of the Indians for third place in the division.

AL East

There’s no clear winner for me in this division, largely because the depth of starting pitching for each of the teams is suspect.  Actually, the Tampa Bay Rays may be the strongest in that area, but they won’t generate enough offense to get them into contention.

However, I’m going with the New York Yankees as my pick for division winner.  Their lights-out bullpen consisting of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances will shorten the game for their starting staff who will only need to get into the 6th inning of games.  Yeah, I know the Yanks are still an old team, yet they still found a way to get into the wild-card spot last season despite some injuries to their aging roster.  I predict they’ll move ahead of the Blue Jays this year.

I’m taking the Toronto Blue Jays over the Baltimore Orioles for second place.  During the offseason, the O’s did add some big bats (Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo) to an already potent offense, but their starting pitching will struggle.  The Blue Jays will sorely miss pitcher David Price who gave them a big lift in the second half of the season, but their young staff, led by Marcus Stroman, should be enough to get them into the playoffs again.  The Blue Jays offense is expected to score a lot of runs again this season.  This year the Red Sox are hoping Price can have a similar effect, but he can’t do it alone with an inconsistent supporting cast of starting pitchers.

NL West

I believe the Arizona Diamondbacks will have a break-out year in 2016 by winning the division and making their first playoff appearance since 2011.  With the addition of pitchers Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, the D’backs will move ahead of both the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.  Plus, they already have the best hitter in the National League in Paul Goldschmidt.  Their Achilles heel could be their bullpen, but I’m thinking their front-office gurus, Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart, will not be afraid to make some in-season adjustments if necessary.  (Footnote: This past weekend the D’backs lost all-star centerfielder A. J. Pollock to an elbow injury that may keep him on the disabled list the entire season.  This could materially affect their ability to win the division, but I’ve decided to stay with my original thinking on their projected finish anyway.)

I’m picking the Giants to finish second.  After all, they have won World Series championships in the last three even-numbered years, so they are automatically considered a contender again, right?  Seriously, while there are some questions about whether offseason additions Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto will actually provide a much-needed boost to Giants’ pitching, I think the change of venue for both hurlers will be good for them as they line up behind ace Madison Bumgarner.  The Giants have the best manager in the game right now in future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy, and I believe he will do his magic again.

The Dodgers will miss the playoffs for the first time in three years, as Dave Roberts gets his feet wet as a first-time manager.  As usual, the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies will lag behind the pack.

NL Central

The three best teams in the National League last year were all in the Central division.  In 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs could easily find themselves in the same boat again.  This division was the toughest for me to pick, but I’m actually going with the Pirates to raise the “Jolly Roger” and finally surpass the Cardinals.  The Pirates have a versatile roster, and I believe perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen will be a big difference-maker.

Then I like the Cubs to edge out the Cardinals for second place.  The Joe Maddon “cult” following will continue to grow and keep the club energized.  On the field, the Cubs added some veteran leadership to last year’s young lineup with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.  However if the team has a weakness, it would be in starting pitching, as there is a pretty good drop-off after Jake Arrieta and John Lester.

The Cardinals, who have been the best regular season team in both leagues for several years now, are going through somewhat of a makeover now.  Their farm system, probably the best in all of the big leagues, has indeed supplied some good prospects, but they will need more seasoning in order for the team to stay atop of the division.  I still believe they could be a wild-card contender though.

The Brewers and Reds are going through massive re-building efforts, and I don’t expect them to be competitive this year and maybe for a few years more.

NL East

Even though the New York Mets made a significant leap last year in getting to the World Series, I’m not buying into their being a repeat contender yet.  Yeah, I know they have some of the best young arms in baseball that overpower a lot of teams, but they will still struggle to score runs as they did last year.  Last year’s World Series against the Royals highlighted that weakness, and the Mets front office didn’t do much to change that.

I like the Washington Nationals to win the division.  New manager Dusty Baker will bring the type of winning attitude the club needs.  With his influence, I predict Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon will be best buddies by the end of the season.  They were a team marred by injury last season, so that will be a critical factor again.  I like Anthony Rendon to rebound with a big season to better support MVP slugger Bryce Harper.

I’m picking the Miami Marlins to finish ahead of the Mets for second place.  They were supposed to have contended last season, but the loss of Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton for significant parts of the season hurt their chances.  Plus, they were a team in disarray with interim manager Dan Jennings, who had never been in the dugout before.  New manager Don Mattingly will fix that, and we’ll see if new hitting coach Barry Bonds will have an effect on the team’s offense.

The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are in the midst of their complete team make-overs and won’t contend for play-off spots this year.

Recapping my 2016 picks:

AL West – 1) Rangers, 2) Astros (wild-card)

AL Central – 1) Royals

AL East – 1) Yankees, 2) Blue Jays (wild card)

NL West – 1) Diamondbacks, 2) Giants (wild card)

NL Central – 1) Pirates, 2) Cubs (wild card)

NL East -- 1) Nationals

For the World Series, I’m picking the Rangers vs. the Giants, a repeat of the finalists for the 2010 World Series.  However, this time the Rangers will finally get their long-awaited World Series ring.

Are Baseball Geeks Making the Game Too Complicated?

I was recently reading some presentation material from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics Conference held in Phoenix in mid-March, and it struck me that all the new advanced metrics being used by baseball’s analysts, general managers, scouts, and player development staff are significantly influencing the game.  Normally, I’m not a person who’s opposed to change, but I’m not so sure the evolution occurring in the game right now, being driven by data analytics, is good for maintaining a broad fan base.

At a time when the sport is already being challenged to preserve its current followers and attract a new, sustainable fan base, many aspects of the game seem to be getting more complicated to follow and understand.

We can thank the book “Moneyball” for starting the evolution about fifteen years ago, but the use of advanced data analytics has been growing exponentially since then.  All of the major league clubs are now spending significant dollars on staff and technology to develop baseball strategies that differentiate themselves from their competition.  A new breed of geeks has emerged in the game.  They scour all sorts of new baseball data sources, looking for an edge to put the right players on the field and implement game tactics that ultimately allow them to win more games.

No one can fault major league teams for wanting to win more games.  I wish the Yankees, my favorite team, would put up more Ws in the win column.  But trying to keep up with all the new baseball acronyms and terminology being directed by data analytics is often confounding and quite frankly frustrating.  If not careful, I’m afraid the sport will lose the casual fan versus gaining more.

What has resulted are new, derived metrics for measuring such factors as defensive runs saved by a fielder, the pitcher’s performance independent of his fielders, an outfielder’s efficiency in tracking down fly balls, an infielder’s range and velocity of throws, and the velocity of a pitched ball coming off a batter’s bat.

Furthermore, there is relatively new data being captured to measure player health.  It doesn’t come from the box scores or the radar measurement technology, but from more subjective input from the stringers (the officials in Organized Baseball who collect data about every pitch in major league and minor league games) who now record events such as players limping, catchers being hit in the head by foul balls, and players missing games due to minor muscle strains.

These are all intriguing types of stats, but when they become the predominant way in which a player’s ability and value to a team are measured, I believe the complexity increases for the average fan.

It makes me wonder if the game is being over-analyzed now.  For many years, we used simple metrics such as batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (for batters); and wins, losses, earned run average, and strikeouts (for pitchers) to evaluate player performance.  These metrics were representative of performance the average fan could actually see at the games.  Nowadays, the old-fashioned ways of evaluating players to tell which are fair, good, and best, seem to have been overtaken by a reliance on some major league back-office analyst crunching huge amounts of data with some complicated algorithms.

Call it being “old school” or whatever label you want, but I believe the folks in the business of baseball some are trying to make the game too much of a science.  If we’re not careful, all the fun will be taken out of the game.  If Yogi Berra were still around, he’d probably describe the situation by saying something like, “baseball is too simple of a game to be complicated.”  I’d agree with him.

Wineski Clan Could Stake Claim as NOLA's First Family of Baseball

Each spring gives us the chance to survey the landscape of baseball diamonds for new and returning players and coaches.  One familiar name that has been around New Orleans area playground, high school, and college fields for the past sixty years is the Wineski family.

If there was such an honor as the “first family of New Orleans baseball”, the Wineskis would surely be one of the finalists for it.  They are an accomplished group of relatives who have shared a passion for baseball spanning three generations.  Altogether there are nine Wineski baseball players that originated from the New Orleans area, including several who are still active in the game.

Lou Wineski Jr., who died in 2010, began this family tree that developed a baseball heritage, going back to his high school days at Holy Cross in the mid-1950s.  He had three ball-playing sons, Lou III, Bobby, and Ray.  They then produced a third generation of diamond players, including Lou III’s two sons, Paul and Ben; Robert’s two sons, Robert and Daniel; and Ray’s son, Peyton.

Growing up in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Lou Jr. was an all-prep and all-state baseball player for Holy Cross High School (1955 graduate) before attending Loyola University on a baseball scholarship, where he obtained his degree in secondary education in 1961.

Lou Jr. taught and coached at Holy Cross before eventually owning and operating a furniture store in Chalmette.  He was a long-time volunteer coach in recreational sports in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.  His leadership led to the founding of the Holy Cross Athletic Association of which he was the first president.

The three sons of Lou Jr. learned to play baseball through their involvement at the playground with their father.  According to Ray, “There was a trickle-down effect from one brother to the next, as to how we became familiar with the game.  ”When asked about whether a competitive spirit existed among the three brothers, Lou III offered, “We were far enough apart from each other in age that we really didn’t have that much competition among us on organized teams.”  Their father didn’t push them to participate in baseball, but Lou III made note of the fact that it was an era before video games, and the entertainment options were more limited at the time.  Besides that, they liked hanging out at the playground with dad.

Lou III (1977 graduate), Bobby (1984 graduate), and Ray (1987 graduate) followed in their father’s footsteps by playing high school baseball at Holy Cross.

In 1977 Lou III played for the Holy Cross-based American Legion team that was state champion.  He also played for the New Orleans Boosters in the 1978 national AAABA tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where they came within one out of winning the championship against Detroit in a 12-inning game.  Lou III recalls facing pitcher Orel Hershiser in the tournament, who went on to an 18-year major league career that included a Cy Young Award in 1988 as the National League’s best pitcher.

Ray remembers the entire family travelling to the tournament in Johnstown.  Coincidentally, it was a return trip for their father, who had played on the 1956 Boosters team that finished in third place in the national competition.

Lou III received a scholarship to play baseball at Nicholls State University.  The middle infielder was nominated as an All-American candidate in 1980 and became the team’s MVP in 1982.  He had an opportunity to sign as a non-drafted free agent with the major league Philadelphia Phillies organization, but opted not to pursue a pro career.

Ray missed his high school graduation ceremony due to playing in the high school state finals for Holy Cross against Rummel.  He appeared in a Louisiana state-wide all-star game at Alex Box Stadium on the LSU campus during his senior year.  He earned a scholarship to play baseball at Tulane University from 1987 to 1990.  Ray recalls that when he was being recruited by Tulane, Coach Joe Brockhoff acknowledged the Wineski family’s background in New Orleans area baseball.  Also an infielder, Ray played on Tulane teams that appeared in NCAA regional tournaments in Baton Rouge and Tallahassee.  He was a teammate of such players as Tookie Spann and Gerald Alexander, who went on to professional careers.

Lou III and Ray followed in their father’s footsteps again, this time as coaches at the high school level.  Lou III is in his 30th year as a coach, currently at Holy Cross, where he has spent most of his career.  He has also coached at De La Salle and St. Martin’s.  Ray is in his fourth year at Fontainebleau High School in Mandeville, after having worked as a territory manager for Shaw Industries.

The third generation of Wineskis includes Lou Jr.’s five grandsons who didn’t fall far from the baseball family tree.

Lou III’s two sons, Paul and Ben, continued the Wineski tradition of playing baseball at Holy Cross.  Paul graduated in 2003, played two years at Delgado Community College, and then finished at Nicholls State.  Ben graduated from Holy Cross in 2005, but did not pursue baseball further.  Paul also continued the Wineski coaching tradition and is currently at Riverside High School.

Bobby moved his family away from New Orleans in 2001, and his sons, Robert and Daniel, wound up playing high school baseball in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  Their 2007 team won the state championship.  Robert received an academic scholarship to Harvard University, where he played baseball.  Daniel competed for Gulf Coast Community College for two years before graduating in 2015 from the University of Southern Mississippi on a baseball scholarship.

Ray’s son, Petyon, played high school baseball at Fontainebleau, where he graduated in 2015.  His team won a district championship during his junior season.  He is the latest edition of the Wineski baseball family to play at the college level, as a freshman for Bishop State Community College in Mobile, Alabama.

As is often the case for many fathers, the Wineskis were often the coaches of their sons on area playground teams.  But it wasn’t until they found themselves having to coach their sons at the high school level that it became somewhat awkward.  Lou III, coaching Paul and Ben at Holy Cross said, “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”  Similarly, Ray coached Peyton at Fontainebleau.  Ray remarked about the situation, “It was sometimes hard to separate the coach and dad responsibilities.”  However, both coaching fathers said they were fortunate their sons’ talent took over on the field, making it easier to avoid favoritism situations with respect to their teammates.

One of the other common links on the baseball diamond across the three generations of Wineskis was the influence of the Scheuermann coaches from New Orleans.  Legendary baseball coach Rags Scheuermann was Lou Jr.’s college coach at Loyola, and he also coached Lou Jr. and Lou III on their respective New Orleans Boosters tournament teams.  Rags’ son, Joe, the highly successful coach at Delgado, coached Paul Wineski during his two seasons at the community college.  Furthermore, Joe was an assistant coach at Tulane when Ray played for the Green Wave.

When asked whether he thought family genes had much to do with the family’s tradition of playing baseball, Lou III remarked, “I’m sure it did.  You have to have a special talent to play the game at a high level.  But the baseball environment we grew up in also contributed to our being able to play at those levels.”

The Wineski family has hopes that a fourth generation of baseball players is in the works.  Paul and Daniel recently celebrated the births of their sons.

The Wineskis are one of several prominent baseball families from the New Orleans area.  Long-time followers of local baseball will remember other names such as Gilbert, Staub, Butera, Cabeceiras, Graffagnini, Hughes, Pontiff, Schwaner, Whitman, and Zimmerman.  The website http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html has an extensive list of over 1,200 players from high schools in the New Orleans area that went on to play at college or pro levels.

Five MLB Players Poised for Big Years

Every spring there are a number of major league players who seem to be primed for a big year.  There are usually several scenarios that contribute to this, such as a player who is looking to have a breakout year, rebound from last year’s injury-plagued season, on the verge of stardom, or benefitting from a change of teams.

Last year, we had the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez attempting a comeback from missing the entire 2014 season of baseball because of his drug-related suspension.  Rookie Kris Bryant of the Cubs led all spring training hitters by slugging eleven home runs, thus laying his claim to a starting role at third base.  Dallas Keuchel was being positioned for the top of the rotation role for the Astros.

I’ve come up with five players I think are poised for productive seasons in 2016.  Indeed if these players are successful, I believe they will have significant impacts on their teams getting to post-season play and possibly winning a championship.

 Justin Upton

At age 28, Justin Upton has already logged nine major league seasons, where his 162 Game Average is 26 home runs and 84 RBI.  Despite these numbers, he’s become somewhat of a journeyman outfielder the past few years, since his 2016 team, the Detroit Tigers, will be his fourth in five years.  As a result, his offensive contributions have largely gone unnoticed and unappreciated.  The Tigers added Upton to their roster during the off-season, where he figures to add to an already potent offense that includes Miguel Cabrera, J. D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, and Ian Kinsler.  With that kind of power around him, Upton is expected to lift his game even further. The Tigers missed the playoffs in 2015 for the first time in five years.  With Upton and an upgraded pitching staff, the Tigers seem ready to be highly competitive in a tough division.

 Hunter Pence

The San Francisco Giants never really threatened the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and one of the reasons was that Hunter Pence was on the disabled list for two-thirds of the season.  The Giants missed his bat and hustle in the lineup, as well as his eccentric inspirational leadership in the clubhouse.  The Giants added some much-needed depth in their pitching staff with the acquisition of veterans Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and thus figure to be in the hunt again for a playoff berth this season.  Pence will be back in right field full time and resume his a sparkplug role in their resurgence attempt.  After all, it is an even-numbered year and we all know what happened in the last three such years—the Giants won a World Series.

 Francisco Lindor

The Astros’ Carlos Correa stole most of the headlines last year as the next up-and-coming superstar shortstop in the major leagues, but Francisco Lindor actually wasn’t too far behind him in overall talent.  Lindor wasn’t a surprise to his own Cleveland Indians organization since he had been on their top prospect lists for several years, but he finally reached the maturity level to show that he belongs in their everyday starting lineup.  He showed surprising power for a shortstop after his major league debut in mid-June, as he hit 12 home runs in his 99 games.  He can hit pretty much anywhere in the lineup, but will probably wind up in the leadoff spot because the Indians don’t have other suitable candidates right now.  The Indians finished strong last year after a horrible start.  They may have the best starting rotation in the American League, so Lindor’s arrival in the big leagues comes at a good time, as they bid for their first division title since 2007.

 Anthony Rendon

The Washington Nationals’ Rendon had his breakout season in 2014, as he settled in at the third base position and began hitting like his all of his scouting reports projected he would.  As a result, he wound up in fifth place in the National League MVP voting that year.  However, he took a step back in 2015 when injuries befell him, and he also had to split time between second and third base.  He’s healthy now and back at third base, his normal position.  Rendon will combine with MVP teammate Bryce Harper to provide a solid 3-4 punch in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup.  New manager Dusty Baker will infuse a new attitude into a disorganized Nationals team from last season and Rendon should return to his 2014 form.  Both of these factors will contribute to a Nationals team that will pose a serious challenge in 2016 to the defending division and league champion New York Mets.

 George Springer

The Houston Astros surprised a lot of people in 2015, maybe even themselves, by leading the division most of the season and ultimately making the divisional playoffs through a wild card game victory.  Their well-designed youth movement kicked in at least one year earlier than even they considered, and outfielder George Springer has been a key part of that, along with Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.  Through a season and a half of his major league career so far, Springer has been building up for a break-out season, which should happen this year.  Since his offensive game includes a good combination of power and speed, he should be good for 25 home runs, 85 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in a full 2016 season.  That type of production would help propel the Astros to another playoff season.

MLB at the Forefront of Developing US Relations with Cuba

Major League Baseball announced last week the Tampa Bay Rays will play an exhibition against the Cuban National Team in Havana on March 22.  It’s another sign that the sport is taking the lead in opening the doors wider to the forlorn country, helping facilitate the U.S. government’s intention to improve international relations with Cuba.  But there’s also a big reason why the MLB taking such a highly visible approach.

The last time an American major league team played in Cuba was in 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game there. The door to American baseball in Cuba has been closed since 1959, when Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew a pro-American government.  Prior to that, some of the U. S. baseball franchises had maintained affiliated minor league teams in Havana.

Cuba has shared a love for baseball with America, going back to the “sugar cane” leagues of the early 1900s.  Castro was a huge supporter of baseball in Cuba during his dictatorship.  Baseball is still king in Cuba.  But the shared passion for the sport has also been a source of contention between the two countries, since Cuban players are not allowed to freely immigrate to American soil to play baseball.

Fifteen months ago, the United States announced its intention to pursue the re-establishment of political and economic relationships with Cuba.  Since then, the MLB has applied for special permission from the U.S. government to allow teams to sign players in Cuba and is awaiting a response.  Approval would permit the MLB to negotiate a player-transfer agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation.

Since the earliest days of the major leagues in 1871, there have been over 200 players from Cuba to play in the major leagues.  Current major league players who left Cuba to play in the U.S. include MLB All-Stars such as Jose Abreu (White Sox), Yasiel Puig (Dodgers), Yoenis Cespedes (Mets), Kendrys Morales (Royals), Aroldis Chapman (Yankees), and Yasmani Grandal (Dodgers).

Most of these players had to leave under personally dangerous circumstances in order to escape from Cuba and eventually find their way to the United States to play baseball.  However, these players formerly starred for Cuban national teams that were highly successful in international tournaments, and their skills translated well to the American game.  Indeed, the Cuban players have made an impact on today’s game.

There were a record 150 baseball player defections in Cuba last year, according to Cuban journalist Francys Romero.  The latest to attract significant attention included brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gurriel, who deserted a Cuban team traveling in the Dominican Republic in February of this year.  They come from a prominent baseball family in Cuba, and their intention is to wind up in the United States to sign professional contracts.

The MLB has an obvious motive in encouraging the relations between the U. S. and Cuba.  They see a bevy of potential talent coming from Cuba and want to expand the possibilities of openly acquiring the best players coming from there.  Major league teams are licking their chops for the opportunity to find more players like Abreu, Cespedes, and Puig.

The MLB has had real success in recruiting and developing Latino players from the Caribbean, Central American, and South American countries, especially since the mid-1960s.  The major league organizations have already established baseball academies in several of the Latin countries to develop prospects, many as young as sixteen years old, in the American way of baseball.  Cuba is the next frontier for Major League Baseball.

Several Cuban-born major leaguers took a much publicized trip to Cuba during the winter as ambassadors for Major League Baseball, further contributing to the thawing of past relationships between the United States and Cuba.  The players conducted clinics with Cuban youngsters who had a keen awareness of their instructors, already their heroes.  Another benefit of the trip was the major leaguers were able to reconnect with family members and friends they had not seen since they defected from Cuba.

President Obama will attend the exhibition baseball game later in the month.  That’s a significant milestone in the two countries’ relationship, since the last American president to visit Cuba while in office was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

It’s too early to tell how long it will take before the doors to Cuban baseball players will open wider.  A lot still has to happen politically between the two countries.  But you can bet Major League Baseball will be anxiously waiting to harvest more talent from Cuba.  In the meantime, the common love for the game of baseball will likely continue to be an avenue for making it happen.

Trio of Alou Brothers Made History in 1963

On September 13, 1963, brothers Felipe, Jesus, and Matty Alou made baseball history when they played in the same outfield for the San Francisco Giants.  At the time, the occasion may have been a promotional gimmick by the Giants, since Matty and Jesus were at the beginning of their careers, surrounded by uncertainty they would be sticking around with the Giants much longer since they were competing for regular jobs with their older brother and future Hall of Famers, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.  Regardless, the feat hasn’t occurred again since.

 

As it turned out though, all three Alou brothers wound up having significant careers in the major leagues, altogether encompassing 47 seasons.  Felipe and Matty became all-stars, Matty won a batting championship, and Jesus was a member of two World Series championship teams.  Felipe also had a 10-year managerial career.

 

The Alous’ extended baseball family eventually included other major leaguers, nephew Mel Rojas and cousin Jose Sosa.  Felipe had several sons who also played professional baseball, including Moises who became a major league all-star himself.  Mel Rojas’s brother and son were minor leaguer players.

 

Following is a look back at the careers of the history-making Alou brothers.

 

Felipe Alou

Felipe began his baseball career with very humble beginnings.  Born into a poor family in the Dominican Republic, gloves made out of strips of canvas and bats lathed from scrap wood were his first exposure to baseball.  While he excelled in baseball and track as a youngster, it was his parents’ desire that become a doctor.  In fact, he enrolled in the university for one year with his tuition paid by the state.  But it soon became evident he would not have enough money for the books, clothing and food required to stay in school.

 

After attracting attention in the Pam American Games, the New York Giants signed him to a contract at age 20 and sent him to Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the Evangeline League.  He immediately became controversial because this league did not allow black players at that time.  His mother was a white native of Spain and his father was black.  However, the Louisiana governor’s office declared he was black, forcing the Giants to ship him to the Florida State League after only five games at Lake Charles.

 

Felipe was the first of the three Alou brothers to play in the major leagues.  Considered an everyday, consistent player, he played 17 total seasons, primarily with the Giants and Braves.  He broke in with the Giants on June 8, 1958, their first year on the West Coast.  It was at a time when Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda were getting all the attention on the club.  However, Felipe hit .316 and a career-high 98 RBI for the NL pennant-winning Giants in 1962.

 

After being traded to Milwaukee in 1964, he led the National League in at-bats and hits in 1966 and 1968.  He finished second in batting average to his brother Matty in 1966, the only time this happened in major league history.  That same year, he hit a career-high 31 home runs.   He appeared in the first League Championship Series in 1969, when Atlanta faced the New York Mets. 

 

Felipe was often placed in the batting lineup as a leadoff hitter.  On two occasions, July 26-27, 1965, and August 9-10, 1966, he hit leadoff home runs in consecutive games.  He is among the career leaders in leadoff home runs with 20. He combined with four other Giants players to hit consecutive home runs in the 9th inning of a game on August 31, 1961.  On another occasion, April 30, 1961, he hit one of eight homes in a game by Giants players against the Braves.  In 1968 he had a 22-game hitting streak with the Braves.

 

At the end of the 1969 season, Felipe was traded to the Oakland Athletics and finished his career in the American League by 1974.  During his career, he made the All-Star team three times.  Felipe was one of only three players in history to play for the Milwaukee Braves and Brewers teams.  Hank Aaron and Phil Roof were the others.

 

Felipe spent twelve years managing in the minor leagues, as well as many seasons of winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He became the first Dominican manager in the majors when he succeeded Tom Runnells of the Montreal Expos in May 1992.   He had previously coached at every level in the Expos organization.  Although he was noted for his low-key approach, his philosophy of managing was simple:  “Don’t be afraid to fail.  Play to win, don’t play not to lose.”  His initial Montreal clubs included his son, Moises, and nephew, Mel Rojas.

 

Felipe resurrected the Expos franchise, finishing first or second in four of his first five seasons.  He was selected the National League Manager of the Year in the strike-shortened season of 1994.  He led a young Expos team to the best record in the majors that year, but unfortunately the team did not play in the post-season, because of the strike.

 

The Expos operated with a lean budget and as a result the players were consistently among the lowest paid in the league.  Yet Alou was noted for being somewhat of a miracle worker by getting the most out the talent dealt him.  However, with the Expos competing in the same division with the best National League team of the ‘90s, the Atlanta Braves, they could never rise above a mediocre status.

 

He became the manager of the San Francisco Giants for 2003 and promptly led them to a NL West Division title by winning 100 games, their most since 1993.  He managed the Giants for three more seasons before becoming a special assistant to the Giants’ general manager.

 

During his playing career, Felipe compiled a .286 batting average, 2,101 hits, 985 runs, 206 home runs, and 852 RBI.  He was a three-time All-Star and finished fifth in the National League MVP voting in 1966, when he had a career year leading the league in hits, runs, and total bases.  As a manager, his career record was 1,033 wins and 1,021 losses.

 

In addition to major leaguer Moises Alou, Felipe had three other sons who played baseball professionally.  Luis Rojas was signed by the Orioles.  Jose Alou played in the Expos organization, while Felipe Alou Jr. played in the Royals organization.  He also had another nephew, Francisco Rojas, who played in the major leagues.

 

 

Jesus Alou

Jesus was the youngest of the three Alou brothers who played in the major leagues.  He was signed by the Giants as a 16-year-old and began his professional career in 1959 as a pitcher.  He converted to an outfielder and made his major league debut on September 10, 1963, with the San Francisco Giants. 

 

He played a total of six seasons with the Giants, hitting .298 and .292 in two of those seasons.  Like his brother Matty, he was not known as a power hitter, with 9 home runs and 52 RBI in 1965 being his career best in each of those categories.

 

When the National League expanded after the 1968 season, Jesus was drafted by the Montreal Expos from the expansion player list, but they traded him to Houston for the 1969 season.

 

He played three full seasons and part of a fourth for the Astros, and then was traded to Oakland just in time to help them into the World Series in 1973.  In 1974 as a reserve outfielder, he again appeared with Oakland in their third straight World Series.  He played for the Mets in 1975, sat out for two years, and then completed his career with two more years at Houston.  Beginning in 1972 he was frequently filling a pinch-hitter role and finished his career with 82 pinch-hits.

 

Jesus got six hits in a game on July 10, 1964, against the Cubs.  Each of his hits came off a different pitcher.  On July 17, 1966, he equaled a National League record when he grounded into a double play three times in the second game of a doubleheader.

 

For his career, he hit for a .280 average and produced 1,126 hits, 32 home runs and 377 RBI.  When he got his 1,000th career hit with the Astros in 1972, it made the Alou brothers the only major league trio to get over 1,000 hits in their careers.  In 1979, he was a coach for the Houston Astros.

 

 

Matty Alou

Matty followed his older brother’s footsteps with the San Francisco Giants when he made his major league debut on September 26, 1960.  He spent six seasons with the Giants as a reserve player, primarily because the Giants’ outfield was already crowded with such hitters as Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Harvey Kuenn, and his brothers.

 

Matty was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1965 season, and he immediately became a star as a full-time player.  He led the National League in hitting (.342) in 1966, beating out his brother Felipe, who finished in second place.  That year he was part of a .300-hitting outfield with Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente.  Matty would go on to be among the top ten in his league in batting average and top five in hits for five more seasons.  He is one of eight major league players who got 200 hits in a season (1970) and still batter under .300.

 

Following his five-year stint with the Pirates, he played with the Cardinals, A’s, Yankees and Padres, still managing to hit well.

 

Matty retired after the 1974 season with a .307 career batting average, 1,777 hits and 236 doubles.  He had very little power, as he hit only 31 home runs and 427 RBI over fifteen seasons.  In fact, in 1968 he went an entire season (558 at-bats) with no home runs. 

 

Matty appeared in World Series games with the Giants in 1962 and Oakland A’s in 1972.  He was a National League All-Star in 1968 and 1969.  Following his major league career, he played three years for the Taiheiyo Club Lions in Japan.

Are the KC Royals the new Yankees?

The Kansas City Royals are entering the 2016 season seeking their third consecutive American League pennant.  Just a few years ago, the Texas Rangers failed in their attempt.  Of course, it used to be pretty routine during the Yankee dynasty years for them to claim a string of consecutive pennants.  Despite being the defending World Series champion, practically no one is picking the Royals to repeat this year.  They don’t play with a lot of flash and don’t have marquee players, so they’re somewhat under-estimated and overlooked. However, we may be seeing the start of a new style of baseball dynasty.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore has constructed a team whose offense is built around hitters that make contact, don’t strike out a lot, and run the bases aggressively.  Their pitching mainly relies on a starting rotation that only needs to get into the sixth inning and then turns the game over to its “lights out” relief staff.  They don’t give up a lot of home runs and walks, and boast the third-best ERA in the league last year.

That’s not exactly the traditional recipe for championship teams, but the ingredients were good enough in 2015 when the Royals won the AL Central Division by twelve games, beat the upstart Astros and high-scoring Blue Jays in the playoffs, and then overcame the Mets’ dominant pitching to capture the World Series title.

The other key element of their winning formula was a team chemistry focused around a core of players who have come through the Royals’ system together and are tightly woven together by homespun skipper Ned Yost.  Yost is a throw-back manager, not one of the new breed of young game tacticians that seem to be taking hold throughout the league.  Yet he’s found a way to get championship results for the past two seasons.

The backbone of the Royals’ lineup includes home-grown players such as Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Luke Hochevar, Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera.  Including the addition of Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar who were acquired by the Royals early in their careers, the Royals gave all of these guys a chance to develop as players, even though the team went through some lean years to get to this point.  A testament to the success of this deliberate approach was the selection of seven Royals to the All-Star Game last year.

In an era of significant movement of players among teams via trades and free agency, the Royals have managed to maintain consistency in their roster for the past few years.  Unlike almost every other aspect of the game, there are no analytics for measuring the value or contribution of this consistency to team success.  It’s a differentiator some other general managers in the league would love to have.

Apparently the Royals’ players are buying into the team’s approach, too, since free agent Alex Gordon inked a new four-year deal with the Royals.  Additionally, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas extended their current contracts by two years, before their arbitration years were expired.  These signings say a lot for team chemistry as well.

The Royals had some turnover in their pitching staff over the winter, with the loss of free agents Johnny Cueto, Ryan Madson, Jeremy Guthrie, and Franklin Morales.  But they’ve re-stocked with starters Ian Kennedy and Dillon Gee and will rely on last year’s late-season acquisition of Kris Medlin, all of whom fit the Royals’ model for starting pitchers who only need to go five or six innings.  Veteran reliever Joakim Soria was acquired to offset losses in the bullpen.  The Royals relish getting into the seventh inning with a lead, since their relief staff has been as good as any team’s.

History says the odds are against the Royals to repeat as American League champs for a third consecutive season.  In fact, some baseball analysts believe the Royals will have a hard time even repeating as division winners, since their competition figures to be improved over since last season.  The Twins are a young team on the rise, surprising everyone with a second place finish last season.  The Indians, who many had projected to win the division last year, has one of the best starting rotations in the league.  The White Sox and Tigers made key acquisitions during the off-season to bolster their lineups.

However, the Royals, with its team largely intact from last season, have the fundamentals and chemistry built for the long haul.  No, they’re not like the typical New York Yankee dynasty teams of yesteryear.  The Royals don’t have the big-name free-agent players and power-laden lineup.  They don’t play in a large media market.  They don’t thrive on controversy.

But what the Royals do have is a proven winning approach, one that we may be talking about for years to come.

 

 

Sons of the 1960s Bronx Bombers Had Big Shoes to Fill

The New York Yankees dynasty that began in the early 1920s continued into the 1960s with five consecutive American League pennants from 1960 to 1964.  Included in the streak were World Series championships in 1961 and 1962.

Those teams featured some of the greatest Yankee legends of the all-time, including Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Roger Maris.  In addition to these renowned players, several other regulars and backups on these Yankee teams had sons who eventually played professional baseball themselves.

It’s not unusual for sons to try to follow their father’s professions.  For example, how many families have produced multiple generations of doctors, lawyers, farmers and soldiers?  It’s been no different for the sons of baseball players.

But it does seem a bit remarkable that so many of the Yankee players of this era had sons who went on to follow in their father’s baseball footsteps.  Altogether, fourteen Yankee players produced 21 sons that pursued professional baseball careers. 

For the sons of the Yankee players, one might say they were born into baseball because of the environment in which they were raised.  A few of the sons were legitimate pro prospects coming out of amateur baseball at the high school and collegiate levels.  However, several of them only got a shot a pro baseball because of their father’s name and Yankee background, especially those sons who signed as undrafted free agents or as late-round draft picks.  A couple of the sons had significant major league careers, but most of the progenies didn’t make it past the low minors.

Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle came from a family of ballplayers from Oklahoma.  His two younger brothers, Ray and Roy, and a cousin, Maxie, managed to get tryouts with the Yankees organization, but lasted only a couple of minor league seasons, having nowhere near the talent of “The Mick.”  But their shortfalls didn’t deter Mickey from encouraging one of his sons, also named Mickey, to try his hand at the game.  One can only imagine the pressure on a son named Mickey Mantle trying to break into the game.  The younger Mickey played only 17 games for a Class A team in the Yankees organization in 1978 and quickly gave up the game.

One of the best catchers of all time, Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra produced three sons who went on to play professional sports.  His oldest son, Laurence, was a catcher in the New York Mets organization, but wound up playing only a total of 22 games during the 1971 and 1972 seasons.  His son, Tim, however went in the direction of football, becoming the 17th round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts in 1974.  Tim played one season for the Colts, primarily as a punt returner.

Dale Berra had the most significant career of Yogi’s sons, as he had an 11-year career in the majors spanning 1977 to 1987.  However, the shortstop didn’t have his dad’s hitting ability.  His career batting average was a meager .236, to go along with 49 home runs and 278 RBI.  In 1985 and 1986, Dale also played for the Yankees, when his father was a coach for the team.

The son of Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, Eddie, was an excellent college shortstop at the University of South Carolina, where Whitey’s former teammate Bobby Richardson was the head coach.  Eddie became the first round pick of the Boston Red Sox in the 1974 Major League Draft.  Although never a great hitter in the minors, he reached the Triple-A level before quitting baseball.

Roger Maris made his mark in Yankee history with his historic 61 home run season in 1961 and his two American League MVP campaigns in 1960 and 1961.  His son, Kevin, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization as an undrafted free agent in 1982.  However, it turned out Kevin didn’t have the same propensity for hitting as his father did, since the infielder played only one minor league season in which he managed to hit only .111 in 33 games.

As the slick-fielding third baseman on those Yankee teams, Clete Boyer was one of seven brothers who played baseball professionally.  Two of them, Ken and Cloyd, also played in the majors.  Clete had two sons, Brett and Mickey, who pursued professional careers.  Mickey, named after Mickey Mantle, played one season in the Oakland A’s organization, while Brett played five seasons in the Montreal Expos and San Francisco Giants minor league organizations, never rising above Class A level.

Tom Tresh was slated to be the heir apparent to Tony Kubek as the New York Yankee shortstop in the 1960’s, and he lived up to expectations as the American League Rookie of the Year in 1962.  Tom’s father, Mike, had been a former major leaguer during the late 1930s and 1940s.  Tom’s son, Mickey (also named after Mickey Mantle), attempted to become a third-generation major leaguer in the Tresh family, but he fell short after playing four minor league seasons in the Yankees and Detroit Tigers organizations.

Mel Stottlemyre broke in with the Yankees in 1964 and proceeded to play 11 seasons, winning 20 or more games in three seasons on his way to compiling 164 career wins.  Among his three sons that played professional baseball, the most prominent was Todd, who won 138 career major league games over 13 seasons during 1988 to 2002.  Mel Jr. had 13 major league appearances in 1992 with the Kansas City Royals, while he also pitched a total of six seasons in the minors.  Jeffrey pitched four minor league seasons in the Seattle Mariners organization from 1980 to 1983.

Bill Stafford pitched for the Yankees from 1960 to 1965.  As a member of the starting rotation, he won 14 games in each of the 1961 and 1962 seasons when the Yankees won World Series titles.  His son, Mike, was the 41st round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays out of Ohio State University in 1998.  A relief pitcher, Mike appeared in four minor league seasons that also included stints with the Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers.

Pitcher Stan Williams had two seasons with the Yankees as a spot starter and reliever in 1963 and 1964.  His son, Stan Jr., was a 38th round pick by the Yankees from the University of Southern California in 1981.  He played two minor league seasons in the Yankees farm system before leaving baseball.

Once touted as the Yankees’ potential center field replacement for Mickey Mantle whose injuries had begun to slow him down considerably, Roger Repoz wound up being a platoon player who was ultimately traded by the Yankees.  He had two sons that pursued pro baseball, albeit resulting in brief careers.  Craig was a third baseman who spent six minor league seasons in the Mets and Padres organizations from 1985 to 1990.  Jeff pitched sparingly in two seasons in Low A and Rookie League levels in 1989 and 1990.

Several other players who made brief appearances for the early 1960s Yankee teams also had sons in professional baseball.  The fathers included Deron Johnson (sons Dom and D. J.), Billy Gardner (son Billy Jr.), Lee Thomas (sons Scott and Deron), and Bill Kunkel (sons Kevin and Jeff).  Of this group of sons, only Jeff Kunkel made it to the major leagues.

Although the son of 1963 American League MVP Elston Howard wound up not playing professional baseball, Elston Howard Jr. did play at the collegiate level at Dade Community College in Florida and the University of Alabama.  When Elston Jr. was not drafted by a major league team, he didn’t pursue a pro baseball career.

Looking back in baseball history, the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” teams of the 1970s had a similar circumstance as the New York Yankees teams of the 1960s.  Sixteen Reds players during their championship era produced 23 sons that went on to play professional baseball.  Nine of the sons reached the major league level, most notably Ken Griffey Jr.

The 1960s Yankee fathers probably had visions of their sons being the next generation of Bronx Bombers who would continue the dynasty.  For the most part, however, the offspring of these Yankee players didn’t come close to measuring up to their father’s productive major league careers. Perhaps Moises Alou, the son of a major leaguer and a former major leaguer himself, said it best, “If a player can’t hit, field, or throw, it doesn’t matter who his father was.”

In many respects, the shoes which the Yankee sons were trying to fill were much too big to expect similar results as their fathers.

Big Papi Will Leave a Big Void in the Game

On his 40th birthday in November, David Ortiz announced that the 2016 season would be his last.  One of baseball’s most popular players has decided he will hang up his spikes after his upcoming 20th big league season.  The love affair he’s had with Boston Red Sox fans and practically all baseball fans will finally come to an end.  It’s a pretty safe bet he will be sorely missed in a lot of ways.

Big Papi has made a name for himself as one of the best clutch hitters of his era.  His late-inning heroics throughout his Red Sox career became legendary.  Perhaps the best example of this was during the 2004 post-season when Ortiz led the Red Sox to their first World Series championship.  In Game 3 of the ALDS, he hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning to defeat the Angels.  In the ALCS against the Yankees, he hit a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 and then a walk-off single in the 14th inning of Game 5.

Ortiz’s career could have ended after that season, and he still would have been a cult hero in Red Sox Nation forever.  Before the start of the next season in 2005, Red Sox ownership presented him with a plaque declaring him “the greatest clutch-hitter in the history of the team.”  But his heroics didn’t end there.

He went on to become one of the most feared designated hitters in the game.  He’s currently the all-time leader in home runs, RBI and hits for a DH, as he helped lead the Red Sox to two more World Series championships in 2007 and 2013.

Ortiz’s performance as a dreaded pull hitter has caused opponents to routinely employ shifts of its infielders to counteract his hitting.  It was reminiscent of one of Boston’s forefathers, Ted Williams, against whom a similar shift became popular in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.  However, the left-handed hitting Ortiz became adept at challenging the shift by settling for singles off of Fenway’s Green Monster, rather than continually trying to pull home runs past Pesky Pole in right field.

Over the years, Ortiz’s reputation with the Red Sox hasn’t ended on the field.  He became the face of the Red Sox to baseball fans.  He merely added to his popularity with the Red Sox Nation when he made his now-famous appeal, including a spontaneous expletive, to the city of Boston to “stay strong” following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

Ortiz’s playful exuberance for the game became the hallmark of his persona.  His big, infectious smile made him a fan favorite, both young and old.  Only Big Papi could get away with taking a “selfie” with a United States president, as he did with Barack Obama on a visit the Red Sox made to the White House in 2014.

The Major League All Star Game festivities last year featured the selection of the “Franchise Four” for each major league team, as determined by on-line voting by fans.  Ortiz was named, along with Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Pedro Martinez, as the four greatest players in Red Sox history. Without question, Ortiz has been the most popular Red Sox player since Yastrzemski.

Ortiz is poised for his last hurrahs in 2016.  It’s likely he’ll be making a farewell tour of major league stadiums in the style of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in recent years.  But it doesn’t matter what type of season he’ll have in 2016 season.  His place in baseball history is already secured, perhaps even including a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  For sure, his uniform Number 34 will eventually hang in Fenway Park alongside those of Williams, Cronin, Yastrzemski, Pesky and Doerr.

Whether or not we are a Red Sox fan, we should savor the final moments of Big Papi’s career this upcoming season.  We’ll be awfully fortunate if he’s able to find a way to stay in the game after his playing days are over.  Otherwise, there’ll be a big void that won’t likely be filled soon.

Detroit Tigers Primed for Contender Role Again

The Detroit Tigers dominated the American League Central Division from 2011 to 2014, but then suffered a significant drop-off last year when they won only 74 games to bring up the rear of the division.  However, during the offseason the team filled some holes in the roster with a few key acquisitions that should result in a more balanced team for 2016.  They’ll need this additional help since the competitive landscape of the Central Division has changed significantly.  If the Tigers can maintain a healthy team, they are poised to be in the hunt for a playoff spot again.

The Tigers already had a good core of players with future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Verlander, although Father Time is creeping up on each of them.  But they’ve also had some infusion of talent with relative newcomers like J. D. Martinez, Jose Iglesias, and Nick Castellanos in the past couple of years.

Except for David Price, their starting pitching was a liability last season.  Verlander and another veteran pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, missed significant time due to injuries.  When the Tigers were clearly out of contention at the end of July, they dealt Price to the Toronto Blue Jays.  No one else on their staff really stepped up to fill the gaps.

Furthermore, there has been a revolving door to the bullpen in the past few years.  Even during its division-winning years, the Tigers’ bullpen was its weakest link.  They’ve had a different closer for the past four seasons.

Al Avila is entering his first full season as Tigers’ GM (he took over for Dave Dombrowski last August), but he wasn’t shy during the off-season in getting the players manager Brad Ausmus needed to upgrade the team. 

The Tigers have allowed starters Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello to get away from Comerica Park.  The signing of David Price in late 2014 was thought to offset the outflow of good arms, but then they wound of dealing him at the trade deadline last year.  So one of Avila’s primary objectives during the winter was to shore up the pitching rotation again.

The Tigers won the bidding for free agent Jordan Zimmermann from Washington, and he’ll likely fit into the Number 2 spot between Verlander and Sanchez.  Veteran hurler Mike Pelfrey was signed as a free agent from Minnesota.  The Tigers are taking somewhat of a gamble on him in the starting rotation, since he’s been plagued by injury in two of his last four seasons.

22-year-old Daniel Norris came to the Tigers in the trade that dealt David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays.  At the beginning of 2015, he was rated the third-best left-handed pitching prospect in the big leagues, but he spent the majority of the season in the minors.  After the season he underwent treatment for thyroid cancer that had been diagnosed last April.  He’s expected to be in full form for 2016, and will be given a shot at the Number 5 slot in the rotation.

Needing to address the bullpen as well, Avila managed to sign veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez during the off-season.  Although Rodriguez has lost speed on the fastball that contributed to his nickname, K-Rod, he is coming off two solid seasons with the Brewers.  Avila also secured the services of Justin Wilson from the Yankees and Mark Lowe from the Blue Jays to be setup men for Rodriguez.

Avila didn’t stop with just adding to the pitching corps.  Centerfielder Cameron Maybin was acquired in a trade with Atlanta in November, where he has posted a solid season in 2015.  The nine-year veteran brought additional speed and defense to the team and was initially intended to fill a void in the outfield created by the trade of Yoenis Cespedes during last season.

But then the Tigers stepped up in January to sign Justin Upton, one of the top prizes of the free agent outfielders.  Still only 27 years old, he has nine major league seasons under his belt.  Based on past performances, Upton can be counted to add 25+ home runs and 85+ RBI, although he does have a relatively high strikeout rate.

So, imagine a middle of a batting lineup that includes Upton, Miggy Cabrera (the 2015 AL batting champ and league leader in on-base percentage), J. D. Martinez (a Silver Slugger winner in 2015 with 38 home runs and 102 RBI), and Victor Martinez (2014 Silver Slugger winner and league leader in on-base plus slugging percentage).  It may be prove one of the best in baseball next year.

The Tigers will need all the fire power they can muster, since the American League Central Division has suddenly emerged as one of the toughest.  The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals returns most of its lineup in tact from last year, so one has to believe they will be in the mix again.  The Minnesota Twins, under new manager Paul Molitor, were the surprise team of the division last season when their young team made a run at the wild card spot, falling short by four games to the Houston Astros.  The Cleveland Indians were among the pre-season favorites in 2015, but got off to a miserable start, losing 14 of their first 21 games.  They finally pulled everything together at mid-season, but it was too late and they finished in third place.  The Indians figure to pick up where they left off last season.  Even the Chicago White Sox, who pulled up the rear of the division last season despite adding several free agent players the winter before, are expected to rebound.  Plus, they added hard-hitting third baseman Todd Frazier during this past off-season.

In only his second season at the helm, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was in jeopardy with his job at the end of last season due to the disappointing last place results.  However, with Avila taking over the GM job, he gave Ausmus a vote of confidence and retained him.

On paper, the Tigers have a formidable team.  They addressed several leftover issues from last season during the winter.  However, the health of several key players will be the biggest factor in whether they can regain their old spot atop the division.

5 Facts You Should Know About Junior

During the first week of the year, Ken Griffey Jr.’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame was the top baseball story.  He missed being a unanimous selection by only three votes, although he did garner the highest percentage of votes in the history of the Hall, besting Tom Seaver who was the previous holder of that distinction.

What a lot of people forget is just how good of a career Junior Griffey’s father had.  Of all the father-son combos in the history of the game, the Griffeys rank at the top along with Barry and Bobby Bonds.  George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Yogi Berra, Pete Rose, and Tony Gwynn are the fathers of some of the most recognizable father-son pairs, but their combined family performances pale those of the Griffeys.

From 1973 to 2010, there was a Griffey playing in the major leagues, as their careers actually overlapped, something that had never happened before.

So what should you know about Ken Griffey Sr.?

  1.  Griffey Sr. was born in Denora, Pennsylvania, the same little town that produced Stan Musial, the former St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer.  Ken’s father Buddy was a left-handed third baseman who played on the same high school team as Musial in the 1930s.  Junior Griffey was also born in Denora (population around 9,000), likely making it the U. S. city with the highest number of Hall of Famers per capita.

  2. Griffey Sr. was a member of the famed Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds teams of the early to mid-1970s that dominated the National League.  Griffey played on two World Series championship teams in 1975 and 1976.  His batting average with the Reds was .307, yet he was a minor star since he played on those Reds teams with future Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez.

  3. Griffey Sr. was also a member of the storied New York Yankee franchise, except he played there during its drought years during the 1980s when they failed to produce a division winner.  However, his 1985 Yankees team won 97 games but finished in second place behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL West Division.  Griffey’s teammates on that team included three future Hall of Famers--Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Phil Niekro, as well as Don Mattingly, Don Baylor, Ron Guidry, and Dave Righetti.

  4. When Junior Griffey made his major league debut in 1989, the father-son combo became the first to be active in the major leagues at the same time.  In 1990, nearing the end of his career, the Cincinnati Reds allowed Griffey Sr. to sign with the Seattle Mariners, where Junior was playing.  On August 31, they started in the same game for the Mariners, each collecting singles in the first inning.  In their game together on September 14, they hit back-to-back home runs.

  5. Griffey Sr. was a three-time National League All-Star, claiming the midsummer classic’s MVP title in 1980.  He contended for the league batting title in 1976 with a .336 average.  He had a career .297 batting average, compared to Junior’s .284.  Griffey Sr. had similar speed (200 career stolen bases to Junior’ 194), but far less power (152 home runs and .431 slugging percentage to Junior’s 630 home runs and .538 slugging percentage).  Together, they rank among baseball’s most prolific families in offensive categories.

7 Pitchers Key to their Team's Success

We're all familiar with the age-old adage that good pitching wins baseball games.  In 2015, the New York Mets were among the most emblematic teams in this regard.  Their staff of young guns kept them in contention for a playoff spot in the National League despite a woeful offense that didn’t kick in until the last two months of the regular season.  The Mets advanced to their first World Series since 2000, in large part because of twenty-something-year-olds Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Stephen Matz.

Every year, there are a handful of pitchers who rise to the occasion and help put their teams over the top to clinch division titles and playoff berths.  In the case of the Mets, several of their pitchers were key to the club’s advancement.

In addition to the Mets’ aces in 2015, there was Jake Arrieta with the Cubs, who had one of the best second halves of a regular season in the history of the game, resulting in the Cubs’ first playoff spot since 2008.  David Price won eleven games after he was acquired by the Blue Jays and enabled the rest of the Jays’ staff to step up in the Blue Jays’ first playoff position since 1993.

American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel came out of nowhere to lead the Astros to their first playoff appearance since 2005.  Zach Greinke had a career year with the Dodgers, even overshadowing his star teammate Clayton Kershaw, a previous three-time Cy Young Award winner.  Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances bolstered the Yankees’ bullpen, offsetting a relatively weak starting pitching staff, to get them into a wild-card game.

Let’s take a look at my predictions for who those key pitchers will be in 2016, the ones who will be crucial to their team’s drive to get into the post-season.

Clayton Kershaw

During the off-season, the Dodgers were unsuccessful in retaining Zach Greinke and acquiring one of the top free-agent pitchers to replace him.  Even if their efforts had been fruitful, the rest of their starting staff was still going to be questionable.  Consequently, that makes Clayton Kershaw’s season in 2016 all that more important to their being able to preserve a playoff spot for their fourth consecutive season.  Kershaw has demonstrated in the past he can carry the team on his back.  However, if he should suffer a down season, or become injured, the Dodgers won’t be in contention for a division title or a wild card spot at season’s end.

 

Johnny Cueto

It’s an even numbered year, so that must mean the San Francisco Giants are destined to win the World Series again, having captured championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014.  However, for that to happen, Johnny Cueto must turn in an exceptional season for the Giants.  Cueto was acquired by the Giants in the off-season, along with pitcher Jeff Samardzija, to upgrade an aging staff from last season.  If Cueto can return to his all-star form of 2014, he will be a much-needed complement to the Giants’ existing ace, Madison Bumgarner.  Together, I could see them routinely winning two of a three or four-game series most of the time.

 

Shelby Miller

The Arizona Diamondbacks surprised the baseball world when they won the battle to sign free agent Zach Greinke during this past off-season.  Then, trading for Shelby Miller of the Atlanta Braves signaled the baseball community they were serious about making a run for the National League West Division in 2016, not in another year or two.  There is little doubt Greinke will post another superior season, just as he’s done over the past few years with the Dodgers. Thus Miller will actually be more of a factor in determining whether the Diamondbacks can really compete with the Dodgers and Giants.  He played for a bad Atlanta Braves team last year, so he didn’t get much attention.  The Diamondbacks are betting he’s poised for a big season with a potentially division-winning team.

 

Corey Kluber

Kluber was the American League Cy Young Award winner in 2014, but his wins and ERA were significantly off from his banner year.  After a horrendous start by the Indians last season, Kluber pitched well enough in the second half to help them rally to an 81-win season.  Despite his success in 2014, Kluber has largely flown under the radar, yet he is crucial to an upstart pitching staff of the Indians team that is on the verge of breaking into the ranks of playoff contenders.  However, another subpar season from Kluber at the top of the rotation will greatly diminish the Indians’ chances for the playoffs in 2016.

 

David Price

Red Sox Nation was extremely disappointed with another last-place finish by its team, the third in its last four seasons (although a World Series championship was sandwiched in between).  Despite the acquisition of three new experienced starting pitchers before the 2015 season, the Red Sox pitching staff was one of the worst in the American League.  Enter David Price for 2016.  He is being counted on by the Red Sox to do the same thing he did for the Blue Jays last season, i.e., be a true Number 1 starter so that he takes the pressure off the rest of the Red Sox rotation.  Price is a fierce competitor and he has a way of bringing out the best of the rest of his team.  Price will be the difference-maker in the Red Sox being a cellar-dweller again or a contender for the division title.

 

Dallas Keuchel

Going into last season, the Houston Astros’ timetable for becoming a contending team was one to two years away.  They wound up advancing that schedule once the season got underway, managing to win a wild card spot after leading their division for most of the year.  One of the primary reasons for their unforeseen success was the performance of lefty pitcher Dallas Keuchel.  He had a break-out season (20-8 won-loss record, 2.48 ERA, 1.017 WHIP) that resulted in his winning the Cy Young Award.  He was clutch at his home field at Minute Maid Park, not losing a game there during the regular season.  He was an innings-eater last year, leading the league with 232 innings pitched.  The Astros lost starting pitcher Scott Kazmir to free agency over the winter and haven’t added a comparable arm thus far.  Keuchel will need a repeat performance in 2016 for the Astros to remain in the ranks of contenders.

 

Marcus Stroman

Unless you are a Toronto Blue Jays fan, Marcus Stroman is not a household name among most other baseball followers.  However, he now he is now sitting in the Number 1 starter slot in the Blue Jays rotation.  That’s a lot of pressure on a young pitcher who’s logged only 157 innings in his major league career.  After winning 11 games in 2014, Stroman came back from knee surgery which occurred at the beginning of last season to start four games in September, winning all four.  And then the Blue Jays looked to him in their post-season run, as he got three starts.  With veterans David Price and Mark Buehrle now gone from the Blue Jays, Stroman is on tap to anchor the staff.  If he responds as well as he previously has in his short career, then the Blue Jays have a good chance to repeat as the American League East Division champs.  If not, the Blue Jays will struggle.

New Hall of Famer Mike Piazza Defied the Odds

It was no big surprise Mike Piazza was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this past week.  After all, he was the best offensive catcher in the history of the game.

However, in 1988 when Piazza was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round of the Major League Amateur Draft, no one would have bet then that Piazza would wind up in the hallowed hall in Cooperstown.  That’s right, he was selected in the 62nd round, 1,390th out of the 1,433 players selected in the draft that year.  Not exactly a good omen for a future Hall of Famer.

Players selected in the rounds higher than 35 are generally considered longshots at getting to the big leagues.  Occasionally, the later rounds are used by teams to make token selections of sons of baseball owners, executives, and managers who don’t have a high probability of lasting more than a few years in the low minors.  Heck, even the 18-year-old daughter of Chicago White Sox general manager Ron Schueler was selected in the 43rd round of the 1998 draft.  Of course, her selection was a gimmick, but it was indicative of how the later rounds were often times considered by the major league organizations.

Piazza almost didn’t get selected in the 1988 draft at all.  As a high school player in Pennsylvania, Piazza hadn’t attracted much serious attention from pro scouts.  He went on to play baseball for two years in college, but it was only through the intercession of his father’s good friend, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, that he was chosen by the Dodgers in that draft.

Then, only when Lasorda promised the Dodgers’ scouting organization that Piazza would convert to catcher (since there was a general shortage of players at that position at the time), did he get signed for a meager $15,000 bonus.  Piazza had never played regularly at the catcher position before.

Piazza may have initially been a neophyte as a catcher, but it turned out he could definitely hit.  He had a breakout year in his third pro season when he hammered 29 home runs.  He played winter ball to hone his catching skills and build up his confidence in playing the position.

After a late-season call-up with the Dodgers in 1992, Piazza became the Dodgers’ regular catcher the next season and ultimately earned National League Rookie of the Year honors, based on his 35 home runs, 112 RBI and .318 batting average.  He was named to the All-Star team and won a Silver Slugger Award.

Piazza followed up the 1993 season with five more consecutive seasons with All-Star and Silver Slugger honors with the Dodgers and a better than.300 batting average.  He finished as runner-up in the MVP voting twice, in 1996 and 1997.

In 1998, he was traded to the Florida Marlins after he could not come to contract terms with the Dodgers.  However, after only five games with the Marlins, he found himself in a Mets uniform in New York.  From 1999 to 2002, he proceeded to make the All-Star team and capture the Silver Slugger Award in each year; and he helped the Mets to a National League pennant in 2000.

The 2003 season began a decline in his usual offensive production, although he was named an All-Star for two more seasons with the Mets.  After a stop in San Diego, Piazza finished out his career with the Oakland A’s in 2007.

Over his 16-year career, Piazza compiled a .308 batting average, 427 home runs (396 as a catcher, the most in baseball history), and 1,335 RBI.

Despite his outstanding career, Piazza received the required 75% of the votes in his fourth year of eligibility.  So, why did it take that long for a player with such an illustrious career?  He was adversely impacted by the suspicion of PED use during his career, although there was never any specific evidence against him.  The baseball writers who vote on the candidates have largely been opposed to voting for PED users, even if only by implication.  Jeff Bagwell has been similarly impacted during the same timeframe due to a similar perception, but he came within a few votes of also being elected this year.

A significant aspect of Piazza’s election is that it could signal the start of a cultural shift with regard to how Hall of Fame voters view other players who used or were suspected of using PEDs during their careers.  Most notably, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are in question (each having received only 40% of the votes to date), but there are other future candidates, such as Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Andy Pettitte, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez, who will face the same issue.

While Piazza made his mark because of his offense, he actually turned out to be a good performer as a catcher, too.  Recent comparative studies by advanced metrics gurus showed that Piazza was one of the best catchers of his era in keeping the ball in front of him, as well as in pitch framing.  Piazza was the number-one catcher for eleven pitching staffs during his career, and ten of the eleven finished in the top five in ERA.

As the first catcher to be elected for the Hall of Fame since Gary Carter in 2003, Piazza is the 17th catcher overall to be inducted.  Along with Carter, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, and Carlton Fisk are the only other Hall of Fame catchers who played after the 1940s.

Piazza will receive his Hall of Fame plaque later this summer alongside Ken Griffey Jr., who fell only three votes short of being a unanimous selection, yet broke Tom Seaver’s record for highest percentage of votes for a first-timer on the ballot.  In contrast to Piazza’s being the 62nd round pick in the draft, Griffey was the first overall pick in the 1987 Major League Draft and is the only inductee who has that distinction (since the amateur player draft began in 1965).

Piazza was definitely a long shot to even reach the majors when he began his professional career, much less become a Hall of Fame performer.  Perhaps Lasorda had a premonition.  Maybe Piazza’s use of PEDs was more fact than suspicion.

In any case, Piazza’s selection gives hope to every future late round pick that anything is possible.  It may also give a ray of hope to players involved with or affected by PEDs.  Yes, hope for even getting into the Hall of Fame.

The 2015 Year in Review -- Through The Tenth Inning Blog

 

In looking back at The Tenth Inning’s blog posts during 2015, I managed to capture several of the major highlights and topics of the baseball season.  Before diving headlong into the new baseball season, let’s review some of the best of 2015.  I’ve provided the publication dates (noted in parenthesis) of the related pieces I wrote in the blog, in case you missed them during the year.

I was worried about what baseball would be like without Derek Jeter (February 8) who had ended his illustrious career at the end of 2014 season.  Jeter had filled the highlight reels during his 20-year career with some of the best teams in Yankee history.  But then along came Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros (September 6) in July of last season.  The 20-year-old shortstop’s ascent into the big leagues made us think back to 1995 when Jeter first cracked the Yankee lineup.  Correa may ultimately make us miss Jeter a whole lot less.

Correa is just one of a number of new, young players who emerged in 2015.  I wrote that the Cubs’ Kris Bryant was the real deal early in the season (May 17) and indeed he was named the National League Rookie of the Year after the regular season.  Both of these guys are part of a youth movement that seems to be dominating the sport now (August 2).

The 2015 season was the year several of the traditionally hapless teams made big impacts and now appear to be on a trajectory of being league-leading teams in the next few years.  With their new manager Joe Maddon, I thought the Cubs were being burdened with high expectations going into the season (January 26), but they delivered with a playoff team in 2015, ahead of schedule.  The Astros also came out of the gate with a strong rush and could no longer be labelled the L’Astros (May 2).  At mid-year, it was apparent the Mets had the pitching talent to get them into the playoffs, but I wasn’t sure they could generate enough offense July 5).  The acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline gave them the lift they needed, and I made a case for his being voted the MVP of the league (September 20).

However, it was Daniel Murphy who emerged as the most unlikely offensive star for the Mets during the playoffs (October 25).  He managed to hit home runs in six consecutive playoff games, although he later floundered during the Met’s defeat in the World Series.

Several trends became more evident in baseball during the year.

Major league clubs are hiring new-style managers who don’t necessarily have prior managerial experience (June 15).  Dan Jennings of the Florida Marlins was a prime example, taking over for fired Mike Redmond during the season (May 24).  However, the Marlins’ experiment failed when Jennings was fired after the season.

Baseball analytics have become entrenched in how major league teams plan and develop their rosters and how managers carry out game tactics (March 15).  Until the general fan base understands more about the new methodologies being driven by this technology, many of them will be surprised by some of their favorite team’s actions in the front office and on the diamond (December 20).

The 2015 season saw the introduction of the 20-second pitch clock in the majors.   I wrote that the concept was not really new, having been piloted back in the 1970s in the Texas League (February 1).  It was feared the players would balk at its use, but the implementation pretty much went without a hitch.  I believe the next major technology innovation in the game will be the Robo-Ump (August 16).

Two of baseball’s “bad boys” were in the headlines during the year.  Alex Rodriguez made his improbable comeback with the Yankees and actually won over many disbelieving fans with his play on the field and his behavior off the field (April 26).  When I suggested that Rose should be given a pardon for his gambling sins back in the 1980s (February 22), it drew some fairly strong sentiments from a few blog readers that I was being too soft on Rose.  Apparently, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred agreed with those sentiments, since he didn’t grant Rose’s request for re-instatement in baseball in December.

We lost two of baseball’s most beloved patriarchs and ambassadors in 2015.  Perhaps they had the best nicknames as well.  Minnie Minoso (March 8) died at age 89 on March 1, while Yogi Berra (September 27) died at age 90 on September 22.

With one of my special interests being New Orleans area baseball players, several of my blog posts had a New Orleans flavor.

My biography of former major leaguer John “Fats” Dantonio appeared in the SABR-published book “Who’s on First:  Replacement Players in World War II” (March 29).  Johnny Giavotella, currently of the Los Angeles Angels, is the latest of the major leaguers who prepped at Jesuit High School in New Orleans (December 13).

I had the opportunity to interview two former professional baseball players from New Orleans who played during the 1940s and early 1950s.  I wrote about Nolan Vicknair (March 22) and Norman McCord (August 30), who didn’t make it to the big leagues; yet they are an important part of local baseball history.

Another of my special interests, baseball’s family relationships, was the topic of a blog post (November 22), in which I provided an update of the players, managers, and coaches in pro baseball during 2015 that had a relative in baseball.  There were almost 800 in my latest list.  There was high reader interest in my compilation posted on my Baseball’s Relatives web site, resulting in breaking into the list of Top 50 fan sites on MLB.com’s blog network.

Throughout the year, I provided biographies of several major league families with baseball bloodlines, including the Boyers (February 25), Perry’s (April 12), Delahanty’s (July 19), and Seagers (November 15).  Around the annual Major League Baseball Draft, I wrote about how baseball bloodlines are one of the factors in which players get drafted (June 7).

2015 was great year for baseball.  Looking forward to another in 2016.  Let the countdown to Spring Training begin.

 

 

Junior Griffey Headlines List of 2016 Hall of Fame Hopefuls

Ken Griffey Jr. is a sure lock for Baseball Hall of Fame election on this year’s ballot.  No question about it.  Even though he played until 2010, he probably could have been sent to Cooperstown back in 1999, when he was voted by fans as a member of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team—yes, that team that included Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron, Mays, and other immortals of the game.

Griffey tops the list of first-time candidates for the Hall of Fame Class of 2016.  There are indeed some other players on the list with Hall of Fame type of careers, but it’s doubtful any of them will be named on the minimally required 75% of the ballots of the baseball writers who do the annual voting.

In my “fantasy” ballot last year, I cast only eight votes, opting to withhold my final two selections (John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield were on the fence for me).  It turned out I was completely wrong about Smoltz, who was elected in his first year of eligibility.  Thus, my eight votes last year included Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Lee Smith, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens.  In addition to Smoltz, Johnson and Martinez got the required votes in their first year as well.  Biggio made it in after coming within a couple of votes of being elected in 2014.

For my votes this year, I’m sticking with my carryovers—Bagwell, Piazza, Smith, Bonds and Clemens.  I realize the PED cloud still hovers over each of these players except Smith, but I’m sticking to my guns.

Piazza may be the best offensive player at the catcher position in the history of the game.  Bagwell was dominant at first base during the 1990s.  Despite their performances, their “suspected” PED use has surely kept them out of the Hall to date.  But there’s been no hard evidence against either of these two guys.

With regard to Bonds and Clemens, I’m on the side of those who believe that until Major League Baseball instituted drug testing for PEDs, there can be no reason to exclude players for eligibility for Hall of Fame induction.  35% of the voters in 2015 apparently subscribed to this belief too, but there are still strong sentiments against their elections and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

I know I’m in the minority again about Lee Smith’s election, but I think the value of relief pitchers has been vastly under-rated by voters in the past.  He’s third on the all-time saves list and he was in the Top 5 of the Cy Young Award in three seasons.  I believe Smith suffers from not having played for playoff and World Series caliber teams.

Besides Griffey, the cream of the crop of new first-timers on the 2016 ballot includes Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, and Jim Edmonds.

Out of this group, I’m casting another vote for a relief pitcher, Trevor Hoffman.  Only the great Mariano Rivera is ahead of his 601 career saves.  Plus, Hoffman finished as runner-up for the Cy Young Award twice and had two other Top 6 finishes.  He compiled a career 2.74 ERA and averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

For my final three votes, I’m picking Tim Raines, Gary Sheffield, and Curt Schilling.

As mentioned previously, I was tempted to put Sheffield on my ballot last year.  Like Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, Sheffield is not identified with one specific team, having played with eight different clubs over his 22-year career.  But it didn’t seem to matter what team he player for, as he was in the Top 10 for MVP voting in six seasons (representing five different teams).  He was a 12-time All-Star selection and captured five Silver Slugger Awards.

Tim Raines was the second-best leadoff batter of his era, trailing only Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.  He led the National League in stolen bases for four consecutive seasons and is currently 5th on the all-time list.  He had eight seasons of 90 or more runs scored in a season, including one with 133.  He had eight seasons hitting over .300, including a league-leading .334 in 1986.

Curt Schilling gets my vote largely because of his differentiation as a clutch post-season player.  With three different teams, he was a member of four World Series championship clubs, including the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox (twice).  Overall, his post-season record was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA.  However, his regular season performances included several highlight years.  Schilling was runner-up for the Cy Young Award three times during 2001-2004, and had a Top 4 finish in 1997.  His career won-lost record was 216-146, and he had 3,116 career strikeouts (currently 15th on the all-time list).

Yeah, I’m picking Schilling over Mike Mussina who accumulated 54 more career wins than Schilling.  But Schilling outdid him in career ERA, strikeouts per nine inning, and WHIP, in addition to posting his legendary post-season performances.

Griffey could legitimately be elected with 100% of the ballots including his name, although that has never happened before.  History shows that at least one of the baseball writers will pull a publicity stunt by leaving Griffey off, just for the sake of being different.

We will start to see the effect of a couple of relatively recent rule changes by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

In 2014, the Hall amended the maximum number of years an eligible player can be on the ballot from 15 to 10 years.  This is intended to help minimize what has been a problem at times with carryover players creating a backlog from year to year.  That could mean Mark McGwire will fall off the ballot if not elected this year, while Tim Raines would be taken off after 2017.   On this year’s ballot, Alan Trammell (currently in his 15th year) and Lee Smith (in his 14th year) were grandfathered with the old timeline when the new rule was instituted.

The BBWAA is enforcing a minimum of ten consecutive seasons covering baseball on a beat by its writers.  The number of baseball writers who cast ballots this year is being reduced by approximately 90, as the BBWAA is cleaning house of writers who no longer actively cover the sport.  Over time, this could have an effect on how writers treat players during the PED era.  The common thinking is that as the veteran, baseball traditionalist type of writers are removed from voting privileges, currently eligible players such as Bonds and Clemens (and David Ortiz and Andy Pettitte in the future) will gain more traction in being elected.

The 2016 Class of the Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced on January 6.

It's a Whole New Ballgame Now

Cubs and Astros fans will be riding a high going into the 2016 season.  After their exciting 2015 seasons in which both made it to the playoffs before they were expected to, the organizations have a lot to look forward to.  After all, they have now emerged from several consecutive seasons lost to re-building efforts.

Both clubs proved their similar organizational strategies—practically re-building their teams from scratch-- could work.  A few years ago, that approach seemed pretty drastic, but nowadays it’s becoming a viable solution for clubs to become more competitive at a reasonable cost.  Now, the Braves, Phillies, and Reds have comparable programs underway.

There are a new set of paradigms major league clubs are employing to build and maintain their organizations, often times making it difficult for baseball followers, particularly long-time loyal fans of a franchise, to understand the rationales.

It seems now that major league owners and executives are deciding their overall organizational development strategies by whether they can compete for a World Series within a couple of years.  If so, then a few key trades are made through free agency to fill the gaps.  The Boston Red Sox are a prime example of this approach.  During the off-season, they spent big bucks to acquire a much-needed Number 1 starter in David Price and a top-notch closer in Craig Kimbrel.  They are all-in for a run at the AL pennant in 2016.

Similarly, when the Arizona Diamondbacks acquired pitchers Zach Greinke in a free agent signing and Shelby Miller through a trade, it made a big statement about their intentions to compete for a division title next year, not within a few years.

Otherwise, many of the major league clubs are deciding to clean house of its larger salaries and starting over with younger prospects and players who bring value largely based on new advanced analytics.  That’s what the Reds and Phillies are doing now.  Consequently, their lineups will primarily consist of little known players to many of their fans.  In fact, in the final two months of the 2015, the Reds’ starting rotation consisted entirely of rookie pitchers.

Most of the new models being used by franchises to build for the long-term center around acquiring younger players, with high potential or upsides but at lower costs.  The players usually can be controlled by the club for 3-5 years before they become eligible for arbitration.  Then the players are sometimes traded for more prospects when they can bring relatively high values in the marketplace, despite the fact the players had become part of the core of their team.

Between 2010 and 2012, the Houston Astros shed its core of veteran players consisting of Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, and Michael Bourn and opted to go on a youth movement to re-stock the team.  Astros fans were frustrated during the process and transition, but three years later the team was competing for the division title and got into playoffs for the first time since 2005.

Their success in 2015 was the culmination of its intensified focus on scouting and player development over several years.  The Astros now have a new core of young players (George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, and additional top prospects in their system) they can control for several years.

Similarly, the Chicago Cubs, through their own re-building efforts, have a bevy of young players that should serve them well for several years to come, including Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez.

Gone are the days when the primary strategy was to lock up multiple premium players in long-term contracts, in an attempt to make a run at a World Series.  All too often that resulted in teams getting too old and getting saddled with expensive payroll costs for players that subsequently became non-productive.  Classic examples of such franchises were the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies.

Years ago, minor league prospects were usually throw-ins in major player trade transactions.  Now, organizations aggressively seek other teams’ top prospects in exchange for a veteran they can no longer afford.  Just within the past month, two overall Number 1 major league draft picks, 2013’s Mark Appel and 2015’s Dansby Swanson, were involved in key trades before they ever played in the majors.  That was practically unheard of before now.

How organizations currently put together their teams has evolved.  Player selections are now heavily influenced by advanced metrics, not only for hitting and pitching, but also including defense.  In building teams, organizations are making use of relatively new metrics, such as runs prevented, defensive runs saved, runs created, batting average on balls in play, and productive outs made, to identify players who fit their strategy.

No longer are the traditional metrics, such as wins, saves, batting average, runs batted in, and fielding percentage, sufficient.  They only tell part of the story about a player’s abilities.  This is why players like outfielders A. J. Pollock and Kevin Kiermaier, not your traditional offensive threats, are attractive to general managers.

It seems like building and maintaining viable major league rosters has become more complicated than it used to be.  There are many more dimensions of the game that have evolved and must be considered by general managers, directors of scouting and player development and the managers on the field.  That may indeed be the reason why many major league organizations have recently turned to Ivy League-type MBAs to run their organizations.

In many respects, it’s not our grandfather’s game anymore.

Giavotella Part of Rich History of MLB Players from Jesuit High School

Johnny Giavotella played his first full season in the major leagues with the Los Angeles Angels in 2015, after spending four partial seasons with the Kansas City Royals.  He is one of eleven former Jesuit High School (New Orleans) players to reach the major leagues and one of over fifty from that school to play professionally.

Giavotella turned in a credible season at the plate, hitting .272 with 4 home runs and 49 RBI, while filling a vacancy at second base for the Angels after veteran Howie Kendrick decided to pursue free agency at the end of 2014.  He had been a stellar player at the University of New Orleans before turning pro.  He was selected in the second round of the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft by the Royals.

Historically, Jesuit High School in New Orleans has been one of the more well-known high schools across the nation noted for turning out baseball players that go on to play professional baseball.  Several of the former Blue Jays wound up playing significant roles in the long history of the sport.  The baseball tradition of professional players from Jesuit dates back to the early 1900s.

Larry Gilbert Sr. was the first Jesuit player to reach the big leagues in 1914 with the Boston Braves.  He was a right fielder for the legendary “Miracle Braves” team which remarkably won the National League pennant that year after still being in last place on July 18, eleven games out of first place.  The Braves went on to sweep the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.

However, Gilbert would go on to make his mark in professional baseball as a manager rather than as a player.  He became skipper of his hometown New Orleans Pelicans in 1923 and led the team until 1938.  Gilbert was lured away from the Pelicans by the owner of the Nashville Vols, with whom he managed from 1938 until 1948 and then became general manager and part-owner until 1955.  His clubs claimed 2,128 victories and nine Southern Association league titles.  Gilbert reportedly turned down multiple offers during his career to manage major league teams.

After following in their father’s footsteps at Jesuit, two of Gilbert’s sons, Charlie and Harold “Tookie”, continued the family legacy by going on to play major league baseball as well.

Charlie Gilbert, from the Jesuit Class of 1937, reached the big leagues at age 20 after playing for his father at Nashville.  The highly touted outfielder signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, but played only one season with them.  He spent parts of three seasons with the Chicago Cubs before going into military service during World War II.  After one more season with the Cubs and two with the Philadelphia Phillies, he retired in 1948 due to a back injury.  He never reached the potential for which he had been earmarked.

Like his brother Charlie, Tookie Gilbert, was a widely sought after schoolboy sensation in New Orleans.  From the Jesuit Class of 1946, he was heavily recruited by six major league organizations, 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.  Gilbert, a first baseman, made his major league debut with the Giants in 1950, but wound up playing only two seasons before retiring in 1954.  He made a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1959, attempting to help the struggling franchise survive.

Jesuit’s baseball team during Charlie Gilbert’s senior year also included two other players, John “Fats” Dantonio and Connie Ryan, who attained major league status.

Fats Dantonio, from the Jesuit Class of 1937, began his professional baseball career in 1939.  He played at low levels in the minors for four seasons before getting an opportunity to sign with his hometown New Orleans Pelicans in 1942.  He had received a medical exemption from military service during World War II, but was required to work in a defense-related job instead of enlisting.  In one of his seasons with the Pelicans, Dantonio worked at a shipyard in New Orleans, playing only in the team’s home games.

However, Dantonio, a good-hitting catcher, played well enough to attract the attention of Branch Rickey, who was then the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Because of the general shortage of professional players during the war years, Dantonio got called up by Rickey as a replacement player for three games with the Dodgers at the end of the 1944 season.  He appeared in 47 games with them in 1945, but didn’t play well enough to stick with the big league club after most of the regular players returned from military service in 1946.  Dantonio continued to play in the minors and retired from baseball after the 1948 season in which he played for the Pelicans again.

Connie Ryan, from the Jesuit Class of 1938, was the first person to receive a full baseball scholarship from Louisiana State University.  However, he opted to sign a professional minor league contract in the middle of his sophomore year in 1940.  By 1942, he had reached the majors with the New York Giants.  Ryan would go on to play for five different teams in a 12-year major league career.  The infielder was a National League All-Star with the Boston Braves in 1944.  After his playing career ended in 1956, Ryan eventually became a major league coach for the Braves and Rangers.  He also served as an interim manager for both Atlanta and Texas.

Another former Jesuit player who benefitted from the shortage of players during war-time years was Ralph “Putsy” Caballero.  From the Jesuit Class of 1944, Caballero was signed out of high school at the age of 16 by the Philadelphia Phillies and made his major league debut on September 14, 1944.  He is the youngest third baseman to ever play major league baseball.  Primarily a backup player, Caballero proceeded to have an eight-year major league career with the Phillies that included a 1950 World Series appearance against the New York Yankees.  He retired from professional baseball after the 1955 season.

The Jesuit High School player with the most celebrated major league career is Rusty Staub.  Except for Gretna native and Baseball Hall of Famer Mel Ott, Staub is the most accomplished professional player to come from the New Orleans area.  He was a member of the Jesuit Class of 1961, and he also signed out of high school with the then Houston Colt .45’s (now the Astros) for a reported $100,000 bonus.

At age 19, Staub made his major league debut with Houston on April 19, 1963.  He ultimately garnered over 500 hits each for the Astros, Expos, Mets, and Tigers.  Altogether he accumulated 2, 716 career hits, currently 62nd most in major league history, to go along with 292 home runs and 1,466 RBI.  Rusty was selected for the Major League  All-Star team six times.  A fan favorite at each of his major league stops, the outfielder/first baseman finished his career in 1985, after 23 seasons in the big leagues.

Will Clark wasn’t far behind Staub in terms of his impact at the major league level.  From the Jesuit Class of 1982, he first achieved national recognition as a college player at Mississippi State University and a member of the 1984 USA Olympic baseball team.  A year after being the second overall pick in the 1985 Major League Draft, Clark became the regular first baseman for the San Francisco Giants.  An intense player on the field, he helped lead a resurgence of the Giants to prominence in the National League, including a World Series appearance in 1989.  Clark finished in the top five of the National League MVP voting four times throughout 1987 and 1991.

Clark later played for the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, with his last season in 2000.  Injuries curtailed his playing time during the latter part of his career.  However, in his 15-years he collected 2,176 hits, 284 home runs, and 1,205 RBI, while hitting for a .303 average.  His smooth left-handed batting swing was the basis for his nickname, “The Natural.”

Two other former Jesuit players, Jim Gaudet (Jesuit Class of 1973) and Ryan Adams (Jesuit Class of 2006), had brief major league careers.

Currently, Mason Katz (Jesuit Class of 2009) is aiming to extend the Jesuit tradition.  He is slated to play at the Double-A level for the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2016.  The infielder, who played collegiately at LSU, was a 4th round draft pick of the Cardinals in 2013.

For more information about Metro New Orleans area baseball players who played at the college, minor league, and major league levels, visit http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.

Is Price Right for the Red Sox?

Lefty ace David Price inked the largest dollar contract for a pitcher (7 years for $217 million) with the Boston Red Sox last week.  With Price 30 years of age and a so-so record in post-season play during his career, did the Red Sox overpay for Price?

The Red Sox most certainly did.  Price will effectively earn one million dollars for each of his regular season starts.  The deal is reminiscent of the kind for which the New York Yankees used to be criticized during the George Steinbrenner era.

Given their desperate situation involving two consecutive last-place finishes in the American League East Division, the Red Sox didn’t care if they had to overpay Price in order to lock up a legitimate Number 1 starter at the top of their rotation.  They’ve had a void in that slot since John Lester left the team, and the results have been ugly.  They didn’t figure to have a decent shot at getting the other top free agent pitchers available in the market, and they don’t want to part with their top prospects in a trade for a top-flight hurler.  So they overpaid to secure Price.

But it’s a pretty sure bet the Red Sox approached the deal with eyes wide open.

They don’t expect Price to still be at the top of his game in the latter years of his contract.  He probably won’t even be with Red Sox through the full term of the contract.  The BoSox are looking for results in 2016.  They expect Price to do for them what he did for the Toronto Blue Jays last season (9-1 record and 2.30 ERA after the July 31 trade deadline), which was to put the rest of the pitching staff on his back to carry them to a division title.  Along with the acquisition of top-flight closer Craig Kimbrel from the Padres earlier in the off-season, all of a sudden the Red Sox have a very credible pitching staff that includes a lot of options for how its other current pitchers can be used.

The Red Sox are looking to take advantage of a relatively balanced East Division.  None of the teams in the division is head and shoulders above the rest.  Price and Kimbrel could give the Red Sox the edge they need to be in serious contention again.  The “win now” mentality spurred by these acquisitions seems very plausible.

Boston has already started a youth movement with its position players, with youngsters like Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Travis Shaw already getting necessary experience under their belts.  With the leadership of veterans David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, and healthy Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the Red Sox are poised for a resurgence.  David Ortiz has already announced the 2016 season will be his last.  Red Sox fans would love nothing more than seeing Big Papi going out as a world champion again.

Boston’s new President of Baseball Operations, Dave Dombrowski, wants to make an immediate impact for the team.  He has a prior relationship with Price from his days as general manager in Detroit, which is probably another reason he was comfortable doling out the big bucks for Price.  He knows exactly what he is getting and he knows what Price can mean to the struggling franchise.  As he successfully demonstrated with the Tigers, Dombrowski fully understands that teams win with pitching.

Dombrowski and the rest of the Red Sox front office aren’t worried about Price’s mediocre record in past post-season play.  It wasn’t a factor in their decision to acquire Price.  They know they have to win the division or capture a wild card spot during the regular season first, and Price is their guy to lead that effort.  At his first press conference as a Red Sox player, Price was asked about his past performances in the post-season.  He jokingly countered that he had been saving most of his wins for the Red Sox Nation.

In the past, major league organizations have been burned by some of the big dollar long-term contracts they’ve signed with pitchers with practically only 2-3 years remaining in their prime.  The Price transaction conjures up memories of deals for pitchers like Barry Zito and C.C. Sabathia, whose teams didn’t achieve their full value.

That may wind up being the case with Price too, but for now the Red Sox don’t care what happens a few years down the road.  For the sake of the loyal fans of the Red Sox Nation, they can’t afford to be division cellar-dwellers again in 2016.  In that context, the price is right for the Red Sox.

Gridiron Takes Precedence for Several Sons of Major Leaguers

While there are countless examples of sons following in their father’s footsteps to play professional baseball, every once in a while, the son of major leaguers go against the family bloodlines to excel in football.  This year’s football season has several sons of major league fathers making a name for themselves on the gridiron.

Some major league fathers don’t try to force their son into following in their footsteps to play baseball, because they don’t want to put undue pressure on their son to match their own accomplishments.  When the son turns out to be an all-around athlete with talent in multiple sports, it is easier for the father to encourage the son to take up a different sport.

When a young boy’s father was named one of the fifty greatest living baseball players at the end of the 20th century, one can understand why the youngster might shy away from trying to fill his father’s shoes as a professional baseball player.  Well, that’s the situation Trey Griffey found himself in, growing up as a youngster.  His father was Ken Griffey, Jr, a thirteen-time major league all-star who slugged 630 home runs during his illustrious 22-year career.  The elder Griffey has an excellent chance of being elected to the 2016 class of Baseball’s Hall of Fame on his first ballot.  Trey’s grandfather, Ken Griffey Sr., was also an all-star outfielder in the big leagues.

Trey, a batboy for Team USA on which his father played in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, chose to play football at an advanced level instead of pursuing baseball.  As a senior in high school in Florida, he caught 73 passes for 11 touchdowns.  Trey is currently a wide receiver for the University of Arizona Wildcats.  A few weeks ago, here raced 95-yards for a touchdown on a pass he caught against rival Arizona State.  The 6‘ 3”, 195 lb. junior has played in six of the Wildcats’ games so far this season, which has also included appearances as a punt returner.

Torii Hunter recently retired from major league baseball after a 19-year career that included four all-star seasons and nine Gold Glove awards as an outfielder.  His son, Torii Jr., was good enough as a baseball player to be selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, even though he did not play during his senior year of high school due to broken leg.  Instead, Torii Jr. bypassed pro baseball, choosing to accept a football scholarship from Notre Dame.

In 2014, Torii Jr. was named the Offensive Newcomer of the Year for Notre Dame.  As a junior wide receiver this season, Torii Jr. has played in all of Notre Dame’s games, collecting 24 receptions for two touchdowns.  He also has some football roots in his background, as his grandfather, Monshadrick Hunter, played college football at Arkansas State University.

Similar to Hunter, Patrick Mahomes Jr. played both baseball and football in high school.  The son of Pat Mahomes Sr., who had an 11-year career as a major league pitcher, Patrick Jr. was drafted out of high school in 2014 by the Detroit Tigers in the 37th round.  The pitcher/outfielder led his Whitehouse (TX) High School team to two state championships in baseball.

As a high school senior, Mahomes Jr. passed for fifty touchdowns.  He is now the outstanding sophomore quarterback for Texas Tech University, passing for 4,283 yards and 32 touchdowns for the 7-5 Red Raiders this season.

Dante Pettis is the son of former major leaguer Gary Pettis, who was a four-time Gold Glove winner as an outfielder during his 11-year major league career.  Dante is currently a sophomore football player at the University of Washington, where he has 25 receptions for one touchdown, as well as one touchdown on a punt return.  He was named to this year’s Pac 12 All-Academic Team.  Father Gary is the third base coach for the Houston Astros.

Sons of former major leaguers currently playing in the NFL include Corey Harkey and Kyle Williams.

Harkey, is in his fourth season as a tight end for the St. Louis Rams.  His father, Mike, was a major league pitcher from 1988 to 1997, finishing with a 36-36 record.  Mike is currently the bullpen coach for the New York Yankees.

Kyle Williams was drafted out of high school by the Chicago White Sox in the 47th round of the 2006 MLB Draft.  However, he opted to attend Arizona State University to play football.  The wide receiver played in the NFL from 2010 to 2013, but has missed the 2014 and 2015 seasons due to injury.  Kyle is the son of Ken Williams, who had a major league stint as an outfielder from 1986 to 1991 and is currently a senior executive with the Chicago White Sox.  Kyle’s two brothers, Kenneth and Tyler, have played minor league baseball.

Shane Buechele, the son of former major leaguer Steve Buechele, is a 4-star prospect as a high school quarterback in Texas.  He has already committed to the University of Texas for the 2016 season.  Father Steve was an 11-year third baseman with the Rangers, Pirates and Cubs and is currently the bench coach for the Texas Rangers.

There is an age-old debate about whether genes or environment are a determining factor in the success of sons following their fathers’ sport.  The son of a major leaguer who excels in football versus baseball suggests that the son indeed inherits the father’s athleticism regardless of the sport being played.  In any case, it makes for a fascinating story when it happens.

Baseb(All) in the Family - 2015 Player Relatives List

With the 2015 baseball season behind us, it’s time to provide my annual compilation of the players, managers and coaches from the season who had family relationships in professional baseball.  The count this year is 783; but while I scoured all the major league team media guides, many baseball websites, and countless new stories for updates, most assuredly there are still additional players I have yet to identify.

 

My interest in this aspect of baseball history began when collecting data for my book Family Ties:  A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives, published in 2012 containing data through the 2011 season.

 

Since then, I have continued compiling a comprehensive set of family ties information.  The latest 2015 Family Ties list (http://baseballrelatives.mlblogs.com/family-ties-2015-season/) can be found on my “Baseball’s Relatives” website on the MLB.com blog site.

 

Below is a sample of interesting facts from the 2015 list.

 

Minor leaguer Jonathan Roof has nine relatives in baseball.  He is the son of former major leaguer Gene Roof, who had four brothers that played professionally.  Jonathan also has two brothers and two cousins that played.  One of the cousins, Eddie Haas, spent over 50 seasons in baseball as a player, coach and manager.

 

A’s pitcher Drew Pomeranz’s great grandfather, Garland Buckeye, was a major leaguer from 1918 to 1928.

This year’s list includes several sons of former All-Star players (noted in parenthesis):  Ryan Ripken (Cal Jr.), Jordan Hershiser (Orel), Mariano Rivera III (Mariano), Justus Sheffield (Gary), Cam Gibson (Kirk), Tony Gwynn Jr. (Tony), and Patrick Palmeiro (Rafael).

Rays pitcher Brad Boxberger was a major league first round draft choice in 2009, as was his father Rod Boxberger in 1978.  2015 draftee Tyler Nevin and his father Phil (1992 draftee) were both first-round picks.

Pitcher Casey Coleman is part of a three-generation family of major league pitchers.  His father Joe pitched between 1965 and 1979, while his grandfather, also named Joe, pitched from 1942 to 1955.  Both of them were named to All-Star teams.

Veteran Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth’s father (Jeff Gowan) and stepfather (Dennis Werth) were both professional players.  Jayson’s grandfather, Dick Schofield Sr., also played in the majors.

Eddie Gaedel gained fame in baseball as being the only midget to appear in the major leagues.  In a stunt produced by St. Louis Browns’ maverick owner Bill Veeck, the 3’ 7” Gaedel drew a walk in his only plate appearance in 1951.  Eddie’s nephew, Kyle Gaedele who is 6’ 3”, currently plays in the Padres organization.

Joe Jackson of the Texas Rangers organization is the great nephew of legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from Organized Baseball after the 1920 season for his involvement in the Black Sox Scandal.      

Pitcher Randy Wolf’s brother, Jim, is a major league umpire.  There is an agreement between major league baseball teams and the umpire’s association that Jim will never call balls and strikes when brother Randy is on the mound.

Rangers’ designated hitter Prince Fielder and his father Cecil rank third all-time among father-son combo home run hitters, only behind Barry and Bobby Bonds and the Ken Griffeys.

The following current players have had better careers than their fathers (in parenthesis) who also played professionally:  Mike Trout (Jeff), Kris Bryant (Mike), Michael Brantley (Mickey), and Nick Swisher (Steve)

This version of the 2015 Family Ties List contains 711 major league and minor league players who have a relative in professional baseball.  There are also 72 major league managers and coaches.

 

These 783 players, managers and coaches have a total of 1,094 family relationships with players, managers, coaches, scouts, executives, and broadcasters from the major league teams and their affiliated minor league teams, independent leagues, and the Mexican League.  Obviously, several of the players, managers, and coaches have multiple family relationships.

 

Below are more details about the makeup of the players, managers, and coaches in the entire list.

 

PLAYERS

The 711 players in 2015 included 233 active major leaguers and 478 with only minor league experience.

 

233 players with major league experience had a total of 331 relatives in professional baseball

  • 25 had major league relatives active in 2015

  • 102 had major league relatives active before 2015

 

478 players with only minor league experience had a total of 619 relatives in professional baseball

  • 62 had major league relatives active in 2015

  • 221 had major league relatives active before 2015

  

MANAGERS/COACHES

The 72 major league managers and coaches had a total of 124 relatives in professional baseball

  • 8 had major league relatives in 2015.

  • 17 had major league relatives active before 2015.

 

The Milwaukee Brewers had two managers and five coaches that represented 22 family relationships in professional baseball.

 

2015 MLB DRAFT

74 amateur players drafted in 2015 had current or former relatives in professional baseball.

  • 55 were sons of pro players, while 25 were brothers

  • 46 of the draftees had relatives with major leaguers experience

  • 31 of the draftees did not sign pro contracts in 2015

 

2015 MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUTS

22 players with relatives in baseball made their major league debuts in 2014.  15 of their relatives had major league experience.

 

TEAMS

The average number of players (major and minor league), managers, and coaches with baseball relatives for the 30 major league organizations was 24.

  • The Royals and Red Sox were the organizations with the most relatives, both with 41.  The Cubs (9) had the fewest.

  • The Orioles (13) had the most 2015 major leaguer roster players with a relative in professional baseball.  The Angels, Dodgers and Red Sox each had 12 players.

  • The Rockies and Cubs both had the fewest with 3 players.

 

UNAFFILIATED BASEBALL

The 2015 independent baseball leagues had 47 players with relatives in professional baseball.

  • 11 of the players were former major leaguers with relatives.

  • 27 total relatives had major league experience.

 

The 2015 Mexican League had 16 players with relatives in professional baseball.

  • 9 of the players were former major leaguers with relatives.

  • 9 total relatives had major league experience.

     

Seagers Aim to be Next Trio of Major League Brothers

There are currently three Seager brothers in professional baseball.  Kyle and Corey have already played in the big leagues, while Justin is still working his way through the minors.  If Justin actually makes it to the majors, the brothers would be in some rare company in major league baseball history.

Joe, Dom, and Vince are the most noteworthy of baseball’s big league brothers. Without even mentioning their last name, they are recognizable to most baseball fans with an interest in the game’s history.

A few of the other multiple brother families who reached the major leagues over the years include the Alous (Felipe, Jesus, and Matty), the Boyers (Clete, Ken, and Cloyd), the Drews (J. D., Tim, and Stephen), and the Pacioreks (Tom, John, and Jim).

The Molina brothers—Yadier, Bengie and Jose—made history when each of them, who played catcher, won World Series championships with their respective teams during the 2000s.

Altogether, there have only been twenty sets of brothers, involving three or more siblings, who have played in the big leagues since 1871.  The Delahanty family had the most brothers appear in the majors, with five, between 1888 and 1915.

Coming from a baseball family had its advantages for the Seager brothers.  Their father played college baseball and he instilled in each of them a passion for the game at very young ages.

Kyle was the first of the Seager brothers to reach the majors.  He was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the third round of the 2009 Major League Draft out of the University of North Carolina.  Two years later, at age 21, he made his debut with the Mariners and has been their regular third baseman ever since.  In 2014, he was selected as an American League All-Star.  For his career, Kyle’s been averaging 23 home runs with 80 RBI.

A first-round selection in the 2012 Major League Draft, Corey made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015 after the September 1 call-up.  The Dodgers had so much confidence in him that he supplanted veteran Jimmy Rollins as the Dodgers’ shortstop in the playoffs.  At age 21, Corey showed an uncommon maturity at the plate.  He’s being counted on to be part of the Dodgers’ core of players for years to come.

Justin is in his third professional season in the Mariners organization, but has struggled somewhat offensively since his debut in 2013.  Still only 21 years old, there is still time for him to progress, with his focus on becoming the third brother to break into the majors.

Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

For some baseball enthusiasts, the end of the World Series signals the start of a much-needed rest from the long baseball season.  For others, the sports is just beginning to heat up again.  It’s the start of the Hot Stove season, named for the era when people gathered daily around a stove at the barber shop or general store during the winter to re-hash the baseball season just completed and speculate on what was going to happen next season.

Looking back at this time last year, the Hot Stove season was highlighted by some surprisingly aggressive free agent acquisitions, including a few by several unanticipated teams who were determined to make an immediate impact in 2015.  Controversial topics included the questionable benefits of the newly proposed 20-second pitch clock and the rule change involving the prevention of collisions at home plate.

Let’s take a peek at some of the hot topics that are surely to be discussed and debated over the coming weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training next February.

Of course, the availability of players in the free agent market during the off-season is always at the top of the list in terms of importance to most of the teams.  Annual player drafts and internal player development activities within a team’s organization are how clubs build for the long term.  Free agency and trades are how organizations re-stock and re-shape their rosters in the short term.

The supply of free agent starting pitchers this off-season is relatively high, in fact, so much so that it could affect the prices of some of the players due to the high availability.  At the top of the list are high-profile hurlers Zach Greinke, David Price, Jordan Zimmerman, Johnny Cueto, and Yovani Gallardo.  The big market teams are usually the primary buyers of this top level of talent.  It will be interesting to see how they play against each other in the bidding wars for these players.

In contrast, there is a shortage of relief pitchers in the free agent market, in particular, closers.  The Dodgers, Tigers, and Phillies are among the teams with the most needs.  However, more teams will be turning to their farm systems for help or searching for previously untapped talent among veterans.

The San Diego Padres, under its new GM A. J. Preller, made some bold and expensive acquisitions in the free agent market last off-season, but they didn’t produce near the results the club and its fans expected.  A big question this year will be what position the Padres will take on free agency going forward.  Will they re-trench themselves with lower salaries or continue to be aggressive in order to find the right mix of players?

There have already been some managerial moves by several teams since the season ended.  One job that remains open is with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It’s been reported the Dodgers’ front office prefers candidates who are first-time managers with an adeptness in the new style analytics, although veterans Ron Roenicke, already in the Dodgers organization, and former Padre manager Bud Black could be in the running.

Don Mattingly opted not to stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers, apparently having already sewn up a multi-year managerial job with the Florida Marlins when he resigned.  Will he be a good fit with a relatively young Marlins team who may not be as talented as some of his Dodger teams that won the last three National League Division titles?

Dusty Baker bucked the trend of new style managers hires when he was tapped by the Washington Nationals as their new skipper, after they couldn’t reach a financial agreement with Bud Black.  With a history of being well-liked by the players of his former teams, Baker should be a good fit for the Nats’ following the clubhouse turmoil they experienced late in the season.  But many people are questioning whether Baker is too much of an old-school manager to be effective with todays’ integrated approach which seeks to combine front-office planning and strategy with on-field tactics and decision-making.

Front-office shakeups in the Red Sox, Phillies, Tigers, Blue Jays and Mariners organizations promise to make the times interesting for those teams.  Their new leadership has some key decisions to make.

How much longer will the Red Sox and Tigers continue to make David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera the cornerstones of their respective teams?  Will the Blue Jays look to replace aging pitchers Mark Buehrle and R. A. Dickey immediately?  What is the timeframe for the Phillies to make their club competitive again, after deciding to let go of veterans Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jon Papelbon, and Ben Rivere last season.

The Mariners were a big disappointment last season, since many people favored them to win the American League West Division and even advance to the World Series.  While they have already swapped out previous manager Lloyd McClendon for first-year manager Scott Servais, will there be some player movements as well?

The New York Mets’ deficiencies in hitting depth and infield defense were exposed by the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.  For the Mets to repeat as National League pennant contenders, they can’t afford to stand pat on making some improvements in these areas.  Will they be forced to offer up some of their young, highly-prized pitching staff as trade bait, in an attempt to remedy those deficiencies?

Will the San Francisco Giants continue their streak of winning the World Series in even-numbered years, as they did in 2010, 2012, and 2014?  Their ace Madison Bumgarner will need a lot of help in the starting rotation for them to repeat.  Will they be in the market for one of the top free agent pitchers?

The Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers surprised the baseball world by making the playoffs last season.  Were they “one-year wonder” teams, or are they now geared up for perennial post-season appearances?  Do they need to make any critical moves to keep them in contention for 2016?  If so, it will likely be in their pitching.

Who will be the surprise teams of 2016?  It seemed like the Minnesota Twins were on the cusp of rising as a serious playoff contender under first-year manager Paul Molitor.  If the Cleveland Indians can find a couple of middle-of-the-order sluggers in free agency or via trades, they already have the pitching to be in the running next year.

The Kansas City Royals’ approach for putting together a winning roster continues to impress baseball strategists and analysts.  It’s been evident during the last two World Series the Royals were executing an organizational plan to play winning baseball.  Will other clubs try to emulate the Royals’ approach which includes putting the ball in play with a lineup of contact hitters, shortening the game for starting pitchers by having a solid bullpen that prevents scoring after the sixth inning, and fielding a very athletic team capable of aggressive base-running and stellar defense?

Off the field, will we finally see Pete Rose gaining re-instatement in Major League Baseball that will allow him to be eligible for a job in pro baseball and ultimately being considered for Hall of Fame election?  It was intriguing to see Rose and Alex Rodriguez in the spotlight for Fox Sports’ coverage of the post-season.  Was it intentional on Fox’s part to help these guys salvage their tarnished images resulting from their past transgressions with betting on baseball and performance enhancing drugs?

Speaking of Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey Jr. is expected to be the only shoo-in election among the first year candidates on the 2016 ballot.  Relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman (second only to Marino Rivera in career saves) will get a considerable number of votes, but he was not a first-year ballot type of player.  Among the carryovers from last year, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell should finally gain induction, despite the previous hints of their suspected PED use.  The number of Hall of Fame voters will be about 20% less that last year.  It will be interesting to see whether this will have any material effect on the results.

There are a myriad of other topics that will be the subject of baseball talk shows and social media over the coming months.  But the above list should give us plenty to ponder and follow as we start to prepare for 2016.  Most of us don’t have a hot stove to hover about any more, but it should be exciting all the same.

World Series Reflections

What a Game 5 last night!  The Royals did it again, coming from behind after it seemed the Mets had clinched a victory going into the 9th inning.

At the end of the night, as well as for the entire Series, the Kansas City Royals took advantage of the Mets’ overall lack of hitting, sloppy play in the field, inability to throw out runners in steal attempts, and relative inexperience in playoff situations.  The Royals didn’t let the Mets’ hard-throwing pitching staff rattle them.  Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard’s comments after Game 3, in which he admitted his game plan was to shake up Royals leadoff batter Alcides Escobar with a high, hard fastball on the first pitch of the game, only provided the Royals more impetus to take the Series.

The Royals’ ability to come from behind was the difference-maker in the Series.  During the regular season, Royals manager Ned Yost didn’t get a lot of credit for what seemed like a cake walk to the division title.  However, he was masterful during the World Series in putting his ball club in a position to make those come-from-behind victories.

The Royals achieved some level of revenge from last year’s defeat in the World Series against San Francisco.  It was just too bad for the Mets that they were the object of this year’s reprisal by the Royals.

If you read last week’s blog post about Daniel Murphy, it looks like I put the gris-gris on him.  After his record-setting division and league championship series performance, he laid a big goose egg in the World Series.

The Mets missed Murphy’s bat against the Royals.  He had only three hits in 20 official at-bats, zero home runs, and zero RBI.  Then his misplay on the ground ball in Game 4 that allowed the Royals to come from behind in the eighth inning may be the biggest gaffe in the annals of World Series play since 1986, when Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s ground ball go through his legs, which propelled the Mets to win the Series.

Murphy’s Law caught up with Daniel Murphy after all.

There was an unusual record set in Game 3 of the World Series.  Below is an account of what occurred.

 

Royals’ Mondesi Makes Record-Setting World Series Debut

A major league player’s first at-bat is always a day to remember.  Regardless of how long ago it occurred, the player will always be able to recall the date, the stadium, the inning, the score, the pitcher faced, the pitch count, and how he fared in that first plate appearance; it’s one of those red-letter days he will always cherish.

So what if the player’s first major league game happens to be an appearance on the biggest stage in baseball, the World Series?  That has to create one of the biggest moments of a player’s career, but at the same time it almost seems unfair to put an unseasoned player in that situation.  Well, that’s exactly what happened to Raul Mondesi Jr. on Friday in Game3, as he made a pinch-hit appearance for the Kansas City Royals in the top of the fifth inning.  It was the first time a major league player made his debut in a World Series contest.

The 20-year-old Mondesi was inserted into the game as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Danny Duffy with the Royals down two runs.  The Royals were hoping Mondesi could somehow get on base to create an opportunity to use his tremendous speed as a baserunner.  However, Mondesi struck out swinging in the at-bat, being overmatched by Met’s pitcher Noah Syndergaard who was reaching 100 mph at times early in the game.

Prior to his record-setting debut, Mondesi had never played above the Double-A minor league level in his career.  He was a surprising last-minute replacement (for Terrance Gore) on the Royals’ roster for the World Series, not even having been activated for earlier post-season games.

While Mondesi was seemingly thrust into the pressure-filled moment of the pinch-hitting appearance, it said a lot about the confidence Royals manager Ned Yost had in one of their top prospects.

Mondesi’s historic moment was somewhat reminiscent of Andruw Jones’ World Series debut in 1996.  The Atlanta Braves’ outfielder was only 19 years old when he played for the Atlanta Braves against the New York Yankees in the post-season classic that year.  However, Jones did have the advantage of having played in 31 regular season games and eight post-season games, prior to his first World Series appearance.

Mondesi’s father, Raul Sr., was also a major league player, including seven different teams during 1993 to 2005.  Ironically, the elder Mondesi, the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1994 and a career .273 hitter with 271 home runs, never got his shot at playing in the World Series throughout his lengthy 13-year big league career.

Baseball Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson, and Ralph Kiner never got an opportunity to play in a World Series during their entire illustrious careers.  Mondesi is already one up on them and his dad.

Mets' Daniel Murphy Defies Murphy

There’s a new folk hero in New York City, and his name is Daniel Murphy.  The Mets’ second baseman has had an historical post-season this year though the League Championship Series, including winning the LCS MVP award, yet he was probably the most unlikely of heroes on the Mets team going into the playoffs.

In their coverage of the baseball’s post-season, Fox Sports had one of the best lines about the newfound Mets star: “If things can go right for Daniel Murphy, it will.”  Surprisingly, Murphy defied the traditional definition of Murphy’s Law when he hit a home run in six consecutive post-season games, helping to propel the Mets to their first World Series appearance since 2000.

Murphy’s offensive heroics complemented the Mets’ lights-out pitching performances in defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs to emerge as the National League pennant-winners.

During the two playoff series, Murphy surpassed Carlos Beltran’s record for home runs most consecutive games set in 2005.  Altogether, Murphy hit seven home runs among his thirteen hits.

It is somewhat ironic that the Mets were panicking back in July when it was struggling to score runs.  Their offense was practically non-existent when they made some much-needed moves before the trade deadline on July 31.  Cespedes, who was acquired from Detroit, gave the Mets the offensive boost they needed, along with an already very solid pitching staff, to clinch the National League East Division.

Murphy was one of the most improbable Mets players to step up with power in the playoffs, since he hit only 14 home runs all season.  He had homered in back-to-back games only once in his six-year career.  One would have expected big-dollar-contract guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson or David Wright to be the one to carry the Mets’ offense rather than Murphy.

He had such a hot bat that the Cubs in Game 3 decided to give him respect as though he was Barry Bonds at the plate, intentionally walking him to get to Yoenis Cespedes.  Murphy would have never been given an automatic pass in that situation in the past.

Going into the playoffs, what Murphy did have going for him was that he is a consistent contact hitter, having struck out only 38 times in 528 at-bats during the regular season.  He’s been an above average hitter throughout his career with a .288 batting average.

However, one of the amazing things about Murphy’s hitting performance is that it came against some of the premier hurlers in the National League this season—Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Jon Lester, and Jake Arrieta.

In addition to his timely hitting, Murphy made an impact for the Mets with his aggressive base-running and defense.  His heads-up steal of third base, because the Dodgers failed to cover the bag after they had implemented a defensive shift, led to a tying run at a crucial point in Game 5.  His game-ending stop of a hard-hit grounder in the hole to end Game 1 against the Cubs was reminiscent of a Brooks Robinson defensive stab.

On a team that has more popular players from it young pitching corps, Murphy assured himself a spot on the Mets’ post-season wall of honor, along with Donn Clendenon (1969), Rusty Staub (1973), Ray Knight (1986), and Mike Piazza (2000).  Mets fans will forever recollect Murphy’s performance during this post-season.

One big question that has arisen is whether the six days off between the League Championship Series and the World Series will have an effect on Murphy’s hot streak, as well as on the Mets team in general.  However, if Murphy could miraculously add two more games to his streak, he would tie the all-time record for most home runs in consecutive games, jointly held by Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, and Dale Long.

Movie buffs will recall that “Back to the Future” had the woeful Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series thirty years into the future, which happened to be in 2015.  However, the screenwriters never anticipated that Daniel Murphy would be around to spoil that prognostication.  He joined the billy goat, the black cat, and Steve Bartman as the latest of “curses” to plague the Cubs’ pursuit of their first World Series championship since 1908.

Murphy says he can’t explain his timely surge in power during the post-season.  That’s part of the beauty of the game.  Sometimes things happen without justifiable logic.  Murphy is just hoping the traditional meaning of Murphy’s Law doesn’t kick in during the upcoming World Series.

Playoffs Highlight Several of Baseball's Unwritten Rules

In the excitement of the major league division series, several of baseball’s long-standing traditions were put front and center of a national TV audience and drew a lot of discussion and debate among the baseball analysts, talk show hosts, and fans. 

The culture of the game is changing and what we have seen in the playoffs are challenges to what some call the “old school” traditions and practices of the game.  With more focus on safety and an acceptance of more emotion to be displayed on the field, a different sense of style and esthetics of the game is evolving.  We are starting to see some of the some of the old school ways fade away.

The Division Series has produced some of the most controversial plays and events of the long baseball season and at the heart of many of them are the unwritten rules of the game

In the Dodgers-Cubs division series game, Dodger second baseman Chase Utley’s slide into Mets infielder Miguel Tejada to break up a crucial double play created a lot of furor among Mets fans because Tejada’s leg was broken on the play.  Utley was not called out and eventually scored a run.  However, after the game, Major League Baseball reacted with a decision to suspend Utley for two games due to his reckless (some called it “dirty”) slide. 

But in fact, those types of plays around second base are fairly routine, and no one has ever been suspended for it.  Players are coached to take the infielder out on a potential double play, particularly when a tying or go-ahead run is at stake.  It’s been like that for over 100 years.  Most recently, the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan was involved in a similar play against the Pittsburgh Pirates near the end of the regular season, rendering the Pirates’ infielder Jung-Ho Kang unable to play in their wild-card game.  It turned out that situation was generally accepted as “how the game was supposed to be played.” It’s true that Utley’s slide was reckless.  But when the suspension was issued for Utley, it drew criticism from many baseball traditionalists who argued, “Why now?”

Player safety has become paramount in professional sports, including baseball.  Triggered by this Mets-Dodgers game, baseball’s rules for sliding into second base, similar to Scott Cousins’ collision with the Giants catcher Buster Posey at home plate in 2011, will likely be addressed by Major League Baseball in the off-season.  Once that happens, then suspensions for reckless offenders will be appropriate.  The MLB rule change implemented in 2012 to avoid home plate collisions has worked, and it’s highly plausible a comparable rule change for second base collisions will have a similar effect.

Another situation involving unwritten rules was highlighted in the whacky 53-minute-long 7th inning of Game 5 of the Rangers-Blue Jays series.  Jose Bautista’s bat flip “heard around the world” after his 7th-inning home run sparked controversy over what is acceptable player behavior in dramatic game situations.  The unwritten rule in baseball has always been that a player doesn’t attempt to show up or disrespect an opposing player or team on the field.  Recall a game in 2013 when then Braves catcher Brian McCann admonished Brewers’ hitter Carlos Gomez on the field for his celebratory lap around the bases following a home run that eventually resulted in a bench-clearing incident for both teams.

In Bautista’s case, the question became:  was it just raw, innocent emotion on his part or was he actually taunting the Rangers with his emphatic bat flip during their amazing turnaround in that inning?  The situation caused us to reminisce about former Blue Jays player Joe Carter who celebrated following his dramatic game-winning home run in the 1993 World Series (the last time the Blue Jays were in the post-season).  In Carter’s case though, practically no one objected to his festive jaunt around the bases.

Expectedly, Rangers pitcher Sam Dyson, who served up Bautista’s go-ahead home run, didn’t appreciate the slugger’s reaction.  After the game Dyson said he thought Bautista’s action was being disrespectful to the game.   However, I believe most baseball fans endorsed Bautista’s exuberance following his home run and denounced baseball’s time-honored tradition in this case.

In some respects, the culture of the game needs to change in order to remain a viable spectator sport.  The attention the game has generated, by occasions like Bautista’s bat flip, makes for good promotion of the sport.  After all, baseball has often been criticized for being too staid and too serious, unlike its football and basketball counterparts where every play is seemingly celebrated by its players.  Increased emotional outbreaks on the baseball field for special moments like Bautista’s would actually be good for the sport, and I can envision an evolving change in decorum among its players.

However, there is another unwritten rule in baseball which may not fall by the wayside any time soon.  This one has to do with pitchers who are expected to retaliate against opposing teams by intentionally hitting their batters, after the pitcher’s own teammates have been knocked down or the opposing team has shown up the pitcher’s team.  One of the playoff games highlighted this situation.

In the National League wild card game between the Cubs and Pirates, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta was intentionally hit by Pirates relief pitcher Tony Watson when Arrieta was batting in the 7th inning.  Watson’s retaliatory plunking of Arrieta came after Arrieta had hit two Pirates batters earlier in the game, although Arrieta was never given a warning by the umpire.  Words were exchanged when Arrieta trotted to first base.  And then, with emotions high, both teams’ benches emptied, resulting in a Pirates player being ejected from the game.

Knock-down pitches have been used in big league baseball ever since over-hand pitching was instituted in the game back in the 1880’s.  The official rule in baseball now says a pitcher will be automatically ejected from the game when hitting a batter after being warned once by the umpire.  But that doesn’t seem to provide a huge deterrent to teams.  Until it becomes a player safety issue, the practice seems destined to continue.

The unwritten rules of baseball are as much a part of the game as the official rules.  They have been integral to the game’s history and tradition.  But like a lot of other things these days, we should expect some of them to change, too.

Could We See the "Battle of Texas" for the AL Pennant?

When MLB did their balancing of its two leagues in 2013, moving the Houston Astros to the American League, there was probably some anticipation a new baseball rivalry would emerge.  Well, that’s exactly what’s happened this season between the Astros and the Texas Rangers.  And now it looks like we might see them battling for the American League championship.  In a state better known for its football, baseball is definitely garnering a lot of unfamiliar attention this October.

The Rangers lead its American League Division Series with the Toronto Blue Jays, two games to one in the best-of-five series, while the Astros also have a 2-1 lead over the Royals.  Should the Rangers and Astros both win their division series, they will face off in a battle for the American League pennant.  That would be a first for the state of Texas. 

Ironically, neither the Rangers nor the Astros were expected to be in the race for the playoffs this season after the grim showings they made in 2014.  Texas dropped to a dismal 67-95 record in 2014, after capturing 91 wins the previous season.  Houston won only 70 games in 2014, continuing a string of six consecutive losing seasons.

Texas sunk to the bottom of the division cellar last season as a result of pitching injuries, and they wound up using forty different pitchers throughout the year.  They were a team in turmoil at the end of that season, and Ron Washington was ousted as manager, even though he had led the team to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011.

Houston was thought to still be in re-building mode for 2015.  Having the first-round pick in the major league draft for the past few seasons, they had stocked their minor league system with numerous top prospects.  Their player acquisition strategy has been more focused on building for the future through the draft, rather than using free agents to improve their number of wins in the near term.  They, too, fired their manager, Bo Porter, at the end of last season.

Based on last year’s results, baseball analysts weren’t giving either team much of a chance to be more competitive this season.  In my own pre-season prognostications, I had picked the two teams to bring up the rear of the American League West Division, fighting only for bragging rights in the State of Texas.

But all that would soon change.

The Astros broke out of the gate with a fast start in April.  They took an early lead in the division, but many thought it was only because the more favored Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels were under-performing.  However, the Astros managed to keep its lead until mid-September.  Their core of young players, led by Jose Altuve, George Springer and rookie Carlos Correa, was starting to pay off.  Starters Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh were routinely turning in solid performances on the mound.  The Astros were especially good at home, finishing with a 53-28 record for the season in Minute Maid Park.

I had a chance to see the Rangers play a three-game series against the Red Sox in early June.  It was evident then their offense was potent, with proven hitters like Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Mitch Moreland, and Shin-Soo Choo.  But their pitching had questions, due to key injuries to several of their established staff including Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz.

The Rangers resorted to a practically new pitching staff led by newcomer Yovani Gallardo, who had been a great pickup from Milwaukee during the off-season.  It turned out their new staff was able to keep them relatively close to the Astros and actually overtook them in mid-September when the Astros slumped somewhat.  The Rangers finished 46-28 in the second half of the season.

Both teams helped themselves at the July 31 trade deadline when it became apparent they had a good shot at the playoffs. With the Astros obviously ahead of their plan for being contenders, they decided to secure several veteran players to round out the roster.  The Rangers acquired ace pitcher Cole Hamels from the Phillies to help solidify their starting rotation.  They were also aided by the return of several previously injured players.

The potential matchup of the Astros and Rangers would make for a good post-season series, even though the Rangers actually had the Astros’ number during the regular season, winning 13 of 19 contests.  Although the Astros are relatively inexperienced as a playoff team, it doesn’t seem to faze its players.  They showed a lot of grit in beating the Yankees in the win-or-go-home wild-card game.  The Rangers have already avenged last season’s last place finish with a division title, but don’t seem content to stop there.   

The good part about a potential Rangers-Astros league championship series is that one of the teams from the Lone Star State will advance to the World Series.  Football just might have to take a back seat for a while.

Statue Dedication Fitting Tribute to Boo Ferriss

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the pinch-hitting exploits of Dave “Boo” Ferriss during his major league career with the Boston Red Sox.  Actually, his hitting was a sidebar to his outstanding pitching performances in his first two seasons with the Red Sox in which he won 46 games, garnered Rookie of the Year honors in 1945, and won a game in the 1946 World Series.  However, in many respects, his pro baseball career paled in comparison to his accomplishments and impact on Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.

That was evident this past weekend when Delta State hosted the ribbon-cutting of a bronze statue in Ferriss’ likeness at the baseball stadium on its campus.  The event was part of a ceremony in which the university also named its stadium for Tim and Nancy Harvey, who made a significant gift that enabled the renovation of the stadium and Ferriss Field, encompassing new grandstands, dugouts, and other improvements.

During his 46 years in baseball, Ferriss played and coached before some huge crowds, but possibly none were more noteworthy than the turnout for the dedication event on Saturday.  A standing room crowd overflowed from the five hundred chairs placed on the baseball diamond, packed with Delta State officials, former players, and friends, all of whom came to honor the 93-year-old Ferriss and the Harvey family.

Ferriss’ Delta State career included 26 seasons as head coach, 639 victories, four conference championships, and three Division II College World Series appearances. He also served the university in its development foundation, raising funds for the college.

Yet a couple of other stats mentioned during the dedication were equally as important and impressive.  Over 90% of Ferriss’ players at Delta State completed their degrees, and over 170 of his former players went on to coach in some capacity during their own careers.  So the impact Ferriss had on others’ lives is practically immeasurable.

Furthermore, several of Ferriss’ former players, like Tim Harvey, have given financially over the years to the university’s baseball complex that now includes an indoor practice facility, administration building, and a museum devoted to Ferriss’ career.  Their significant contributions were a reflection of the deep respect and admiration for their former coach.  Consequently, as mentioned by one of the speakers at the ceremony, Delta State has one of the finest facilities in all of college baseball, not just among the Division II schools.

Ferriss’ remarks during the ceremony provided many insights into his character.  He was humbled by the honor being bestowed on him.  He was grateful for having had such a long baseball career and association with Delta State.  He praised his wife, Miriam, for her untiring support of him when coaching.  He spoke of his pride for his children, David and Margaret.  Ferriss also expressed pride for his players and the successes they achieved in their own careers.  Many of those former players looked to Ferriss as a father figure during their time on the Delta State squad.

And Ferriss showed his humor through some of the baseball stories he related to the audience.  Like the time he was ejected from a game against Southern Mississippi after arguing for 27 minutes over some rules with an umpire.  Like regretting having cut the would-be famous author John Gresham from the Delta State baseball team as a freshman, laughingly noting the university’s stadium might now be domed if he hadn’t.

Ferriss has received just about every honor there is, including the Red Sox Hall of Fame, the State of Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, the Delta State Sports Hall of Fame, the Mississippi State University Sports Hall of Fame, the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, and on and on.  On Saturday Delta State President William LaForge also inducted Ferriss into the inaugural class of “Delta State Legends,” a distinction LaForge envisioned would be awarded over time to only a select number of impactful employees of Delta State.

In addition to his former players, Ferriss is affectionately called “Coach” by many people who never played baseball for him, because he was the face of Delta State baseball for so long.  Many of those folks wished they had had a chance to play for him.  He had that kind of impact on people.

My Favorite Yogi Berra Photo

Yogi Berra’s death last week triggered the re-appearance of many images from his legendary Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees. Most people probably recall seeing iconic photos of Berra jumping into Don Larsen’s arms following Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 and the controversial call over Jackie Robinson’s slide into home under Berra’s tag in 1955.  But my favorite photo of Berra is one that is seldom seen.  It shows a very young Berra and the greatest Yankee of all time, Babe Ruth.  (Unfortunately, my blog administration software won't let me imbed the photo with the text.)

 

At the time of the photo, which was probably taken in 1947, it provides a glimpse into two different eras of the Yankee dynasty. The photo shows the widely popular Ruth with a then relatively unknown Larry Berra, before he became popularly known as Yogi.  Berra looked like a typical rookie, just happy to be in the big leagues, in awe of shaking hands with the greatest player in history.  But that would ultimately change.

I can imagine that the picture was taken at the suggestion of a news photographer trying to do the upstart Berra a favor, securing a photo opportunity with the legendary Bambino.  The 22-year-old Berra was just beginning to break in as a regular in the Yankee lineup during that season.  An emaciated Ruth, who had retired from baseball in 1935, was only one year from his death at age 53 resulting from a bout with cancer. 

Ruth was larger than life, even after he finished his playing career.  He was the one person most responsible for making baseball America’s national pastime.   Ruth saved the sport after its darkest moment from the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal by capturing the nation’s attention with his historic home runs seasons.  His celebrated home run prowess made him one of the greatest sluggers of all time.

However, Berra eventually became a member of Yankee royalty himself.  His career earned him a spot as one of the most revered pinstripers in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, the figurative Yankee Mount Rushmore, alongside Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle.

Berra’s nickname, Yogi, became synonymous with Yankee baseball in the 1950s, just as Babe was for Ruth in the 1920s.  Berra’s accomplishments included three American League MVP awards, while finishing in the top four of the MVP voting in four additional seasons.  He was a member of a record ten World Series championship teams with the Yankees and named to the all-star team for fifteen consecutive seasons.  When Berra finally retired from playing in 1965, he was often regarded as the best catcher of all time.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Yet while there were similarities in their respective impacts with the Yankees and on baseball in general, Berra and Ruth had widely dissimilar personas.

Berra wasn’t the most physically gifted ballplayers at five-foot-seven and 185 pounds, while Ruth was a barrel-chested six-foot-two, 215 pounds.

Ruth was called the Sultan of Swat, conjuring an image of strength and power.  Berra’s nickname came about because he was once told he resembled a meek Hindu yogi.

Berra was the lovable guy, a favorite of all of this teammates.  Outside of baseball, his popularity was such that the ever-likable animated character, Yogi Bear, was named after him in 1958.

Even though they both came from humble backgrounds, Ruth developed a garrulous, center-of-attention type of personality as a result of his popularity, while Berra maintained an innocent, reserved side.  Ruth once sat out the start of a season reportedly because he had eaten too much during the offseason and couldn’t recover quickly from resulting stomach problems.  Berra was a virtual altar boy on Yankee teams noted for its hell-raisers like Hank Bauer, Mickey Martin, and Billy Martin.

Ruth was always good for a quote in the top baseball news stories of his day.  Berra was noted for coming out with offhanded, witty malapropisms and contradictory expressions that often had nothing to do with baseball.  He became famous for his “Yogisims,” even outside of the baseball world.

Yankee Nation lost one of its biggest stars last week, a guy who went a long way after that brief moment shaking hands with the Babe.

 

Yoenis Cespedes Making a Strong Case for MVP

Yoenis Cespedes was just what the Mets needed.  Back on July 4th, the Mets were 4 ½ games behind the Washington Nationals.  Their pitching, led by a strong corps of young arms, was outstanding, but their anemic offense just wasn’t scoring enough runs.  There were worries by Mets fans whether they could overtake the Nationals.  The pinnacle of the Mets’ ineptness at the plate was a game on June 27 in which they left 19 runners on base in a13-inning loss, while scoring only one run in the entire game.

You may recall in my blog post on July 5 that I labeled the team the “Mediocre Mets” as a contradiction to their historically popular “Amazin’ Mets” moniker, because they lacked offensive punch at the time.

Since Cespedes was traded to the Mets from Detroit at the July 31 trade deadline, he has practically had a season’s worth of offense, for an average ballplayer, in just six weeks with the New York Mets.  In his first 45 games with the Mets, Cespedes was batting .283 with 17 home runs, 10 doubles, three triples, 42 RBIs and 36 runs scored.  As of Saturday, the Mets are now seven games ahead of the Nationals and have practically sewn up the NL East division title with 14 games left to play.

Last week a national media discussion surfaced about whether Cespedes should be considered for National League MVP with less than half of a season of influence on the team.  Of course, the award is typically earned for a full season’s body of work, but Cespedes’ historic play and the dramatic turnaround he has helped the Mets make since August 1 certainly supports a reasonable claim.

Cespedes helped the Mets cinch their credibility as a legitimate contender for the division title and post-season play.  His acquisition by the Mets was just what the doctor ordered for the ailing bats of the Mets.  All of a sudden, the other bats in the Mets lineup woke up, too.

Cespedes ranks among the best in-season acquisitions a major league club has ever made.  For the Mets organization, it is reminiscent of 1998 when they picked up catcher Mike Piazza in late May, who then went on to hit 23 home runs, 76 RBI and a .348 average during the rest of the season.

Cespedes’ situation raises again the ongoing debate of what constitutes the criteria for the MVP Award.  Clearly, the Nationals’ Bryce Harper can makes his case for being MVP with his hands-down best performance in the National League based on his offensive production.  But the argument can be made that Harper is in fact the best player in the league, but not necessarily the most valuable player for providing the most impact for his team.

Is there a precedence for Cespedes capturing the MVP award after being traded in mid-season?  I couldn’t find a player who had pulled this off before, but there were a number who were traded during the season and wound up getting strong consideration for MVP.  Pitcher Sal Maglie was acquired by the Dodgers on May 15, 1956, and finished second in the MVP voting to teammate Don Newcombe.  Second baseman Red Schoendienst was acquired by the Milwaukee Braves on June 15, 1957, and finished third behind teammate Hank Aaron and Stan Musial.  First baseman Fred McGriff was traded to the Atlanta Braves on July 18, 1993, and finished fourth in the voting, as did outfielders Shannon Stewart with the Twins (acquired on July 16) in 2003 and Manny Ramirez with the Dodgers (acquired on July 31) in 2008.

Cespedes was initially thought to be a “rent-a-player” by the Mets for the balance of this season, but his thrilling late-season output now raises the question of whether they should pursue a multi-year contract after this season.  29-year-old Cespedes has become an instant icon in New York, and it will be interesting to see if the Mets decide to keep him around with a long-term contract.

Although Cespedes has been in a bit of a funk at the plate in the past four games, it does not erase the results he has brought to the Mets.  He probably won’t capture the league’s MVP honors.  However, in the long-suffering Mets fans’ hearts he will forever be remembered for the division championship he helped them win in 2015, their first since 2006.

You see, Cespedes is helping to put some “amazing” back into the Amazin’ Mets.

It Ain't as Easy as it Looks: Position Players Try Their Hand (and Arm) as Pitcher

As a high-schooler, did you ever try to persuade your baseball coach to let you throw a few pitches in a game, even though you had never pitched before in your life?  You probably got a response like “it ain’t as easy as it looks.”

Well, shortstop Brendan Ryan of the New York Yankees didn’t likely have to plea too hard with manager Joe Girardi to get on the mound on August 25 against the Houston Astros.  It was a blowout of a game, with the Astros walloping the Pinstripers, 15-1, hence the opportunity for Ryan to get some action on the hill.  Girardi decided not to fully waste valuable bullpen arms in the undoubtedly losing cause, as he inserted Ryan as the pitcher in the eighth and ninth innings after the Astros had already put up its fifteen runs against three earlier Yankee pitchers.

It’s actually not that rare for position players to “pinch pitch” in games with lopsided scores.  Other position players who have performed this dubious feat in 2015 include first baseman Ike Davis (A’s), outfielder Clint Robinson (Nationals), and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones (Yankees).  Outfielder Jeff Francoeur has made two relief appearances for the hapless Phillies this year.  Infielders Nick Franklin and Jake Elmore pitched in relief in successive innings for the Rays against the Nationals on June 16.  Cubs catcher David Ross pitched a perfect, 3-up-3-down inning against the Brewers on May 9, throwing nine strikes out of eleven pitches while tossing junk balls no faster than 75 mph.

Over the years, there have been several notable position players who got their momentary chance on the mound.  Ted Williams, Rocky Colavito, and Wade Boggs were among them.  Slugger-outfielder Jose Canseco got a little overzealous in his lone appearance on the mound while playing for the Texas Rangers in 1993.  In the course of giving up three runs, on two hits and three walks, he wound up over-extending himself with 33 pitches in his single inning.  Canseco required Tommy John surgery two months later.

One of my regular blog readers, Ashley, requested a few weeks ago that I try to identify major league pitchers who made permanent switches from being position players.  What I found were generally two types of players who made the career change:  those who were looking to extend their careers and those who figured out they had a better chance as a big league pitcher from the outset.

Tim Wakefield started out as a first baseman when he was drafted in the 8th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988.  After a poor first minor league season, he switched to pitching full-time in 1989, and was in the major leagues by 1992.  He had developed a baffling knuckleball, and it became the primary pitch in his repertoire for 19 big league seasons, over which he compiled 200 career victories.  Wakefield won a World Series with Boston in 2004.

Dick Hall originally came up with the Pittsburgh Pirates as an outfielder and second baseman, making his major league debut in 1952.  He converted to pitching after the 1954 season in which he hit a paltry .239 with two home runs and 27 RBI in 112 games.  By the early 1960s he had become a premier relief pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles, helping them to three World Series appearances.

Mel Queen was signed by the Cincinnati Reds organization out of high school in 1960 as a third baseman.  He paid his dues in the minors, eventually converting to an outfielder.  He earned a major league roster spot with the Reds in 1965, but managed to hit only .200 in 48 games.  In 1966, he began his transition to a pitcher while in the minors, following in the footsteps of his father who had been a major league pitcher from 1942 to 1952.  In 1967, Queen threw a shutout against the San Francisco Giants in his first major league start for the Reds and went on to win 14 game that season.  He pitched in the majors until 1972, and then became a pitching coach for several major league clubs.

Likely the best player to turn to pitching after starting out as a position player was Bob Lemon.  He made brief appearances with the Cleveland Indians in 1941 and 1942 as a third baseman before entering the military service in 1943 during World War II, missing three baseball seasons.  Upon his return from the war, he re-joined the Indians, but this time as a pitcher, although he would still occasionally play in the outfield.  Lemon wound up pitching for the Indians until 1958, accumulating 207 career wins while garnering 20 or more wins in seven seasons.  He didn’t forget how to hit, as he managed to slug 37 home runs over the course of his pitching career.  Lemon was elected the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

One of the players who converted to pitcher in an attempt to stay around in baseball longer was Granville “Granny” Hammer.  He had made his major league debut as a 17-year-old during World War II, when there was a shortage of players.  By 1948, he had secured a starting job at third base for the Philadelphia Phillies, which he held for ten seasons.  Granny was a member of the 1950 Philadelphia “Whiz Kids” who went to the World Series.  He was selected for the National League all-star team in three seasons.  By 1958, he had lost his starting job with the Phillies, and in 1961 at 34-years of age, he converted to a pitcher with the Kansas City A’s in order to extend his career.  However, after a couple of minor league seasons, he made only a handful of major league appearances with the A’s as a pitcher before he retired.

Johnny O’Brien was somewhat unique in baseball because he and his brother, Eddie, were one of only eight sets of twins to ever play in the major leagues.  Moreover, Johnny added to his distinction with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953 as a second baseman.  He and his shortstop brother made history that year by becoming the first set of twins to play in the same game for the same team.  However, they had both lost their jobs to infielders Dick Groat and Bill Mazeroski by 1956.  Johnny then tried his hand at pitching, but never really got traction in the position.  O’Brien had three losing decisions in 16 appearances in 1957 and was out of baseball altogether after 1959.

Hal Jeffcoat was the starting centerfielder for the Chicago Cubs in his debut year of 1948.  However, he became a part-time outfielder from 1949 to 1953, when he struggled to show any power at the plate.  Jeffcoat converted to a pitcher for the 1954 season, without ever spending any time in the minors to hone the skill.  He proceeded to pitch as both a starter and reliever during the balance of his career which ended in 1960.  He finished his career with 39 wins and 25 saves.

There have been other players who made the switch to pitching.  However, with a few exceptions like Bob Lemon and Tim Wakefield, most of the conversions did little to significantly enhance the careers of the players.

It ain’t as easy as it looks.