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.
Remembrances of the Man Named "Boo"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

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

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

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

Here are my top five topics for the offseason.

1.  Will the Cubs repeat in 2017?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this the Greatest World Series Ever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody is a Cubs Fan Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yankee Fans Have Good Reason to be Excited about Gary Sanchez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unique Hall of Fame Experience Fulfills Personal Bucket List Item

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Things Baseball Will Miss When Big Papi Retires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Tebow Makes Improbable Bid to Play Pro Baseball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KC Royals Poised for a September Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to Turner Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were the Yankees the Biggest Winner as Big Sellers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Experiences Helped Shape Lawton Brothers' Baseball Careers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sellers

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

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

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

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

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

Buyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid-Season Report Card Offers Hope for High Marks

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Series – Rangers and Giants

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.