July 2009

The Wall of License Plates

Anybody old enough to remember this? When every state made new license plates every year? When you kept the old ones, and Dad nailed them up to the wall in the garage? 

For months I’ve been looking at this, under the rightfield advertising in the new Yankee Stadium:
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Finally over the weekend the imagery came to me. This commemoration of the Yanks’ 26 Championships looks like license plates nailed to the garage wall.
Now there was a problem evident from the beginning. What do the Yanks do if and when they win another championship? As shown above, the last six title years – from 1977 on – are already partially obscured when fans in the back row of the bleachers stand. There’s room for eight more “license plates” below what is now the lowest level, but obviously these will be completely obscured by fans, even while seated.
Kind of a bad omen, a poor sense of confidence that there will be more World Championships to nail to the wall.
But now there’s a new problem. Take a closer look…
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1952 is missing!
From the detritus on the wall it surely doesn’t look like they were very well secured:
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Glue, erratically applied? Double-sided tape? No screws? Not even nailed up like Dad did with the license plates?
So what happened to 1952? Obviously it just fell of its own accord, because nobody would, you know, steal it.

Neatness Counts

It is inexplicable to me that the Yankees hold the last surviving “Old Timers’ Day” – they used to be regular features in nearly every ballpark, and for a time constituted a kind of floating franchise, managed centrally and sending the veterans on virtual summer-long tours of parks in the majors and minors.

I’ve been attending them off-and-on since 1967 and thus got to see Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams get basehits (Williams repeatedly homered into the stands in batting practice at Fenway in ’84). Since 2001 I’ve been privileged to be the sidekick to Hall of Fame Announcer Bob Wolff as he announces the nostalgia-fest over the PA system at Yankee Stadium, and thus tomorrow’s Day is a source of great anticipation.
The best part is always the first-timers. They are not exclusively the just-retired, like Mike Mussina. Lindy McDaniel, so long an ex-Yankee that his last act was to be traded to Kansas City for Lou Piniella, will make his debut tomorrow, as will Jerry Narron, whom I hope to be able to note has, simply, the best penmanship in baseball, perhaps in baseball.
Think I’m kidding?
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This was one of Narron’s line-up cards while serving as a coach in Texas – a 1998 piece. His work during his one year for Tito Francona in Boston is still treated with hushed reverence by the Sox skipper, who says he has kept some of Narron’s line-up cards. One will notice that besides the calligraphy, there is a boxscore quality to the reserves. The White Sox “extra men” include “Cmrn” and “Snpk” – Mike Cameron and Chris Snopek.
I may try to convince Jerry to fill out the lineups in my scorebook for the Old Timers’ game.

Mets Star In Remake Of 1975 Yankees

Now Gary Sheffield is down – length indeterminate, it’s leg cramps after initial indications that it was a hamstring, and very few injuries to 40-year old legs are minor injuries – and at the moment, the senior New York Mets’ outfielder in terms of earliest debut is Angel Pagan.

The year began with Daniel Murphy in left, Carlos Beltran in center, and Ryan Church in rightfield. It looked like Fernando Tatis would get occasional at bats in one of the corners or at first, against lefthanders. Jeremy Reed was the spare part (beating out Bobby Kielty and Cory Sullivan in spring training), Nick Evans and Fernando Martinez were glimmers in the distance, and Sheffield seemed like a vanity signing.
And then the Mets’ outfielders began falling in carload lots. Murphy couldn’t handle the work and Sheffield took over left. Beltran was hurt, Pagan succeeded him, Pagan got hurt, Martinez came up, Martinez went down, Martinez came back up. Church ticked off management, Evans came up briefly (but mostly to give Murphy a day off), Reed briefly succeeded Delgado at first, and somewhere along the line Emil Brown came up for one day and one start. If Sheffield goes on the DL or is even out briefly, a Tatis/Reed platoon might be the likeliest new combo in left, although Evans might come back again or Omar Minaya could mix it up and roll the dice with Sullivan or even Wily Mo Pena.
For years the measuring stick for a decimated outfield was one of the teams of my youth, the 1975 Yankees, who were considerable favorites going into what would ultimately be the year not of the debuts of Bobby Bonds and Jim Hunter in New York, but those of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn in Boston. A quick perusal of the world’s best baseball historical site RetroSheet.Org shows just how bad it was. Starting with considerable depth, the Yanks opened with Roy White in left, Elliott Maddox in center, Bonds in right, and Lou Piniella as the DH/extra corner outfielder. The Yanks considered themselves so loaded in stars (Maddox had emerged the year before) that much of spring training was spent teaching White to play first, to try to get the veteran some playing time.
By season’s end the Yankees had used seven different centerfielders (Maddox tore up his leg on a patch of crappy turf at Shea Stadium and would never again be the player of 1974), eleven different guys in right, and in left – where White would play 135 games – eleven more. Now, many of the fielders played two spots or all three, but centerfield was literally a succession of short-term starters. Maddox played 55 games there, then a scrappy prospect named Kerry Dineen came up to succeed him, and himself got hurt a week later. Then it was all Bonds (for a 45 game stint). Then it was minor league journeyman Rick Bladt for 51 of the 63 games of his career. Somewhere in there, Walt “No-Neck” Williams played ten in center, and Rich Coggins, 28. 
The whole thing was so astonishing that Thurman Munson started one game each in Left and Right, and his back-up Rick Dempsey got seven starts in the outfield (Munson would also find himself playing first and third that year; it was an experience). All in all the Yankees used fifteen different players in the outfield and had a sixteenth outfielder on the roster who never got there (Otto Velez), and somehow finished above .500, in third place, only twelve games out.

End The Home Field Advantage

Though there have now been back-to-back entertaining All-Star Games (and this one, as we used to say at ESPN, “moved like a rocket”), the idea that the American League has gotten home field advantage for the World Series seven consecutive years based on a game played under rules that necessarily favor the American League, must somehow be corrected.
The obvious problem is the imbalance in the intensity of offense. Though there are two fewer American League teams, the total number of starting offensive positions is still just a ratio of NL 128/AL 126. But in that virtually identically-sized talent pool, there are, at minimum, 14 offensive positions in the American League (and thus 14 potential American League All-Stars) who do not have to have much, or even any, defensive capability. Even defensively-skilled American League All-Stars are all afforded the potential opportunity to play “half games” by filling in as DH’s; their National League counterparts must either play more in the field – and thus be more worn down – or sit games out.
American League pitchers also have a slight physical advantage. While their performances are certainly taxed by the fact of facing the DH, it’s not as if they have to get four outs every inning – and the trade off is, (virtually) never having to hit, and (virtually) never having to run the bases, unlike their National League counterparts.
Finally, the All-Teams-Represented anachronism — a rule left over from the days when it was assumed television viewership in each city depended on a representative from the team in each city — clearly hurts the National League. It might not show up in a given game, but over the course of the twelve years since the 16/14 split began, this must have an impact: the NL is stuck with two more Mandatory Choices, each year, than is the AL. Tonight, the question was, which of the four solo NL guys – Francisco Cordero, Ted Lilly, Brian McCann, or Ryan Zimmerman – was ultimately of less use to Charlie Manuel than, say, a Mark Reynolds pinch-hit appearance might have been?
The solution? Two more guys on the NL roster than the AL? Eliminate the mandatory team representatives? Hard to say. But giving the American League the home field in the Series based on what is deteriorating into a self-fulfilling prophesy, is madness.
CEREMONIAL FIRST PITCHES

Four years ago I was to throw one out before a game at Staten Island of the New York-Penn League and I called an old friend of mine, a former pitcher of some prominence, for advice. From Baba-Booey to President Barack Obama, the rules he gave me should be handed out in advance to all ceremonial first pitchers (and, after tonight’s great Obama looper, kept in the President’s mind for whenever he next takes the hill).
The first rule is: don’t take the hill. “That is not there for you,” my friend said. “All you can do there is fall off. Go to the front of the mound, the skirt, and move up just far enough that it looks like you’re on the mound but you’re really going to land on level ground as you throw.”
The second rule is: aim high. “Think about every first pitch you’ve ever seen,” he said. “The ones that the catcher has to leap for, or go over his head, some people might laugh but at least a few will go ooooooooh. The ones thrown in the dirt just get moans. When it doubt, fail upwards.”
But the last rule, he said, was the most important, and, chronologically, the first. “Try to get the actual baseball early. Or — screw it — just pick up any ball that’s handy. They don’t care. Get it as early as possible: ten minutes, half an hour, whatever. And just hold on to it and pretend it makes you less nervous.” I thought he was going to go all psychological on mine. “And as you turn the ball over in your hands, as you rub it, as you look at it, pick at the seams. Use your fingernails and just pull up on every thread. Just keep doing it, as many times, to as many pieces of thread as you can. Just keep doing it.” I asked why. “You’ll see.”
I got the ball probably half an hour before the first pitch, and, while dismissing myself as a moron for following my friend’s goofy advice, I decided to adhere to it. I picked at each thread. Nothing happened. No elevation. No loosening. No sense of having done anything to the ball. A decided sense of my friend, in a distant city, chuckling as he thought of me pointlessly pulling at red threads that wouldn’t budge.
I warned the Staten Island catcher P.J. Piliterre (who I was delighted to see in Tampa last March, in camp with the big boys; good luck with spelling that battery of Pettitte and Piliterre) that I would aim high, then trotted out to the front skirt of the mound, gave the seams a few final tugs, and fired. The immediate good news: it was relatively close to the plate. The immediate bad news: he might have to reach up for it.
Then the miracle happened.
A few feet in front of the plate, as unexpectedly and sharply as if it had been hit by a bullet or an arrow, my first pitch dropped, a good eighteen inches. Piliterre had to drop his glove to catch what would have been, dare I say it, mistaken for an off-speed overhand curveball, for a strike. Piliterre was laughing as he met me near the plate to give me the ball: “I see you’ve been picking at the seams.”

Trivia and Jocketty

I never posted the (apparent) answer to the trivia question from last week about Hall of Famers who retired after World Series wins or losses, and I’ll get to what I have on that shortly.

Firstly, in the wake of the very disturbing Jay Bruce broken wrist last night, there was a quote from a few weeks previously from Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty about what the club would do if it felt it had to bench or perhaps demote Bruce, who had been steadily heading down to the Uecker Line. He had said Drew Stubbs – the former first-rounder who has hit like a dream at Louisville, gets on base nicely, steals bases, but has shown none of the power the Reds expected when they drafted him – would get the first opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, Reds management also likes Chris Haisley, who just got to AAA a month ago, and has considerably more power with very little experience above AA. A spot on the 40-man would have to be created for either player.
However, Reds’ manager Dusty Baker, sounding exactly like the kind of skippers in Atlanta who limited him to spot work for his first four years, seems totally unimpressed with the prospects of either Stubbs or Haisley, dismissing their performances as just numbers. While an outfield of Nix and Gomes in left, Willy Taveras in center, and Chris Dickerson (who left today’s game in New York with back spasms) may seem appealing to Dusty, it would probably assure the Reds of sinking into the basement in the NL Central. Dismissing Haisley, or the more likely candidate Stubbs, just isn’t rational – unless Baker is expecting the Reds to summon up a big-bat outfielder or shortstop before the trading deadline. Other than first baseman Yonder Alonso, there just aren’t big-ticket trade chips in the Reds’ system, and unless you’re talking Matt Holliday, I don’t think you’re talking about trading Alonso.
Face it, Dusty, you may have to put a kid out there. Even though that never works. Joey Votto, Bruce, even Dickerson – they were just lightning strikes. Not possible for that to ever happen again in the history of baseball.
Now that trivia question. If you include being on the active roster during the World Series, our lists of Hall-of-Famers who wrapped it up there, is as follows:
Winners:
1930 Eddie Collins, Philadelphia A’s (though he was a player-coach who appeared in only three games during the season, both the Philly and St. Louis scorecards – our best research tool for early Series info – list him as an active player for the ’30 Series).
1951 Joe DiMaggio, Yankees
1953 Johnny Mize, Yankees
1968 Eddie Mathews, Tigers
(Note here: Johnny Ward, Hall of Fame player-manager of the 1894 New York Giants, led his team to victory in the closest thing to the World Series, The Temple Cup, then retired as an active player).
Losers:
1922 Home Run Baker, Yankees
1936 Travis Jackson, Giants
1936 Bill Terry, Giants
1956 Jackie Robinson, Dodgers
1966 Sandy Koufax, Dodgers
1968 Roger Maris, Cardinals
1973 Willie Mays, Mets
Some notes here: Tom Seaver was on the disabled list of the ’86 Red Sox, but since he attempted a comeback mid-season with the ’87 Mets, he falls off the list for two reasons. Dave Winfield ended his career with the ’95 Indians but was not on the post-season roster, and Larry Doby finished up with the ’59 White Sox but was let go in July.
And as mentioned below, Don Sutton is in a category of his own. In the rotation of the ’88 Dodgers past the All-Star break, he was released, never pitched again – but went with the team the next year for a celebration at the White House.
Again, the lists are presumed to be incomplete and additional submissions are welcomed
Two years later, the Dodgers released Don Sutton two months before the Series

Six Weeks?

You didn’t have to see Jay Bruce’s right wrist bend unnaturally to believe he had broken it – but it helped.

The questions become what the Reds do in his absence, and how long that absence will be. The Reds face one immediate problem: the only five outfielders on their 40-man roster are already on the major league roster. Thus the thought of promoting a Chris Heisey or Drew Stubbs or any other outfielder, requires somebody being pulled off the 40-man roster. Or you could move a 40-man roster player to the 60-Day Disabled List.
Unfortunately the leading candidate for that would be Bruce himself, and 60 days on the DL would make Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty’s immediate ETA for a Bruce return – as soon as six weeks – officially wildly over-optimistic. While nobody in the CitiField press box had access to Bruce’s x-rays, there wasn’t a person in there who thought the Jocketty estimate was reasonable.
While the roster move, and the length of Bruce’s absence, remain in doubt, the players Dusty Baker will use in his absence probably do not. Chris Dickerson was taking over Laynce Nix’s lefthanded platoon with Jonny Gomes in left as it was, and he is a passable rightfielder. It’s likely Nix gets back into the time-share with Gomes, and Dickerson takes over full-time in right. Exotic moves, like moving Joey Votto to the outfield, replacing him again with Ramon Hernandez at first, with the underappreciated Ryan Hanigan moving back behind the plate, seemed unlikely to the Reds’ people I talked to.
Regardless, it’s a terrible night for Bruce, who is one of the more admirable young prospects for superstardom in the game, and whose 2009 now has to make you wonder if there isn’t something to what they used to call “The Sophomore Jinx.”
ON MR. FRANCOEUR:

The two hits were not exactly titanic blasts – one was the dying quail on which Bruce injured himself, and the other a grounder that Jerry Hairston nearly made a fine play on – but Jeff Francoeur and the Mets will take it.
The positive – and this is mirrored in Atlanta with the acquisition of Ryan Church – is that even with players in funks, with reputations, with management angry at them – at this stage in the season the team getting rid of them usually charge a slight premium. You deal Church or Francoeur for a comparable player and, maybe, a prospect. Here it was a straight-up change-of-scene exchange, with the pre-set advantage to the Mets because of the age difference and the higher ceiling Francoeur still offers.
In the stands, it was obvious that after a summer of Argenis Reyes, Wilson Valdez, Fernando Martinez, et al, Mets fans were happy just to see them add a new player who, in the past, has appeared on his own baseball card.
The first “Francoeur” jersey was, apparently, sold to Joel Francisco, who wore it proudly just in front of the press box tonight.
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Bruce Update: Broken Wrist

t was indeed bad. Jay Bruces wrist is fractured and this was discerned less than two innings after he was walked off the field here in Queens. Reds GM Walt Jocketty, passing through the media area, looked a little wan, to say the least. Barely two hours ago Jerry Hairston was telling me he had hopes if being competitive in the wide-open NL Central if our rightfielder gets going. No time frame is officially offered yet but Bruces chances of getting going would seem to depend entirely on him getting going to Lourdes.

Jay Bruce Hurt

X-rays and maybe an MRI will ultimately say how bad, but Jay Bruce of the Reds appeared to have badly injured his wrist on a sliding, diving bid to catch David Wrights fly here in the bottom of the first at CitiField. While there was no obvious indication of a bone break, Bruce clearly was in significant pain and not able to straighten the wrist out after he seemed to bend it the wrong way during the mishap. Bruces nightmarish last month then climaxed with a slow walk into the Reds dugout – he was replaced by Chris Dickerson. In other bad news for the Cincinnatis, Johnny Cueto had another painful first frame: 40 pitches, three runs, four hits, two walks, saved only when he struck out Johan Santana with the bases loaded and two out. For the Mets, Jeff Francoeur caught the ganmes first out and knocked in its first runs – and there was already at least one fan wearing a Francoeur 12 jersey in the stands (photo later).

Mets Answer

The first of our two trivia questions from the denizens of the Yankee Stadium Press Box, we’ll answer here, then give the juicier one a little more time to cook.

The question was, Rickey Henderson will become the fourteenth Hall of Famer to have worn a Mets uniform – who are the other thirteen. I’m afraid announcers don’t count. Here they are, in rough chronological order, first year wearing the uniform, listed.
1. Manager Casey Stengel, 1962
2. Pitching Coach Red Ruffing, 1962
3. Batting Coach Rogers Hornsby, 1962
4. Outfielder Richie Ashburn, 1962
5. Outfielder Duke Snider, 1963
6. Pitcher-Coach Warren Spahn, 1965
7. Catcher-Coach Yogi Berra, 1965
8. Pitcher Nolan Ryan, 1966
9. Pitcher Tom Seaver, 1967
10. Outfielder, Coach Willie Mays, 1973
11. Pitching Coach Bob Gibson, 1981
12. Catcher Gary Carter, 1985
13. First Baseman Eddie Murray, 1992
Our other question remains: how many Hall of Famers closed out their careers by retiring after a World Series, win or loss? I notice Don Sutton’s name in the comments and I’m not sure – the 1988 Dodgers released him on August 10 (ending his career) which was pretty early. On the other hand, as I recall, whenever they went to the White House in 1989, he was included. 

Trivia

Two great questions batted around Yankee Stadium Sunday which you can chew on for a few days.

One of them is fully vetted – the other, not quite.
1. When Rickey Henderson is inducted, he’ll become the fourteenth Hall of Famer who once wore a Mets’ uniform. Name the other thirteen, and note the construction of the question. They are indeed, not all players.
2. How many Hall of Famers retired immediately after playing on a World Series winning team? How many of them did so immediately after playing on a losing team? Looks like four or five winners and about ten losers, but I’m still double-checking.
As they say: have at.
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