July 2009

And Now An Editorial Reply

I’ve often been accused of being contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian, but I don’t know that I’ve ever gone this far

I hadn’t heard previously of Dan Steinberg and his blogs at The Washington Post and The Sporting News, but he goes a long way to defend Manny Ramirez and skewer me for what I wrote here Saturday (I think that’s what he’s doing – it’s not exactly clear; it seems to be snark, a medium in which I’ve worked for 35 years, and whatever it is, I think he’s doing it wrong). I criticized the juxtaposition of Fox’s celebration of Ramirez’s return and the MLB-wide official tributes to Lou Gehrig on the 70th Anniversary of his “day” at Yankee Stadium in 1939.

As if he were worth of being alive, Keith; of sharing the status of “human being” with Lou Gehrig. Manny Ramirez should have declined all offers of oxygen, on this day, and on every other day that is an anniversary of a day on which Lou Gehrig was alive.

I confess to being mightily impressed at the head of steam he builds up on the long trek he makes towards his great climactic accusation of hypocrisy on my part.

For shame, for shame, baseball fans. You should all be standing in line to forfeit your mindless baseball entertainment, on account of there having been rule-breaking in that industry, which is devoted primarily to occupying the minds of 30-something lawyers with expense accounts, middle-aged journalists and college kids making fictional “trades” at 3 in the morning while eating week-old pizza slices they found in their closets. Why, oh why, don’t you brainless masses boycott this farce in favor of a more wholesome, ethical and Gehrig-approved entertainment option?

I also confess to becoming afraid for him as he accelerates, the way we all used to become afraid for the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, since we could see the edge of the mesa coming and he couldn’t.

I would argue further: that no one not named Gehrig should ever again be allowed to play baseball, even Strat-O-Matic. And that Manny Ramirez should be tasered every night for a year. And that the fans who have cheered for him should be tasered, too. And that Manny Ramirez is, pretty much, the Worst Person in the World. And that anyone who so much as cashes one check paid for with dirty baseball money from immoral cheering fans should be banished from civilized society.


Wait, Keith, why is there an MLB logo on your blog? 


Nooooooooooooooooooooo!


Umm… as anybody who reads the MLBlogs knows, baseball has no say over what is written here, by me, or anybody else. And, yes, this particular blog, MLB pays for. Only I don’t get checks to cash. The money gets split three ways: to St. Jude’s Hospital, to the Baseball Assistance Team, and to the education fund for the grandchildren of the former big leaguer and MLB.TV host John Marzano.


That was a long way to run to wind up going off a cliff like that. At least Mr. Steinberg was good enough to provide his own sound effect at the end.

Rolen Down Memory Lane

The Blue Jays’ visit here allowed me to visit with an old, old acquaintance. “Still the highlight of that season,” Scott Rolen insisted again, for at least the third time since it happened, just the other day – in 1996.

The late Bill Robinson was managing the Reading Phillies of the Eastern League. I had known him since I was a kid and he was the next great Yankee superstar who fizzled out, only to reclaim a terrific career as a clutch 4th Outfielder for the Phillies and Pirates. Robby sent me a note one day, saying he wanted to give his team a tour of ESPN the next time they came to play in nearby New Britain, Connecticut, and he dangled considerable bait. If I arranged it, he’d let me be his bench coach for one of the games against the newly-christened “Rock Cats,” who played only about twelve minutes from my house.
I did not let Bill know I would’ve given his guys the tour, no charge.
They got the guided visit (far less interesting than it would seem, then or now), and Robby and I agreed on a date. And soon I was there with him on the bench, in full uniform, and wearing the spare shoes of the only guy with feet approaching mine, the one and only Wayne Gomes. Robinson even made me work for my living: I had to chart hits and defense. But mostly I was there to talk to the kids on the team, no fewer than fourteen of whom eventually made the majors (though they weren’t all there at that juncture). The highlights were Marlon Anderson, as great a guy then as now, Bobby Estalella, Matt Beech, and Rolen, who spent half his time practicing an imaginary golf swing. 
I also took some ribbing from the pitching coach, Larry Andersen, most of it along the lines of “I’m getting paid to do this. What’s your excuse?” That’s when I reminded him he was in New Britain, where the guy he had been traded for in 1990 had insufficiently impressed the parent Red Sox. “What was his name, Larry? Bagwell? Whatever happened to him?”
It was, of course, a tremendous education. As I’ve alluded to before, it would obviously be the dream of any fan to watch a game from such a venue, with such entree to the process. But how much you learn and how many presuppositions you are disabused of. And the game moves twice as fast as it does from the stands or the press box, which is why players stare blankly at you when you talk about enforcing speed-up rules.
And then there’s the practical joking. In the 7th, as I was explaining the ESPN experience to two players, one of whom was an infielder named Matt Guiliano, the other guy barked out at umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, “Hey, Blue, where was that one?” Wendelstedt ripped off his mask and barked “who said that?” The complaining player and Guiliano both pointed at me, and Wendelstedt promptly ejected me from the game.
He ran me.

I thought it was quite funny and I continued to sit in my spot on the bench and started to resume my story to Guiliano when Bill Robinson came over. “You know, he really did throw you out. You’ll have to go. But you should give him hell before you do.” I ran out onto the field and as Wendelstedt barely contained his laughter, I started screaming at him. As I recall, it went like this: “My one lousy game in uniform and you run me? I can see you’re going to make the big leagues and not just because your Daddy’s an umpire. And let me promise you, one day I will be avenged. I will get a highlight of you and I will run you into the ground with it. Your father will change his name to Runge. I swear!” Then I kicked dirt on the plate and on him and I said “Okay, have I put on enough of a show?” and he sputtered out yes, and I left, throwing my shoes and cap as I did (I retrieved the cap).
Six years later, Rolen had already gone from the Phils to the Cards and they appeared at Yankee Stadium and I saw him near the cage and went over to ask him if he remembered it, when I suddenly realized he was running over to me. “Where was that when they threw you out of our game?” I told him, New Britain, in 1996. “The highlight of my season,” he said. We both laughed and I reminded him that a few weeks later he was called up to Philly to make his big league debut. “Like I said,” he said dryly. “Highlight of my season.”
Sunday afternoon we visited briefly and we repeated the exchange. “I know, I know, the year I broke in. Still the highlight of that season.”
BRIEFLY…

You could expand the All-Star Rosters to 75 guys and somebody would still have a complaint, but Mark Reynolds isn’t going? The only thing besides Justin Upton keeping the Diamondbacks from sinking into the PCL?… Chad Gaudin looked like a BP pitcher in the first inning Friday against the Dodgers, then recovered fairly well thereafter, but still has a little ways to go. On the other hand, Rule V shortstop draftee Everth Cabrera may be there already… the Pirates may be serious about dealing Matt Capps. If they can get a juicy package for him, and something that will make them all go dreamy like they have over Charlie Morton, they’ll do it… and lastly, if this hasn’t shown up anywhere, old Yankee Stadium is now enmeshed in protective netting like a widow at a funeral, and the bit-by-bit demolition of the superstructure isn’t far off. I was literally offered a full piece of the outfield frieze and the price was not a blood-letting for unique stuff like that. But then they said it weighed a ton and I said “I bet it does,” and they said “no, literally, it weighs 2,000 pounds” and I envisioned apartment walls collapsing and I said no, thank you kindly.
IMG_0763.jpg

Joba Booed

The honeymoon is over, the bloom is off the rose, and the scales have fallen from the eyes. After nearly two years of abject and often undeserved adoration, Joba Chamberlain heard the unfamiliar sounds of booing here at Yankee Stadium. This fate that befalls them all filled the interval between the landing of the last of the nine hits Chamberlain surrendered in blowing a 4-0 lead to Toronto in just three and two-thirds innings, and his removal from the game. Though the carnage (five unearned) was largely enabled by a silly-looking error by Cody Ransom at third base, Chamberlain was hardly undeserving of the catcalls – having already given back three of the runs before the hideous fourth. Ironically, the end of the Joba Rules Era which had begun here on August 13, 2007, may ultimately be forgotten in the general lustiness of the swatting here in the Bronx; afforded the 8-4 lead, rookie Brett Cecil (without Beany) promptly gave up a three-run blast to Matsui. If not, Yankee fans may have to transfer their exuberant affections to Brett Tomko – although that somehow doesnt sound like quite the same thing.

It Disgusts Me

When I think of Lou Gehrig, I see him in a hotel room somewhere in the summer of 1938. It is the middle of the night, nearly silent, sweltering in Cleveland or St. Louis or Washington. If there is any air conditioning it is feeble and no match for humidity sitting like a giant sweater on the city.

The pain has been growing, almost imperceptibly, for months, maybe years. Worse still his inability to make his body do what he wants it to do has deteriorated. The discomfort may have awakened him, but it’s something else that has caused him to reach for the alarm clock, and instead knock it to the floor with a sour ring. This may have been begun years earlier – his eventual successor Babe Dahlgren told me he was playing first for the Red Sox in 1935 when Gehrig rounded the bag, slipped, and just could not steady himself to stand up.
He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and it will be months more of pain, and confusion, and fear, and denial, and dread, before he has even heard the phrase. And then the world will close in on him: in March, 1939, he will stagger through spring training. In May he will take himself out of the lineup. Weeks later he will be at the Mayo Clinic. In July he will be honored at Yankee Stadium and initially be asked not to speak to the heartbroken crowd, for fear that just the sound of his words, his acknowledgment of what is so terribly wrong, will reduce 60,000 people to tears. By the following spring, working for the underprivileged and troubled youth of New York City, he will pose, smiling, at an office desk. Only later will it be revealed that the pencil he holds had to be placed there, and his fist closed around it, by somebody else’s hand. Barely two years after the diagnosis, exactly 16 years after his legendary streak began, it will all end.
And yet in the Bronx 70 years ago today, Lou Gehrig composed himself in such a manner, with a strength that eclipsed even what he showed on the ballfields of the ’20s and ’30s, that he could give one final measure of himself with such honesty, with such courage, with such a simple and direct connection to the human condition, that it is quoted, somewhere, every day.
And when those who have followed him in the game he loves, honor him, and this country, and themselves, by having those words read in every ballpark in the major leagues on this 4th of July, they emphasize all that is good and brave, despite the unbeatable odds and ultimate “bad break” we all face eventually, about the game, about the nation, about life itself.
But first, let’s take you out to San Diego where Manny Ramirez is just back from a 50-game suspension. For cheating. For cutting corners. For breaking rules. For lying. For deception. For letting down his teammates. For contributing to suspicions against every honest player. For raising a giant middle finger to sportsmanship. For abusing the fans. For risking that for which Lou Gehrig would’ve given anything – his own health.
Ramirez, of course, homered today in his first at bat. And some people cheered. As if he were just back from an injury, or a death in the family. As if he were a hero. As if he were an honest man. As if he were somehow worthy of sharing the meaningfulness of this day with Lou Gehrig.
Credit to Fox’s Tim McCarver – who has never gotten enough of it for this one quality he has shown, often at such great risk to his own security and even employment – for his honesty in pointing out the inappropriateness of the reaction to Ramirez’s return. He is not making a comeback. He is out on parole and it will be years – if ever – before many of us will believe he did not do something illegal, improper, or immoral, this morning.

And shame on the broadcasters who decided to treat Ramirez’s return as if it were something to be trumpeted, rather than what it is – something to be ashamed of. This trumpeting is barely about Manny Ramirez – this applies to McGwire and Bonds and Palmeiro and Rodriguez and all the rest, caught or admitted.
This is Lou Gehrig’s day. The rest of the juicers may come back and play tomorrow and there will not be boycotts. The Dodgers will probably go to the World Series, carried in part by a great flaming fraud like Ramirez. And judging by the brainless response of fans who would cheer anybody if they hit the ball 425 feet for their team, and boo anybody if they hit the ball 425 feet for their opponents, there will not even be significant repercussions. 
But today, there should have been. Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez and the others of the PED era did not belong in baseball today, and that they did not show the requisite awareness of their own shame, only makes it worse. Lord, send us a ‘roider who has the presence of mind to say: “On this day I do my penance; I don’t yet belong on the field even with just the memory of this man, I hope you’ll forgive me and I can again earn your trust.”

The Ichiro Comedy Hour

After getting handcuffed by Hideki Matsuis second inning sac fly here at Yankee Stadium for an error that ultimately did no damage to the Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki got a mock roar of anticipation and excitement from the crowd as he lined up to catch Francisco Cervellis fly just two batters later.

Ichiro – of the underpublicized sense of humor and the giddy giggle whenever Ken Griffey tickles him, promptly pulled a Justin Upton. As he squeezed Cervellis fly to end the inning, he fake-tossed it towards the stands, giving the fans something to really roar about.

Leading off the top of the third, the one-named wonder was called out on by umpire Jerry Meals on a check swing – held his bat level in that limbo pose for a second, begging for the ball call. When it didnt come, he unfroze the pose and finished the swing.

Well, You Can Call Me Ray, Or You Can Call Me Jay… UPDATED

Possibly the all-time lulu of baseball name stories – eclipsing even the multiple spellings of Ismael Valdes/Valdez, and pitcher Harry Rasmussen changing his first name to Eric, and the verbal fistfights that used to break out over Dick Allen’s right to call himself anything besides “Richie” – is here in Baseball America.


Wally, Jose, Bryan, whatever.
Update, 12:15 AM EDT 7/2: I forgot! The aforementioned Mr. Wally Jose Bryan was also a little off on his age, which invokes the greatest baseball biography ever written, on the back of the 1964 Phillies’ Rookie Card featuring Dave Bennett (the top one here). If the wonderful image of a man getting younger before your very eyes doesn’t register, read the write-up outloud.
Bennett64.jpg
(Courtesy The Topps Company)

Samardzija and Kovacevic

Dejan Kovacevic, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s beat writer who blogs with the diligence of a full-timer, sent me, in the wake of the Morgan-Milledge trade, an email with a fascinating question.

Jason Bay to the Red Sox, Xavier Nady to the Yankees, Nate McLouth to the Braves, and now Nyjer Morgan to the Nationals – when was the last time a team traded four quality everyday outfielders in a year’s time? (Notice he’s not even considering Eric Hinske as outfielder #4.5).
I immediately flashed back to the Braves’ full-scale makeover in March, 1997. On the 25th they offed Marquis Grissom and David Justice to Cleveland for Kenny Lofton. Two days later, they sent Jermaine Dye to the Royals for Michael Tucker. At season’s end they let Lofton walk as a free agent – not a trade, but still some pretty big turnover in seven months.
Dejan suggested the Marlins’ fire sale of that same year, that extended into ’98. He was right. On November 11, 1997 they swapped Moises Alou to Houston, and a week later, Devon White to the brand new Diamondbacks. Then in the deal that bought them Mike Piazza as a trading chip in May, 1998, they sent the Dodgers Gary Sheffield and Jim Eisenreich, both of whom had been starting in Florida. Also in that deal was Bobby Bonilla, who had been playing third in Florida, and just for good measure, back on November 20th they’d sent Jeff Conine (their first baseman at the time) to Kansas City. That is six quality major league outfielders dealt in a span of six months plus a week.

By the way, all this trading and chronology research was done in a matter of seconds at the impeccable site Retrosheet.Org – if you’ve never been, give yourself an hour. It is like having the Baseball Hall of Fame Library on your laptop.

I’m still not sure if the Pirates made out like bandits in their latest offload, or got sold a rubber peach. Lastings Milledge sure has all the talent you could hope for. But if you’re playing center and they tell you to play a little deeper, and you ignore them, and the ball gets hit over your head, and then it happens at least once more, I’m not convinced that a broken finger and banishment to Syracuse is enough to straighten you out. You might need an exorcism.
HE CLICKS AS A STARTER AND THE CUBS CALL HIM UP TO… MOP-UP?

I know Jeff Samardzija is the Third Rail of baseball blog topics, but is anybody confused as to the Cubbies’ logic (again)? He stars out of the pen in August, stinks in September, stinks this spring. They send him back to Des Moines to work him back into starting shape, where he shines (5-3, 3.72, 13 games). They now promote him again… to do what?
He appears last night in the 9th inning, Cubs down 3-0 to Colorado.
So he’s the mop-up guy?
Even this makes too little sense to be random Cub goofy non-planning. The Cubs’ bullpen has been erratic to say the least and one assumes the $10,000,000 man was not summoned to pitch in losses. But is he thought to be a set-up man, or could there more to this? The Cub bullpen is third from the bottom in saves (only Atlanta and Washington have fewer). They have blown thirteen opportunities. “Blown saves” is a somewhat random and unrefined stat — Washington leads the majors with seventeen; the only other team with more than the Cubs is the Dodgers, with fifteen, and they’re not exactly bailing water. Nevertheless, the Cubs are also eleventh in the NL in Holds (another vague stat, but somewhat usable).
Since they talked him out of shoulder pads, many Cub front office dreamers have thought that Samardzija might make a nice starting pitcher, but he could be a dominant reliever. I’m just wondering if this recall (especially when it involved the demotion of the perfectly adequate Jose Ascanio), coming as it does on the first occasion the Cubs have brought him in without making a big deal out of it, doesn’t suggest they might be trying a stealth restructuring of the bullpen.
.