November 2011

The Night I Realized Bobby Valentine Was Clueless

The world remembers Game Two of the 2000 World Series for one thing, and one thing alone: Roger Clemens throwing the shattered bat of Mike Piazza at, or near, Mike Piazza.

But for me, standing at the far end of the Yankee dugout, covering the Series as part of the Fox telecast, the bat event was an asterisk to the real headline. Because that was the night that I became convinced Bobby Valentine didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing.

Lost in the Clemens saga still churning more than eleven years later, was a) the eight innings of two-hit ball he fired at the Mets (the back half of consecutive starts in which Clemens threw 17 playoff innings, gave up no runs, one hit batsman, two walks, three hits, and struck out 24 of the 58 batters he faced); b) the Mets’ incredible ninth inning rally that almost gave Clemens a no-decision; and c) Valentine’s decision during that inning, that might be the dumbest World Series managerial move since Casey Stengel completely messed up his 1960 pitching rotation.

Again, the context. Mostly because of their own baserunning lunkheadedness, plus the fact that Todd Zeile’s fly ball missed being a home run by maybe eight inches, the Mets had lost the Opener of the Subway Series the night before. Now, in Game Two, Clemens had made them look nearly as bad as he had made the Seattle Mariners look eight days before. Oh, and even though Piazza thought Clemens had thrown a bat at him, neither he, nor Valentine, nor anybody else in a Met uniform had even retaliated, let alone charged the mound or anything.

So as the Mets came up in the top of the 9th, down 6-0, they were as dead as Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Clemens had exited, stage right, to go let the adrenalin drain out of his system (along with whatever else was in there). Coming off his best major league season, Jeff Nelson was brought in to face the heart of the Mets’ order, and Joe Torre even took out David Justice for the slight defensive upgrade Clay Bellinger would represent in left.

But it did not exactly go to plan. Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a sharp single to left, and Piazza promptly got some delayed revenge by putting a Nelson pitch off the pole in left to cut it to 6-2. By this point, Torre had hastily gotten Mariano Rivera up. When Robin Ventura singled to make it three straight hits to start the ninth, Rivera was summoned, and nearly blew the game on the spot. Zeile hit another one to the wall in left, with the wind holding it up just enough to reduce it to a nice jumping Bellinger catch at the fence.  But Benny Agbayani singled, and with Lenny Harris up, Jorge Posada lost a Rivera cutter and the runners moved up to second and third. Harris tapped back to Rivera who got Ventura at the plate, and the Mets were down to their final out – which was when Jay Payton walloped a massive three-run bomb off Mo and all of a sudden the Yankees’ insurmountable 6-0 lead was now a 6-5 heart-stopper, with the Mets just a baserunner away from turning over the line-up and sending up sparkplug Timo Perez with the tying run on.

Please remember this specific fact: the Mets were down to their last out, but having scored five in the ninth and rattled Mariano Rivera, they now had a chance – no matter how small a chance – to pull off a split at Yankee Stadium with three coming up at Shea. You may also remember that in midseason they had lost their other-worldly defensive shortstop Rey Ordonez, and had been forced to trade utility wizard Melvin Mora to Baltimore for Mike Bordick. Bobby V had already pinch-hit for Bordick an inning earlier with Darryl Hamilton, and went to his back-up shortstop, Kurt Abbott. If for some inexplicable reason Valentine now chose to leave Abbott in to face Rivera, he would be sending a lamb to the slaughter. Abbott had never seen Rivera or his cutter before. He was a lifetime .256 hitter with a .304 on-base percentage. After this night, only fourteen more major league at bats awaited him, and that was mainly because despite a pretty good glove and a deceptive slugging percentage, Kurt Abbott just wasn’t a major league hitter.

What happened next was explained at the time as a simple proposition. Bobby Valentine was out of shortstops, and, after all, Abbott had hit six homers during the regular season, in only 157 at bats. That none of them had been off a righthander since August 7, and that righthander was Jason Green (18 career minor league innings), and the other dingers had come off Terry Mulholland, Brian Bohanon, Jason Bere, Alan Mills, and Jose Mercedes, and that Abbott was carrying a 7-for-37 slump, seemed to have been left out of the equation.

More over, Valentine might have been out of slick shortstops, but he was hardly out of shortstops. He had at least seven defensive moves left. Joe McEwing had played four games at short for the Mets in 2000 and was still on the bench. McEwing, Matt Franco, and that night’s DH Lenny Harris had all played third during the season, and Robin Ventura could’ve easily slid over to short if the Mets had pulled off the miracle of forcing a bottom of the 9th. If that move sounded too risky, McEwing and Harris had also played second, and could have gone there with Alfonzo switching to short. Still not comfortable with pinch-hitting for Abbott? Bubba Trammell had produced a pinch two-run single the night before off Andy Pettitte. Valentine would trust Trammell enough to start him in right in the Series’ decisive game – he could have gone in to the outfield and Agbayani or Payton played first, with Todd Zeile going to third and Ventura to short. Or the same ploy could have been used with Harris, who played ten games at first for the ’00 Mets.

But, no. Bobby V knew he didn’t have any shortstops. So, having scored a remarkable five runs in the 9th – three of them off the greatest reliever the game would ever know – he sent up Kurt Abbott  to try to finish the miracle. Imagine if the Mets had tied that game? Regardless of the outcome – even if the Yankees had promptly won it in the bottom of the inning thanks to an error by McEwing or Ventura at short or Bubba Trammell somewhere – the invincibility of the Yanks would have been punctured. Instead of a near-miss utterly overshadowed by the affair of Clemens And The Bat, it would have been the greatest ninth-inning comeback in World Series history.

Instead, inevitably, Kurt Abbott struck out. Looking.

The Mets lost the Series in five games, and until you just read this, it was unlikely that you remembered that “The Clemens/Piazza Game” ended with such an unlikely rally, cut short by a manager who wouldn’t pinch-hit for his good-field no-hit back-up shortstop.

But Bobby Valentine is supposed to be a great in-game tactician. Just like he’s supposed to be a no-nonsense skipper who’ll instill discipline into a flabby Red Sox team – presumably teaching them to respect authority by returning to the dugout in an embarrassing disguise after he had been ejected by the umpires. Like you have to listen to the umpires or something. And don’t tell me the Abbott decision is ancient history. As far as his major league managerial career goes, the decision to let Rivera eat Abbott alive was just 326 games ago.

Good luck, Red Sox fans.


							

Miami In A Vice

They have gone out and spent the money on what looks like a fabulous and distinctive new ballpark.

They have gone out and spent the money on what is an often fabulous and always distinctive new manager.

They are evidently willing to go out and spend the money (“in the range of five years, $18-$20 million a year,” per Buster Olney on ESPN) on Jose Reyes and might be able to snare Albert Pujols as well.

They even went out and spent the money on rebranding themselves as a city, not a state, and on some decent looking new uniforms (although the basic premise of the attire struck me as an adaptation of the original 1977 Toronto Blue Jays’ unis, with orange substituted for powder blue).

And I think it will all end in disaster.

As the 20th season of Marlins baseball looms, there is still almost no evidence that South Florida is a major league baseball community, or that it wants or needs big league ball. The entire dynamic could be changed by the new roofed stadium, but the certitude about that – and the willingness to wager literally hundreds of millions of dollars on that certitude – is, to me, unjustified. With the caveat that I know from sopping-wet experience that Joe Robbie/ProPlayer/Whatever Stadium was a miserable place to watch a ballgame, I still think that it’s mortifying that the Fish averaged 37,838 fans per game in their inaugural season of 1993, and 33,695 in 1994 – and never came close to that figure again.

I mean, not close. The World Champions of 1997 played before an average house of 29,190. Otherwise they have had just five seasons of more than 19,007 paid admissions per game, and four that were below 15,766 a year.

Team president David Samson thinks some improvement on the squad and the ballpark will convert a city that has for two decades been saying ‘you fill me with inertia’ will suddenly convert into producing “30 to 35,000 every single game.”

This was a city that could not support AAA baseball in the ’50s, and never again tried higher than A-ball. And I don’t buy the idea that a high-priced indoor facility in Miami proper rather than it a remarkably hard-to-get-to corner of Fort Lauderdale is now going to entice 37,000 fans away from everything else the city offers, especially at night. Pujols and Reyes would be hard to resist. Then again the Marlins fans of nine seasons ago resisted the 2003 World Champions (except for 16,290 of them each game). I’m not even sure how a $95,000,000 investment in Reyes and lord knows how much in Pujols would translate into profitability or even break-even status.

Reyes alone will not do it – ask the Mets.

As if these doubts were not enough, late last night the impeccable Clark Spencer of The Miami Herald tweeted something to make Miami fans shiver:

Source: H. Ramirez is not at all pleased at prospect of changing positions if #Marlins sign Reyes; the two aren’t the friends many portray.

When the Reyes rumors first started, Spencer had quoted Hanley Ramirez with words that bring honor to the role of wet blanket: “I’m the shortstop right now and I consider myself a shortstop.”

One can easily see where all this will go if a) Ramirez and Reyes squabble; b) Reyes gets hurts again; c) the Marlins don’t sign enough new talent to compete in a daunting division; d) the fans don’t show up; or e) all of the above, in any order you choose. When the ’97 Marlin World Champs did not yield a new stadium, 17 of the 25 men on the World Series roster were gone by mid-season 1998 and three more by mid-season 1999.

Imagine Jose Reyes being traded in a fire sale in the middle of 2013. Or Albert Pujols.

SPEAKING OF ALBERT…

A quick thought about the new Cardinals’ manager.

I met Mike Matheny during the nightmarish 2000 NLCS when Rick Ankiel was hit by the same psychological trauma – damage to a close male relative or friend who had taught him the game – that befell Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, the ex-pitcher-turned-author Pat Jordan, and others. Matheny had cut up his hand opening the odd gift of a really big hunting knife, and had to turn over Cardinals’ catching to Carlos Hernandez.

Matheny was devastated, but less for himself and far more for what his absence meant to Ankiel. I don’t know that this has been reported since the time Ankiel’s problems crested (I know I put it on our Fox broadcasts of the Cards-Mets playoffs), but Matheny told me that several times during the season Ankiel had begun to spiral out of control the way he did in that heart-stopping start against New York. “But I could calm him down, I was able to stop him. Last night, watching it, I felt helpless. Worse, I felt paralyzed. I could’ve talked him out of it.”

Consider this in the later context. Ankiel was collapsing under the weight of his father – who had driven him throughout his youth and into his career – going to prison for drug-running. The problem would run Ankiel out of the majors the next year and make him an outfielder two years after that. Yet Matheny was somehow able to encourage him, reassure him, or simply bullspit him, into overcoming this set of complex psychological phenomena.

Put that into a skill set that includes good game judgement, an ability to easily relate to everybody from batboys to announcers who wouldn’t give anybody a hunter’s knife as a present in a million years, and all the other non-healing powers a manager is supposed to have, and I think it’s safe to infer Matheny will be a pretty good big league skipper.

Calvin Schiraldi: Sportsman

Frankly, MLB Network’s special 25th Anniversary commemoration of the 1986 World Series which premiered last night, could have been 7 long highlight “packages” with only my friend Bob Costas merely introducing them, and I would’ve enjoyed it.

But something unexpected happened. The players who joined Costas and Tom Verducci were Mookie Wilson of the Mets, and Bruce Hurst and Calvin Schiraldi of the Red Sox. Wilson has long been a source of reflective information on the dramatic series between the Mets and Red Sox.

Hurst proved himself erudite and frank – just as he was as a player, who was never an “easy” interview but always an insightful one. Several times he responded – reluctantly but bluntly – to particularly outlandish and unsupported comments about his teammates from 1986 Red Sox manager John McNamara, who seems to have settled in to an emeritus stage devoted to blaming the players for his erratic managing, especially during Game 6.

Costas, Wilson, Hurst, and Verducci were fine. But Schiraldi was a revelation.

He, of course, was the star-crossed Boston closer, former college teammate of Roger Clemens, and an ex-Met prospect all too familiar to his old teammates, who had struggled in the ’86 A.L. Championship Series and managed to help give back a World Series win though he retired the first two men, and had two strikes on the third, in the bottom of the final inning. It is nearly almost literally true that the last time Schiraldi was heard from publicly, he was staggering off the field at Shea Stadium, a 24-year old with his future behind him. He had seemed, at best, far from confident, and, at worst, shattered. Schiraldi would be exiled to the Cubs in 1988 and would be out of the majors in 1991.

For the first hour or so of the program Schiraldi, his once-boyish face now covered in a graying beard, wearing a strange sweatshirt and clashing with the impeccably dressed Hurst, seemed terse to the point of embarrassment. There was a kind of cringe factor growing as the game-by-game recollection of the Series moved inevitably towards his nightmare in Game 6.

But this time, Calvin Schiraldi starred.

He revealed that before Dave Henderson’s homer gave the Red Sox the lead in the top of the 10th Inning, he had been told that he had pitched to his last batter, that somebody else would throw the bottom of the presumably still-tied frame. He didn’t say it until provoked, but anybody who has ever played sports, or covered them closely, or just experienced a high-adrenaline environment, suddenly understood what happened. Having thrown two innings in the tensest environment possible, Schiraldi had been told to gear down, that he was “done.”

This is, of course, the moment during the horror film where you the viewer think the carnage is over and you’ve survived – the “placing the flowers on Carrie’s grave” moment, just before her hand shoots out of the ground to claim you. Physiologists will tell you it is not a purely psychological phenomenon. The energy and the adrenaline abate. And when it turns out Carrie is reaching out – or the manager says “Calvin, now we’ve got a two-run lead, go back out there and wrap this up” – when you reach for that energy, it’s not there – and you are on your own, and on your own against Carrie.

The show’s insight could’ve ended there with Schiraldi giving an explanation (but not an excuse) for what happened during the last 0.2 of the 2.2 innings he pitched that night. But then came something transcendent. He was asked how he felt now about the game and the series and he, presumably unknowingly, defined the true value of sports.

Schiraldi said he was obviously unhappy at the outcome of the game and the series, but he would not change the experience if it meant changing who that night made him become. That’s when Schiraldi revealed the meaning of his unusual sweatshirt. For more than a decade he’s been the baseball coach – and a teacher – at St Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin. And the things he learned in the majors, particularly in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, have formed the core of his value and coaching systems.

He’s used that inning to teach kids about sports – and life.

Calvin Schiraldi (L) with Bruce Hurst on MLB Network's 1986 World Series Special

You have to hear him say it, to truly appreciate it. The MLB retrospective on the ’86 Series runs again tomorrow and Sunday afternoons at 1 PM ET. Find a way to watch, because 25 years later, Schiraldi has had an impact that merely getting the last out could never have afforded him.

NL Central 2012: Ryne Sandberg Versus The Cubs?

Fascinating that the St. Louis Cardinals have asked the Phillies for permission to interview their AAA manager Ryne Sandberg – and received it.

For the second consecutive year, Sandberg will not get the managing job with the team for which he starred. When new Cubs’ President Theo Epstein outlined his minimum standards for the next manager (experience as a major league skipper or coach) it essentially eliminated Ryno from consideration because his stints with the Phils last spring and last September do not formally rise to that level.

Yet oddly, the Cardinals are happy to at least kick the Sandberg tires. I’m not sure what it proves, but it would seem to suggest that the division of thought on Sandberg’s managerial potential may now split into those who have seen him, the Hall of Famer, willing to ride the buses of the Midwest League, and those who have actually employed him to manage their bush leaguers. Everything I heard as of March, 2010, was that the Wrigley Field job was likely to be Sandberg’s whenever Lou Piniella left. But by August, when Piniella really did leave, the Cubs had soured on Sandberg and no longer thought him viable. Off he went to the Phillies, and now they are willing to let him talk to a National League rival, and there hasn’t been a peep about Sandberg even getting a promotion to the Phillies’ major league coaching staff. Even stranger, is that before he took the Phils’ offer last winter, Sandberg interviewed for the equivalent job in the Boston system – with Theo Epstein, the same man who’s ruled him out in Chicago.

I’m reminded of Babe Ruth’s quixotic hope that the Yankees would make him their manager (they’d seen him do that with his teammate, Bob Shawkey, who had only one season managing in the minors before he got the job in New York in 1930). Perhaps the more apt comparison is Gary Carter’s campaign to get the Mets to consider him for any of their last few managerial openings.

If Sandberg doesn’t get the St. Louis job, the Cubs-Cards rivalry might still be ratcheted up by the inclusion of Terry Francona in the mix. While Epstein has said a few polite things about possible Chicago interest in Tito, the Cardinals are scheduled to interview him tomorrow. I still think St. Louis is leaning towards LaRussa’s third base coach Jose Oquendo (although I would have considered it more than “leaning” if they had brought Oquendo back into the dugout as bench coach), but it would be a fascinating dynamic if Francona got the Cardinal job and was pitted against his old cohort Epstein in Chicago.

Besides the headline names, the Cards and/or Cubs seem interested in a lot of the same men the Red Sox are interested in: Rangers’ pitching coach Mike Maddux, former Brewers’ interim skipper Dale Sveum, and Phils’ bench coach and ex-Reds and Pirates’ interim manager Pete Mackanin. If you want to follow all this on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis, your best resource is the terrific MLBTradeRumors.Com site, which is a clearinghouse for every local newspaper story, every significant radio interview, and every last damn tweet on anything moving in the majors. It puts the ESPN’s and SI’s sites to shame.

So stay tuned to the prospect of Sandberg or Francona in St. Louis, and if you’re a Cub fan again tearing out your hair about Ryno, consider this Cooperstown fact. These are the Hall of Fame players who, since 1900, went on to manage “their” team: Honus Wagner (Pirates), Ty Cobb (Tigers), Walter Johnson (Senators), Tris Speaker (Indians), Nap Lajoie (Indians), Eddie Collins (White Sox), George Sisler (Browns), Rogers Hornsby (Cards and Cubs), Fred Clarke (Pirates), Jimmy Collins (Red Sox), Frank Chance (Cubs), Johnny Evers (Cubs), Joe Tinker (Cubs), Frank Frisch (Cardinals), Pie Traynor (Pirates), Mel Ott (Giants), Bill Terry (Giants), Gabby Hartnett (Cubs), Ted Lyons (White Sox), Joe Cronin (Senators and Red Sox), Lou Boudreau (Indians), Dave Bancroft (Braves), Yogi Berra (Yankees), Eddie Mathews (Braves), Red Schoendienst (Cardinals), and Tony Perez (Reds). That’s 26 guys, who managed a lot of years, yet won only 18 pennants among them — and 13 of the 18 were as player-managers and four of those were by Frank Chance. In other words, of the other 25 hometown heroes who later managed, they could collectively amass only five pennants as non-playing skippers.

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