At the outset let me point out that there’s very little I can add to either of these authentic stream-of-conciousness sagas of Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, the Mexican Dentist who saved him $20,000, the bartender, Adam West, the Elks Lodge, Socialized Medicine in France, “super famous guys living on cat food,” and the autographed baseball cards. So here are the links: the first one, the second one, and the – frankly – disappointingly brief third one.
All I can do is entice you to go, read them – preferably aloud. Maybe organize a party; anticipate needing an hour or so as you may want to read them aloud then dramatize them with various people playing the roles of the late Mr. Mathews, and the woman he gave the cards to, Michelle, and of course Larry Hagman. These eBay listings are at least a Telenovella if not a screenplay.
Just remember that she has strayed slightly from the premise of trying to get you to bid on these autographed cards.
For any of you who have heard unfounded allegations of Eddie’s control over the Drink OR RATHER, LACK THEREOF, it was not true.
Mind you, that’s the Topic Sentence in a 1,064 word attempt to sell you a baseball card.
But I’m interrupting! Sorry…
THE STORY NOW, I NEVER ASKED EDDIE FOR ANYTHING, NO SIGNED NOTHNG, WHICH I THINK SHOCKED HIM because everyone always did, napkins, any piece of paper they could find, it was tasteless. BUT, MY MOM WAS DIRECTOR OF ADMINISTRATION OF WARNER BROTHERS when we were kids and our neighbor’s were Batman(Adam West), and another neighbor Larry Hagman, of” I Dream of Jeannie”, at the time (he chased down some mean boys who stole my brothers Halloween Candy, so he has always been a hero since our little 4 year old minds watched the Superhero save the day in Malibu Colony, AND I WAS “FAMOUS PROOF”, meaning I always knew we were all equal and had things to learn from the bums in the street ergo we are equal!! So Eddie made a point of giving me a signed card on my B-Days and holidays. Normally he wasn’t thrilled when people asked for stuff, some were great, the kids and real fans, but some were just opportunists who wanted to make a buck of him when he died, as he put it!!! Never one to mince words. I miss Eddie terribly. After his death I organized for his wife to throw in the first pitch at a Padres Game, and we all took a bus down and we did an event at the local Elks Lodge, but Eddie was woefully ignored by the Baseball Commissioner, Hank Aaron, and all the baseball world when he died and it was a Shameful thing, especially for the Commissioner and Hank Aaron, who was there and laughed when Eddie said that which led to his firing, it was that era, but he was caught up in the Politically Correct Avant-Garde, though the whole team, including Hank, talked a certain way to each other, but when the Press attacked Eddie for a mild statement of the times, Hank and the Team didn’t back him up, and it really broke his heart, deeply, I guess after all those years it was like your family saying, we don’t want you here anymore, the days of the hard drinking Babe Loving Babe Ruth days are over and now we are all so PC, and I usually am, but I know what he said and he should NEVER have been let go.
I’d like to point out one factual error that threads through all of these “item descriptions.” As the seller notes in each auction, the Braves – with Mathews as manager – did indeed announce that they would keep Hank Aaron out of the lineup for their opening series in Cincinnati in 1974 so he wouldn’t tie (and maybe break) Babe Ruth’s home run record on the road. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did step in and order the Braves to play him at least once against the Reds (and he promptly tied Ruth’s record on opening day).
But contrary to the lady’s claims, Mathews wasn’t fired as skipper the night of (April 8), or the day after, Aaron’s 715th homer. The Braves let him go on July 21. And also contrary to the lady’s claims, when Mathews was canned at the All-Star Break the Braves’ players rose up to defend him in a way that I recall even at the time was considered unusually strong. In particular, Aaron was outraged. “It’s their club and they can do anything they want to,” he was quoted by United Press International as saying. “Personally I thought he did a hell of a job. I’ve seen a lot of managers fired but this one touched me especially hard. It was a blow to me.”
But I’m getting in the way of the pitch, which concludes with one of the greatest lines ever used on eBay – or maybe anywhere else:
Thanks for listening to the story, don’t know all that much about cards or their worth, but Eddie gave me the ones I am auctioning, so we know they are real, and his wife, Judy, lives in Del Mar and she’ll give me a confirmation, though I haven’t seen her in years.
And yes, by the way, that “one bid” you see for each of the cards? Those are mine. The descriptions may be remarkable as uses of the written word, but the sentiment seems absolutely sincere and compelling. Feel free to outbid me.
Last night it was J.A. Happ, felled by a line drive, bleeding from the ear – and yet out of the hospital within 16 hours.
Last year it was Brandon McCarthy, felled by a line drive, walking off under his own power and pronounced fit and then suddenly requiring especially dangerous brain surgery (and not utterly incidentally, still having not had one good start since).
Yesterday it was the 56th anniversary of the day it was Herb Score – who was thought to be on his way to the career Sandy Koufax wound up having – felled by a line drive. 38-20 with 547 strikeouts in his first 512 innings in the majors, 17-26 with 290 strikeouts in his agonizing last 346.
In 2011 it was Juan Nicasio and it was 2000 it was Bryce Florie and in 1994 it was Mike Wilson and in 1991 it was Wally Whitehurst. And before them it was Steve Shields, repeatedly. And it’s been Kaz Ishii and David Huff and Matt Clement. And Joe Beckwith – who got hurt not because he was hit with a line drive, but because he did such a superb job of quickly getting out of the way of the line drive that in doing so he altered the vision in one eye and had to have corrective surgery on the good eye before he could resume his career. And in youth and college baseball, where the bats are aluminum and the skulls aren’t always finished, it was Gunnar Sandberg of Marin Catholic High in northern California who spent weeks in a coma and a year off the field (and if all this isn’t enough for you, here are more – if you have a stomach for them).
So once again the debate begins about giving helmets or at least lined caps to pitchers, and half of baseball insists it will have to happen after this incident, and the other half (including nearly all the pitchers) insisting it never will happen.
It already has.
Branch Rickey not only fostered the introduction of the helmet for batters, but later helped to develop (and actually own most of the stock in the company producing) the kind of helmet worn today – the one that can fit over a cap rather than force the batter to swap the one for the other After his successes in Brooklyn Rickey was squeezed out by Walter O’Malley and he went on to Pittsburgh where, in 1952, he mandated that his batters use them. A year later he announced that all the Pirates would wear the new helmets – at the plate and in the field. The Pirates were said to not even pack ordinary cloth caps on road trips.
Several accounts have the Bucs’ pitchers quickly – within weeks – discarding the helmets for the same reason today’s pitchers dismiss the idea: they were too heavy and clunky and sweaty. Critics called them “Miners’ hats” and said they were for timid men and bush leaguers.
But Pirates’ pitchers didn’t dismiss them, not entirely anyway. Nearly all the Pirates’ publicity and pre-game photos through the 1956 season showed their players – including the pitchers – in the helmets.
While photos of Pirates’ pitchers in ordinary cloth caps begin to reappear during the 1957 season, the helmets were still worn at least intermittently, at least before games – and with such great frequency and chronological ‘nearness’ (I don’t think Fred Waters went in and changed back into a cap before that game started – not in 1956) that it’s probably safe to say the pitchers at least wore the helmets sometimes during actual games.
When Rickey had said “all Pirates,” he meant it. The coaches and managers wore them – at least until Danny Murtaugh took over the latter job in the middle of the 1957 season.
As late as the 1959 team yearbook there are team portraits of pitchers (and other players) wearing helmets. This shot of Bob Thorpe (who made a cameo with the 1955 Cubs and died at the tragically young age of 24 in 1960) is significant because a) Thorpe was a pitcher, and b) he didn’t join the Pirates’ organization until 1958.
So did Rickey’s forgotten experiment have any practical impact? There are no accounts of Pirates’ pitchers being saved from line drives by the helmets. Statistically? Since we don’t know how consistently they were worn (or exactly when) we can’t be sure if either of these facts are relevant: among them Pittsburgh pitchers compiled exactly one sub-4.00 ERA in ’53 and ’54; on the other hand, Pirate Bob Friend led the league in ERA in 1955.
Did he do it while wearing a helmet? This is Friend’s 1958 baseball card. Either like Waters (above) he was photographed by Topps at the Polo Grounds in New York 1956, or they got him in ’57. In either case he wasn’t wearing it special for the photographer – that’s for certain.
So why the focus on the idea that this secondary controversy (“How can you expect manly pitchers to wear padding or protection?”) was already broached by Branch Rickey while Jackie Robinson was still playing for the Dodgers? Why not debate the merits?
Because there are merits on only one side of the debate.
With taller pitchers taking longer strides against stronger hitters using harder bats, the pitcher is even closer to the hitter as he delivers the pitch than he ever was before – and even if he’s 5’7″ he’s still closer to the hitter than the hitter was to him when he released the pitch. The ball off the bat is going 15 to 20 miles per hour faster than the fastest pitch any pitcher can throw. Among the men in imminent danger of having insufficient time to react to a line drive, the plate umpire, the catcher, the batter, the first base coach and the third base coach must now all wear a helmet (and the catcher and ump have helmets) .
Only the pitcher is – inexplicably – unprotected.
And if the miners’ helmets of the 1950’s are too clunky or too sweaty for 2013, there are more comfortable and stylish liners or reinforced caps that can at least do something – even if it’s only to give the pitcher, in that split second of recognition, a slightly increased chance of moving his head half an inch so the helmet takes the brunt and not his skull and the flimsy cloth that now protects it.
But this is baseball. The sport had its first fatal major league hit batsman in 1920, yet the helmet wasn’t even used experimentally until the 1940’s, didn’t become mandatory until 1971, and the last grandfathered batter (Bob Montgomery) took his last cloth-cap swing on September 9, 1979.
We might very well not only have to wait for a pitcher to be killed before baseball does anything about this – we might have to wait until then and add 51 years to the wait.
My friend Dirk Hayhurst is getting a lot of ink – and a lot of grief – for correctly identifying that Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox was doing something to his pitches in Toronto. Whether Buchholz is mixing rosin with sweat, water, or some other kind of gelatinous abomination, Hayhurst noted the trick, called it out, and gave a combination of rebuke and complement today.
I’ll leave it to The Baseball Police to determine to what degree Buchholz is cheating (i.e. acceptable or legal cheating, or unacceptable and thus illegal cheating). I’ll laugh out loud at the contention that Hayhurst is in some way homering this, or trying to make a name for himself, or trying to tear Buchholz down. Hayhurst was a major league pitcher, which means the odds that he cheated in some way are about 101 out of 100 (I’m on the pitchers’ side on this. All rule changes since 1893 have been designed to screw the pitcher into the ground to increase hitting).
Pitchers doctor the baseball in the big leagues. Buchholz isn’t innocent because nobody ratted him out before Dirk did. Teams don’t push it because then their pitchers will be policed (‘So seven of our guys cheat? We have tape of twelve of your guys cheating – and five of them are hitters’). If you look back at the bizarre Kenny Rogers ‘hand discoloration’ saga from Game Two of the 2006 World Series there is reason to hypothesize that Tony LaRussa went to Jim Leyland and said ‘this is over the top. Get that crap off his hand – and all your other guys’ hands – or I’m going to the Commissioner.’ I mean, that could easily explain why Tigers pitchers Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Justin Verlander made errors in the next 22 innings: they were having trouble holding on to the baseball.
But this is not really about any of that.
This is about a simple fact: I doctored a baseball.
I was taught to do it by an ex-big league pitcher, I used the skill while throwing out a ceremonial first pitch – and it worked like a charm.
“Hey, why can’t I hear you clearly?” asked my friend the ex-MLB pitcher (not Dirk Hayhurst).
I explained I was on the ferry to Staten Island to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees’ minor league game and the cell reception was mediocre. “Oh. I suppose you know what to do to raise your chances of not humiliating yourself, right?” I told him I hadn’t really thought about it. “Well first, what happens when somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch in the dirt?” I told him that to the best of my recollection, people booed or laughed derisively. “But what happens when they throw it over the catcher’s head?” I said there was a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing. “So aim high, not low.
“Second thing, don’t go up on to the mound.” No? “No! The mound is for pitchers. You are not a pitcher. All you can do with a mound is fall off it. Stand on the skirt of the mound in the front. This’ll give you the illusion of standing on the mound.
“But most importantly, get the baseball as early as possible.” Here he got very quiet. “Pick at the seams.” What did you say? “Pick. At. The. Seams. With your fingernails. Just pull up on the stitches with your nails. Get the baseball half an hour before the game, or if you have to, just find a ball somewhere and start picking at the seams, then use that for the first pitch.” Seriously? “Why would I make this up?” But what could it possibly do? “You’ll see.”
So given the undeniable logic of his first two suggestions about throwing high and not actually getting on the mound, as soon as I got to the Staten Island ballpark I grabbed a loose baseball and tried to pick at the seams with my fingernails.
I don’t know if I expected them to come loose, like that wandering thread in your suit or your sweater that turns out to be 44 inches long. All I know is, nothing moved. I could’ve used a nail file or a drill bit and I wouldn’t have been able to budge them. After 20 minutes of this, I realized that my friend the pitcher had just foisted one over on me. He had gotten me to pick at the seams of the ball as the equipment manager gets the naive batboy to go search for the “key” to the batters’ box.
Nevertheless, I went over to the catcher, P.J. Pilittere, and warned him I would be aiming head-high to avoid all those boos, and I stopped moving after I reached the skirt of the mound. And I pulled the ball whose seams I had pointlessly and with eminent futility pulled at for 20 minutes, went into a mock wind-up, and let go a pretty decent pitch that I could instantly see was going to hit the mitt, which Pilittere was appropriately holding face-high.
And about fifteen feet in front of the plate the ball dropped like it had been hit by a poison dart. It split the strike zone perfectly and nearly hit Pilittere in his privates except that he deftly swung the glove down and grabbed my textbook cutter. And as I stood there amazed he ran out towards me with a big smile on his face and said exactly four words: “Picking at the seams?”
I got my friend the ex-pitcher on the phone immediately. “Told you so.” I asked him how on earth the ball could have been defaced when I had no sense whatsoever that the picking had had any impact at all. “That’s physics. I was a Communications major. All I know is: it doesn’t take much. That’s why they throw out your first inning warm-up ball and give you a fresh one nowadays. But in school I used to get the game ball half an hour before first pitch and I never threw anything except strikes, just like that one. An artificial cut fastball. Which all the batters would then be convinced I had in reserve all game long.”
He added one more thing: “You’re welcome.”
“Imagine,” Eddie Dweck muses as he looks at The Photograph, “a kid going to a ballgame dressed in a suit and tie!”
You probably don’t know Eddie Dweck, but you’ve probably seen him before. Because of The Photograph he has a cameo role in history. But history is a defiant and elusive thing. It will tell you that The Photograph Eddie Dweck is ruminating on is one of the iconic images of Jackie Robinson just before he stepped out of that Ebbets Field dugout and into history 66 years ago today.
Except it wasn’t taken on April 15, 1947. And Mr. Dweck will also reveal to you that – albeit in the mildest sense of the word – the photograph was staged.
The kid looking at the camera, the kid Jackie Robinson seems to be looking at? Meet Eddie Dweck.
12-year old Eddie and his pal Bobby Saltzberg from the apartment building on Ocean Parkway went to the first few of their sixth grade classes, then joined Eddie’s first cousin – also named Eddie Dweck – and took the half hour subway ride to Ebbets Field. To see history? To see the Dodgers’ first game of 1947! “It wasn’t quite Opening Day,” 78-year old Eddie says. “We just wanted to be there. We were fanatics about the Dodgers. That was the whole thing. I lived, slept, died with them.”
The Dodgers’ first game of 1947 – the first one in Brooklyn anyway – wasn’t the world-changing National League opener whose anniversary we celebrate today. It was an exhibition game against the Yankees on Friday, April 11, 1947, and it drew 24,237 fans – two Eddie Dwecks and one Bobby Saltzberg among them – just 2,026 fewer than the 26,623 who did not fill the stands for the actual moment of history on a Tuesday afternoon four days later.
Having clarified history’s erroneous conflation of Robinson’s first game in a major league uniform in a major league stadium (April 11, when the photo was taken, when Robinson went hitless but drove in three runs, one on a fielder’s choice and two on sacrifice flies) and his first official Major League Game (April 15), what was that part again about the photo – a photo which nearly all the rest of us look at as we might look at an image of Abraham Lincoln in a crowd or at least Babe Ruth – what was that about it being staged?
“Staged,” he said again, and matter-of-factly. “We had maybe bleacher seats, the cheapest seats, and we trying to get to the Dodger dugout just like we tried to get to the Dodger dugout every game we went to. But there were a hundred photographers taking pictures of him. This was a momentous day. So they told the ushers ‘let these kids come down, and lean over like you’re trying to get his autograph.’ And that’s how we got down there. It was a matter of a few minutes, five minutes, ten minutes as I remember. Then we had to scatter.”
So this was a kind of benign news management, as opposed to news manufacturing. There were kids trying to get to the Dodger dugout, they were hoping to get Jackie Robinson’s autograph, and the photographers simply reduced to zero the chances against them getting to their destination. “With me, it looks like he’s looking at me, that’s the interesting part. Maybe I had a long hand or something!” I asked Eddie if he ever got the autograph. “No. It looks like he’s signing something, but I don’t think anybody got an autograph, not while I was there.” But he got something better. “That picture was in The Brooklyn Eagle, and from The Brooklyn Eagle it was in Sport Magazine, and then it was in one of Jackie Robinson’s books. But, man, I was in The Brooklyn Eagle!”
There was one detail that troubled Eddie Dweck. Where were his Cousin Eddie, and his pal Bobby? “I didn’t go down there myself, that’s for sure.”
Steer away from Dweck’s photographic odyssey for a moment for a larger question. Did he – the 12-year-old-from-Ocean-Parkway-he – understand what had happened? How one day baseball didn’t allow African-Americans to play in the major leagues and then that day, that day, suddenly it did? “Yes. I knew that Jackie Robinson was the first negro player to play in the major leagues. So I knew it was significant but I didn’t think of the social aspects. At twelve years old that’s not on your mind. What’s on my mind is ‘he’s going to be a great second baseman and maybe we can win a pennant.'” Here Eddie Dweck laughs. “But of course as I got older I started to realize, reading more about this, hearing about Dixie Walker and how he was against him all the time, and all the problems and how they couldn’t even put him in the same hotel sometimes, he had to be in other hotels, you realize this was Rosa Parks in baseball.”
This is where it would’ve ended, a story-and-a-half as it was. But then last Monday, Eddie Dweck phoned me and in his voice I could hear a touch of the excitement that must have been felt by his 12-year old self. “Keith, there’s another photograph!”
Eddie was in last Sunday’s New York Times.
Oh, for crying out loud!
The New York Times Magazine review of the new Jackie Robinson movie “42” showed another photograph from April 11, 1947. Sure enough, almost dead center, same suit, same sweater, but this time just above and to the left of the beaming Robinson shaking hands with the Dodgers’ acting manager Clyde Sukeforth, there, again, is Eddie Dweck.
“I hadn’t seen that one before!” Apparently The Times had never printed it before, either. But there was more. “I found Bobby Salzberg! He’s next to me, in the bow tie!”
Seeing Bobby also rattled something loose in Dweck’s memory. “Now I know where my cousin Eddie was. It was Passover. He was at our seats, protecting the food! And protecting the seats, for that matter.”
Too bizarre for words, no? The unexpected thrill of getting to see yourself in a new photo in your local newspaper at age 12 in 1947, and then the again unexpected thrill of getting to see yourself in a new photo in your local newspaper at age 78 in 2013 – with both photographs from the same event?
It gets stranger still. Months into this process and a second photo having turned up and still nobody had done an image search for something as simple as “Jackie Robinson Dugout.”
Sure enough, sitting on the website Biography.Com: Dweck/Jackie Robinson Photo number three:
Eddie Dweck wasn’t kidding when he said there were a hundred photographers on the field clamoring for photographs of Robinson in the dugout. And there is a certain poignance in these two images that Eddie – clearly the Zelig of Robinson’s first day of Ebbets Field – hadn’t seen before. In this third shot, he and Bobby are positioned around the only other two players in the pictures: Ed Stevens and Howie Schultz:
Ed Stevens and Howie Schultz were the first basemen who would be displaced by Robinson.
It had been Schultz who had worked with Robinson throughout spring training to adapt to that position – which Robinson had never played before – even though Schultz knew it would probably cost him his job. Robinson, Branch Rickey, Sukeforth, Pee Wee Reese, even the walkout-threatening Dixie Walker got the headlines. But Schultz and Stevens simply uncomplainingly gave way to the better man.
At the moment the photographers captured them and Eddie and Bobby, Stevens and Schultz had exactly seven more games left between them as Dodgers, and only 375 more games left as big leaguers. Stevens would be sent out to the minors before Robinson would make his official debut the following Tuesday, and Schultz would linger as Robinson’s sub and instructor until he was sold to the Phillies on May 10th. He would have a little more time in the sun (and in sports integration history) as a member of the 1952 NBA Champion Minneapolis Lakers, who won the first Finals ever to feature an African-American player, Sweetwater Clifton of the Knicks.
On the other side of Robinson (shaking Robinson’s hand in the Times shot) is Clyde Sukeforth, who had just taken over as acting manager after the suspension of Leo Durocher. Sukeforth – who helped to scout Robinson for the Dodgers originally – would manage Robby’s first game, and win it, and his second, and win that one, too. Those would be his only games as a manager, and his only other imprint in baseball history would be as the Dodger bullpen coach who in the 9th inning of the third game of the 1951 National League special playoffs against the Giants infamously led manager Chuck Dressen to conclude that Ralph Branca was his best asset to face Bobby Thomson because the other pitcher whose warm-up he was supervising, Carl Erskine, was “bouncing his curve.”
Thus the memories the autograph photo evokes are not all happy ones. When I pointed out to Eddie that apart from him and Robinson the image also shows Branca, he said he cried all day after Branca gave up Thomson’s home run four years later. Shortly after that Dweck actually attended one of the famous Dodger tryout camps at Vero Beach (“No expenses paid,” he laughs. “I’ll pay you to play. Such was the devotion”) but did not cross paths with Robinson there. And within a decade the Dodgers would prove that an African-American was like any other player in baseball: he could be unceremoniously dumped no matter what his contributions to team or time. And as they traded Robinson to the hated New York Giants, they were already negotiating for the event that would prove that a Brooklyn fan was like any other in sport: he could be unceremoniously dumped if a better deal loomed westward. “When they did leave, I lost total interest. I didn’t follow them to Los Angeles. Even baseball in general, I kinda got turned off. It really hurt me.”
In some indirect way, it hurt him to the degree that until last month, he hadn’t owned a copy of The Photograph since that edition of The Brooklyn Eagle came out. That is even stranger when you consider what Eddie Dweck does for a living. Today he is the with-it, energetic co-proprietor of Studio 57 Fine Arts on West 57th Street in New York, and can use the photograph to prove to doubters that he wasn’t in diapers in 1947. The gallery features not just high end art and some of the metropolitan area’s avant-garde painters, but has also always offered a great supply of historical baseball photographs, many of which are at the level of sophistication and eccentricity of a shot of Babe Ruth pitching for the Yankees and a variety of shots of Dweck’s beloved Ebbets Field. More over, I’ve been one of his customers since 1997 and last January was the first time he ever mentioned that it was him in the Robinson/Fans photograph.
“Well,” Eddie Dweck says with a measure of contemplation that dissolves into a laugh. “You didn’t ask.”
UPDATE: 11:00 AM EDT April 15: It’s a torrent! It’s an avalanche!
Courtesy of the impeccable Bill Francis at the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are three more photos in the library files in Cooperstown of Eddie Dweck during the photographers’ flashbulb frenzy.
He may have only seen himself in The Brooklyn Eagle on that next day (April 12) but he was also in The New York Post:
That’d be Eddie, dead-center, reaching down towards Jackie. Obviously this is a photocopy or a microfiche print-out. The original credit goes to The Associated Press.
And he made it on the right side of another image from Acme Telephotos, which was printed in the April 12 edition of Upstate New York’s Binghamton News:
Eddie Dweck (on the right) and his pal Bobby are lined up perfectly to frame Jackie Robinson.
Tonight the world is a little more safe for mediocrity.
With the death of the great New York sportswriter and media critic Stan Isaacs – to say nothing of the passing of Roger Ebert – the mundane, the repetitive, and especially the reverent, are just that more secure in their universe of passivity.
Still, both men took huge chunks out of that cosmos and Isaacs in particular did so at great personal risk and against the tradition of obedience and obeisance that dictated the sports world well into the 1990’s. For reasons that will soon become evident, I cannot fashion a true obituary for Stan. I recommend you to these from Bryan Curtis of Grantland and Mark Herrmann from Newsday, where Isaacs served as everything from Original 1962 Mets’ beat reporter to Sports Editor to TV and Radio Columnist.
The obits include some of the highlights: the fact that Stan stole the 1955 World Championship Banner from the Dodgers in Los Angeles so it could be properly housed in Brooklyn; that when Yankees’ pitcher Ralph Terry told the cookie-cutter reporters of the day that his wife had been listening to him pitch in the 1962 World Series while feeding their infant Stan asked him “breast or bottle?;” that he helped replace those enabling stenographer knights of the press box by being one of the so-called “chipmunks” – the skeptics of the 1960s.
Isaacs’ Chipmunkism was more than just an inspiration to colleagues and successors to apply occasional doses of journalism and sarcasm as an anecdote to the almost unquestioning, flag-waving sportswriting and tv reporting of the time. It had a direct and practical influence on what you read and hear today and who writes it and says it. George Vecsey, long one of the leading lights of The New York Times, proudly called Stan his mentor. Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and The Washington Post and, once of Isaacs’ Newsday, said he “idolized” Stan. And there were many others.
Stan Isaacs is directly responsible for my television career – and much of how I approached what I’ve said and whom I’ve said it about.
In September of 1980, Sports Illustrated ran a brief piece on how while I was working for the radio network of United Press International I was collecting and rating audio clips in which athletes used the insufferable verbal crutch “you know.” Within weeks, Stan had heard a startling string of “you knows” from a New York Rangers player named Mike Allison and called me out of the blue for a ruling on where Allison stood in the competition. A few months after that Stan called again. “There’s been a lot of reaction to that ‘you know’ thing. I’d like to meet a kid who has the nuts to bring that up on radio. Maybe I can make you into a column.”
By then I was working for Charley Steiner at the RKO Radio Network. Television was my aspiration but I’d struck out twice in efforts just to get in the front door, once at a local New York station, and once at a brand new and not very promising outfit called Cable News Network. For Stan Isaacs – at worst the second or third most influential TV Sports Columnist in the country – to possibly “make me into a column” was a possible game-changer.
We met at the radio network, he listened to a few tapes of sportscasts, we had a little lunch, and we sat down in Newsday’s dank, almost-empty Manhattan “bureau.” His questions were warm and supportive but I could tell he had a reservation. “I got one complaint. You sound too much like…” and here, great disgust overtook his tone, “…an announcer.” I explained I was an announcer. “You’ve got me there. I’ll have to forgive you for that.”
On June 12, 1981, just as baseball careened towards its first disastrous mid-season strike, this appeared in Newsday. I recall that you couldn’t buy the paper in Manhattan then except at Penn Station. I can also recall lugging 20 copies of it back the six blocks up from the train station to the RKO offices on 40th Street.
I am not engaging in speculation nor hyperbole in saying the column got me on television.
In those days Newsday was co-owned by The Washington Post, and in those pre-historic days of “national editions,” the version of the Sunday Post that the world outside the Beltway got to see was printed early on Saturday and physically shipped around the country. To help fill a sports section devoid of anything newer than the earliest-finishing of Saturday afternoon’s ballgames, the Post would print one and only one of the four or five columns Stan Isaacs wrote for its sister publication each week.
That week the one chosen was the column about me.
And so it was that a displaced Washingtonian named Rick Davis who happened to run the sports department at that nascent semi-television outfit at which I had already struck out (Cable News Network, or, as it was only occasionally abbreviated, “CNN”) was thumbing through his national copy of the Post sports section the next Sunday morning while (he would later tell me) he was thinking to himself that his sports newscast had done pretty good with its anchors like Nick Charles and Fred Hickman and some of its reporting but it just didn’t have any life or humor.
That’s when Rick read Stan’s piece.
Weeks later, Rick’s boss Bill MacPhail, the president of CNN Sports, was seated across from me at The Algonquin Hotel and I was being interviewed for a job as a television sports reporter. I had no television experience, precious little reporting experience, and a full beard. A few weeks after that, in August 1981, MacPhail and Davis asked me to spend two weeks filling in for their New York sports reporter Debi Segura (now, coincidentally, Mrs. Lou Dobbs) and by February of the following year I was under contract to CNN.
When some milestone or another in my career would occur – or it would be time for his annual piece on my favorite baseball story, the saga of Fred Merkle – I’d always hear from Stan, with the appropriate congratulations, commiserations, or approbation. I would always answer “it’s all your fault.” Stan always assumed I meant that without the article I’d never have gotten on to television and he continually said that the most he did was accelerate the process and I let him think that was what I meant. But in fact I was saying that he had both facilitated my television career and – just as importantly – lent his stamp of approval to what I did, and how I did it. There were others who did this: every boss who let me live on the proverbial edge, from Stan Sabik to Charley Steiner to Jeff Wald to Norby Williamson to Vince Doria to Dick Ebersol to Traug Keller, to on-air inspirations like the late great Glenn Brenner.
But Stan wrote that about me when I didn’t know enough to take the microphone off after I’d finished doing the stand-up and I’d walk away from the camera and – being still tethered to it – promptly pull it off its pedestal and crashing to the ground.
I would not ever be described as a Chipmunk. But like Stan, I would be called an iconoclast. And also like Stan, I would be damned proud of it.
Stan could also shame me into working harder, and if you read what Vecsey and Kornheiser and those who worked for him when he was their sports editor, I was hardly alone. Once you had earned his acceptance, you wanted more of it. Not ten years ago, he and I were side-by-side in the press box at Yankee Stadium and he was reading aloud from the press guide, tittering all the way at the cliches and meaningless data. Then he came to the part in which the Yanks admitted they had no idea who had preceded their venerable Public Address announcer, Bob Sheppard. “You’re this great researcher/baseball expert/television muckety-muck. Certainly you can find out this perplexing hole in history, Mr. Big Shot. I give you one year.”
I found it. It was Red Patterson, and it had been buried by history because Patterson was also the Yankees’ public relations man at the time and he had wanted his announcing role buried by history. Before I wrote the story up I told Stan.
“Great! Congratulations.” Then came a long pause. “So, Mr. Big Shot, knows Red Patterson preceded Bob Sheppard? Who preceded Red Patterson, huh?”
Anybody who tells you they can accurately forecast the World Series in April is lying to you.
Bob Costas once said he was coming around to the expanded (now re-expanded) post-1994 playoff formula. “Just so long as the World Series doesn’t become ‘The MLB Finals.'” Of course it has. Of course it has actually become something a little less exalted, because you could conceivably get there after playing the artificial and utterly unfair Wild Card Play-In Game.
The Play-In Game was hurriedly designed to try to force-replicate the drama of the inadvertent Play-In-Night that ended the 2011 regular season. What could not be replicated was the fact that the 2011 games were the results of weeks of what was left of the regular season pennant race while the 2012 games featured at least two teams that had all but secured the slots weeks earlier.
You remember Robert Andino and the Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria homers from 2011. What – unless one of them happens to be your team – do you remember of either 2012 Play-In Game?
Right. A vexing invoking of The Infield Fly Rule.
If that isn’t symbolic of those two games I don’t know what is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m at peace with the wild card, even with two wild cards. I’m at peace with pitting them against each other, Gladiator Style. But the randomness of one game just erases the remaining fairness of the thing. Make it three, but throw in a little torture. Make it best-of-three, and play a day/night doubleheader in one city. If one team wins both games, they go in. If not, everybody has to travel to the other city for a night game, the next night. You retain a little of the dice roll of the compressed time frame without the strong possibility that the better team will just happen to lose the only playoff game it gets after eight months of spring training and the 247-game regular season.
I mean, there are unfair weighted variables that you aren’t going to be able to control. To my knowledge nobody’s done the research but I would suggest an unusually high percentage of playoff teams since 1997 have been the ones with the softer inter-league schedule, and inter-league has gone from a set rotating division-versus-division plan to games assigned either for maximum tv ratings or for geographical convenience.
Worse yet is the advantage teams in divisions with extremely weak clubs have for home field advantage in the first round, and especially Wild Card eligibility. The American League East contenders used to have the doormat Devil Rays to fatten up against. Now (presumably) the National League East and American League West clubs will gain immeasurably by getting 19 opportunities to beat up the Marlins and Mets, and Astros respectively. There is no such dead wood in the A.L. East and N.L. Central, for example.
So those are the caveats – and the potential fixes – for anybody trying to forecast the playoffs (not that I’m saying they should be fixed to make forecasting easier; they should be fixed because theoretically you don’t want the true best team in the game wiped out by avoidable biases).
I’ve already picked the Rays, Indians, and Athletics to win the A.L. Divisions. I’m guessing Tampa Bay will still have the best record in the league and draw the wild card winner (which I’m thinking will come one each from the East and West, and the more I look at them the more I like Baltimore again – and L.A.). In lieu of flipping a coin I’m thinking the Orioles will be the better team by then and prevail again (I know; it’s a quaint notion that the ‘better team’ would win a one-game playoff). That would set up Tampa Bay-Baltimore and Cleveland-Oakland in the ALDS. An A’s pick is an easy one; I think the Rays-Orioles would be the full seven thriller and Tampa would finally prevail. So in the ALCS two great pitching staffs meet. Tampa’s is a little greater and they get a clutch home run from – who knows? Wil Myers? – to decide Game Seven. That puts them in the World Series.
In the National I already took the Nationals (waaay out on a limb there, I know), Cardinals, and Giants. The runners-up, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, will all be very good teams (although the Dodgers could easily have switched managers by mid-season). I’m forecasting kaboom-style disasters in Texas and for both L.A. teams so I might as well go whole-hog and say the Dodgers don’t even get the Card. So that’d be Braves-Reds and I’m assuming the Braves can survive their second such game in two years. That’d set up Washington-Atlanta and Cards-Giants and I’m afraid the obvious is true in both cases: Washington and San Francisco pretty easily. And as much as I like the Giants’ team I have already suggested the Nationals are going to have one of those triple-digit years so while I suspect San Francisco could give them a seven-game series I just can’t pick against this amazingly deep team from DC.
The World Series: two great pitching staffs, two great managers, two dynasties that were built quickly. But the Washington bats will overwhelm even the Rays’ rotation, and you-know-who will be the star. This will be Bryce Harper’s year (one assumes the first of many) as the star of …your World Champion Washington Nationals.
The ball was chopped slowly and to get the out the first baseman would have to pick it up barehanded in the grass corner between the foul line and the infield dirt. The pitcher would have to hustle over but as the game’s most abused cliche reminds us every 43 minutes, that’s why they have PFP in spring training. With a speedy runner it would still be close but this was the majors and he who executes best laughs last.
The fans at Yankee Stadium didn’t think twice about it when it happened in the top of the fourth yesterday. The play was difficult, but the pitcher was CC Sabathia and his hustle and athleticism have been one of the under-publicized aspects of the franchise’s success since 2009. And of course, the New York first baseman for exactly the same length of time has been Mark Teixeira and the goaltender-like whip-lash catches he makes at the bag and his other defensive wizardry obscures the fact that if that comparatively ordinary slow chopper is hit to him 500 times over a decade he’s going to pick it cleanly at least 499 times.
Except the Yankee first baseman yesterday wasn’t Teixeira, it was Kevin Youkilis. And no offense to Kevin Youkilis, but when he reached down to scoop up the Jose Iglesias chop and toss it to Sabathia for the out he got nothing but grass and air.
An inning later Jarrod Saltalamacchia shot one into the corner in left, where Brett Gardner should have made an adroit pick-up of the ball as it rattled around. Except Gardner was in center because like Teixeira, Curtis Granderson is hurt and it was Vernon Wells. And no offense to Vernon Wells, but when he waited for the straight bounce off the fence that never comes out there, it didn’t come, and he was left to play ‘go chase’ for awhile. All things considered Saltalamacchia probably would’ve gotten a double out of it anyway but there would have been a play and every tenth or twentieth time – an out.
In neither case did the Red Sox score. But those two plays alone added ten pitches or more to Sabathia’s count and send him packing after five innings down 4-to-2, which opened things for the Yankee bullpen, which may be the least recognized problem among the cascade of them that started yesterday, and soon it would 5-to-2 and then 8-to-2 and then just as in “Young Frankenstein,” it got worse – it started raining.
The effect on the offense of the subtraction of Teixeira, Granderson, Derek Jeter, and even Alex Rodriguez is obvious. What will kill the Yankees – and I mean last place kill the Yankees; this is not the collapse of 1965, that was last year in the ALCS, this is 1966 – will be its effect on the defense. Bad defense is not only its own punishment but it makes bums out of the best of the pitchers. And to re-use yet another old joke, kid, these aren’t the best of them.
And much of this mess will never show up in the box score. The Iglesias and Saltalamacchia plays were both clearly to be scored base hits. Unfortunately this Yankee team – the Muddlers’ Row of Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Wells, and Youkilis – has been assembled through (in the memorable phrase of the equally memorable San Francisco baseball writer Hank Schulman) dumpster-diving. And defensively they’re just bad enough to not make the plays, but just good enough to not get the errors.
It’s hard to say how this impending disaster will be received in the Bronx. The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992 and they’ve either won or been in contention every year since 1993. Hal Steinbrenner was still at the University of Florida Business School then, and the Yankees could and often did draw half of what they draw these days. A front office with no memory of the Bad Old Days never mind experience with alleviating them is likely to panic and throw some babies out with the bathwater (heck, the Yankees began panicking about mild media criticism more than a year ago). And the front-running fans who have filled the place during these later glory years will not know what that they were seeing, and never fully realize the implications of the fact that their new platoon third baseman was guy who had been released by the Red Sox exactly a week ago today.
Toronto: I’m not one of those stick-in-the-muds who looked at the Dodgers last year and tut-tutted “you can’t parachute in four new guys in mid-season and expect to form a team.” I mean, for one thing I’m an entirely different kind of stick-in-the-mud. But more importantly, that conclusion ignores the reality that the Giants have won two World Series while parachuting in four guys (last year) and five guys (2010).
So my refusal to jump on the Bandwagon going doing Blue Jay Way is nothing about team chemistry or parachuting or trying to meld a team while competing or Jose Reyes’s hamstrings on turf. I just think that the laudable effort to rebuild a once-great franchise has somewhat obscured some remaining problems – like a very average bullpen, very average production out of the DH spot, and trouble at third base until Brett Lawrie returns.
Plus there’s this little scandal from last year that sneaked in under everybody’s radar. The big trade for the noble Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey? It came less than a year after Dickey became one of a handful of major league pitchers to admit to taking painkiller injections during the season (Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz were among the others). In Dickey’s case this was 2011; I’ve seen no reporting about him and the drug – Toradol – in 2012:
Dickey is among the players who believe Toradol is more effective than taking over-the-counter pain pills. He said he believed the injections helped keep him on the field to pitch 2082/3 innings last season (2011), despite his injured foot. Some doctors, though, said athletes might believe Toradol to be more effective only because of the way it is commonly administered.
The emphasis there was mine.
Giving your starting pitcher a series of anti-inflammatory pain-dulling injections all seasons long is ok because the drug, while requiring a prescription, supposedly only has a slightly greater impact than a couple of Advil (injected directly into the source of your pain). Except, oh by the way, that pesky drug insert sheet references limiting its use to five days in pill form and two days for injections, and oh by the way in England physicians are instructed to start patients on Toradol only in a hospital, and oh by the way when Clay Buchholz was in a hospital with internal bleeding last June he said he thought his use of the drug contributed to his crisis and the fact that doctors had to transfuse him with three or four pints of blood.
Dickey is hardly deserving of being the only one with a finger pointed at him. My understanding is there isn’t a rotation in the majors that doesn’t have at least one regular Toradol, and that some of them may be in new uniforms this year in part because of their teams’ fears that the painkiller could mask necessary pain, the kind that warns you of impending injury. For as with any drug that dulls pain, or covers up muscular damage or exhaustion, or which neutralizes tiredness, the possibility is increased of sudden serious injury. You don’t know you’re hurting and you push it to far – and something snaps.
In short, if a Toradol scandal, or a Prescription Drug scandal, breaks in baseball this year the guys on the record as (past) users are few and far between. And only one of them is a defending Cy Young Winner.
Almost as an aside I also have doubts about the efficacy of Toronto’s rotation. Dickey went from 8-13 in 2011 to 20-6 last year. His strikeouts soared from 134 to 230 in only 25 more innings. His offensive support went up 8/10ths of a run. I don’t know if any of that is sustainable or repeatable this year – especially without the joy of facing pitchers every ninth batter. Tell me how much you’re willing to rely on Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, to say nothing of Ricky Romero, currently of the Dunedin Blue Jays.
Boston: The gift of Jackie Bradley being ready as much as a year early – and it is a gift, his at bats are those of a 10-year veteran who draws 100 walks every year – may hide some dubious free agent signings. When your key acquisition does so poorly on his physical that you (and he) agree to cut the deal from three years to one, that’s a problem. When you are hoping that Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Dempster all had ‘blips’ last year, that’s a lot of high-odds wagering.
The Red Sox probably did themselves a favor by sacrificing the stability that was Adrian Gonzalez in order to offload the franchise-sinking contracts of Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. But as has been noted elsewhere, they were left with a lot of contract room and not that many people to spend it on. Instead of a Josh Hamilton they went for “Clubhouse Guys” – which is great for long road trips, flights, bus rides in traffic, rain delays, etc. – but rarely seems to be the corrective folks assume insomuch as the last time I checked the game was still played out on the field and very rarely in the clubhouse.
Bradley, of course, is the real deal (though I’ve never seen a player whose Dad didn’t reach the majors use the “junior” on his uni – his reads “BRADLEY JR.”). Will Middlebrooks is legit too. If Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia stay healthy that’s four of nine positions that will excel offensively and defensively. But with David Ortiz hurt and presumably waning there is no longer a feared hitter in this line-up and given the depth of this division that’s a serious impediment to contention.
Baltimore: As mentioned in the AL Central preview the Orioles could’ve easily offed the Yankees in the ALDS last year even though they were relying on two outfielders – Lew Ford and Nate McLouth – who had been released earlier in the same season (Ford, by a team in an independent league). The O’s were reshaped by two guys who were largely viewed as having been bypassed by the proverbial parade, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, and featured the contributions of only a couple of homegrown guys (Markakis, Machado, Wieters, Jim Johnson).
What becomes of the Orioles when the revivified farm system begins to contribute? Dylan Bundy was arguably the game’s top pitching prospect, until this spring when he was bypassed by his teammate Kevin Gausman. Will they step into the rotation or be used out of the bullpen a la David Price? Could WBC-tested infielder Jonathan Schoop help out? Or outfielder L.J. Hoes? Could any American League team add more key parts from its own farm system as 2013 rolls along?
Tampa Bay: Well, yeah, actually.
Even while trading off Wade Davis and James Shields, the Rays still have a complete back-up rotation (Jeff Niemann in the bullpen, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Alex Colome in the minors) to say nothing of a Cy Young Winner (David Price) and two possible future candidates (Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore) at the front of Plan A.
And if the primary bounty in the Shields trade, Wil Myers, is not summoned into the Tampa line-up it will only be because of injury, or because the traditional small-ball line-up is producing satisfactorily and there’s no need to squeeze out James Loney or the platooners at second or DH.
The key Tampa weakness would seem to be behind the plate. They kept Jose Molina intact enough to appear in 102 games last year and one wonders if that can be done again, or if Jose Lobaton is a satisfactory alternative. There isn’t a catching prospect in the system and despite the sense that the Rays hit the bullseye with every one of their very few economic darts, the minors are thin generally in terms of position players (2009 was a bad draft, and every year that passes makes the 2008 selection of Tim Beckham as the overall number one pick instead of some kid named Posey look that much sillier). But the arms keep appearing, the down-market free agent signings keep producing (you realize that Loney could out-hit his predecessor Carlos Pena by a hundred points and still not hit .300?), and the veterans get transformed either into more draft choices (or guys like Wil Myers. Good grief, the team with the thinnest tightrope in the sport was somehow able to trade for Wil Myers). Marc Topkin has a superb and concise explanation of how the Rays keep the machine turning here and I offer the usual disclaimer here that I went to college with the future Mrs. Stuart Sternberg and their oldest son was an intern for me one summer.
The Division: I know this is viewed as a three, four, or even five team race. I just don’t see anybody seriously challenging the Rays, especially when Myers comes up. I’m not certain on whether the Orioles’ Tampa-like structuring and youth flood can overcome the value of Toronto’s mass additions in the race for second place; either way it’ll be close. The Red Sox are not likely to compete but also not likely to be challenged by the Yankees who – even in the disaster of last place – will still be the division’s lead story.
Tomorrow we’ll finish it up with the Tarot Card reading that those one-game wild cards make trying to predict the playoffs six months in advance.
Before resuming our previews with the American League West, a quick postscript to the selection of the Miami Marlins ahead of the New York Mets in the basement of the National League East. As if I had asked them to do this, the Marlins underscored my prediction with the promotion of young pitching prospect Jose Fernandez to help replace two injured starters, despite the fact that the move accelerates the arbitration and free agency clocks for Fernandez.
The Mets’ version of Fernandez is Zack Wheeler. While Fernandez will be pitching against the Mets next Sunday, Wheeler will be opening up for your 2013 Buffalo Bisons. You can slam the Marlins all you want for the shell game they played on Florida taxpayers and for the dishonesty towards Mark Buehrle and others and for their fire sale last winter, but at least every once in awhile the Marlins try to act like they’re not a small market team. Unfortunately the Mets often do just the opposite.
Now to the A.L. West:
Los Angeles: The Angels are still as many as four starting pitchers short of a contender.
They can continue to sign the leading free agent slugger each winter for the foreseeable future, but if the pitching doesn’t come around, it isn’t going to matter.
It is certainly possible that their end of the Weird Delivery Deal with the Braves (Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden) will flourish in the American League. The trimmed-down Joe Blanton might finally fulfill his promise while not fulfilling his appetite. Perhaps Jason Vargas can pitch in a pennant race. And maybe C.J. Wilson 2011 is the real thing and not C.J. Wilson 2012. But that’s a lot of ifs to gamble on in a division where it was proved last year that great hitting cannot carry average pitching, but great pitching can carry average hitting.
The Angels’ bullpen is also anything but a thing of beauty. Last year’s gift from the Padres, Ernesto Frieri, has lost miles off his fastball this spring – and his fastball is his only major league quality pitch. I suppose investing big bucks on the injured Ryan (One Season As A Closer And Then He Got Hurt) Madson makes more sense than, say, signing Jose Valverde – but not much more. Madson’s return may be soon, but it is certainly a gamble. The rest of the bullpen has proven itself erratic.
Trust me, I do not undervalue the Mike Trout/Albert Pujols/Josh Hamilton trio (although the decline in Hamilton’s game last year was evident and should crack a little further this year). I’ll even raise it to a quartet and note that Mark Trumbo is the most underrated hitter in the division. But the rest of the Angels’ position players are adequate at best. Chris Iannetta struggled on both sides of the plate, Howard Kendrick seems to be distancing himself from his great potential, Alberto Callaspo is just sort of there, and Peter Bourjos may be a great enough glove to shift Trout to left but he’s just not an offensive threat. Erick Aybar is one of the A.L.’s better shortstops but his main contribution is batting between Trout and Pujols.
Just the Pujols, Wilson, and Hamilton deals have cost owner Arte Moreno $440,000,000 in the last 16 months. That’s a lot of money to get a second or third place team as your receipt. When it happens again this year, Moreno is going to get unpleasant. If he doesn’t scapegoat General Manager Jerry DiPoto, DiPoto will surely scapegoat Manager Mike Scioscia, and that’ll be a shame.
But that’s what happens when you spend badly. You blame the guys beneath you. And often you blame the guys you spent to get.
Texas: This could all come apart quickly, too.
Last year I asked what would have happened if a team in New York or Boston or L.A. had a) had a manager test positive for cocaine use and have his job publicly threatened by his bosses as a result, b) blown a World Series to an inferior team, c) blown the next year’s World Series after needing one more out to win it, d) revealing later that the manager chose not to put in the defensive replacement who might’ve gotten the fly ball one more out that twisted the clunky regular rightfielder into a pretzel, and e) lost its best pitcher to free agency within its own division that winter?
Let’s raise the stakes a little this year. That same New York/Boston/L.A. club has now f) lost its best hitter to free agency within its own division the following winter, g) traded the face of its franchise and the soul of its clubhouse for nothing in particular, h) sent its top prospect to the minors rather than move some pieces and displace some average talent in the outfield, and, oh by the way, just for giggles, i) permitted the icon of the sport in its part of the country to engage in a front office power struggle with the team’s general manager, and j) lose it.
Texas baseball fans are an awfully forgiving lot, I guess.
The last three-plus seasons in Arlington have topped, at least in compression of events, anything that befell the Yankees’ “Bronx Zoo” of the ’70s and ’80s, or the Fightin-Among-Themselves-A’s in Oakland forty years ago. And yet on and on the Rangers go as if nothing matters and it’ll all be better if they can just bring Lance Berkman home to Texas.
What a mess.
I think this is the year they stop getting away with it. Unless Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt rise (and Olt had a terrible spring) to banish Berkman and Mitch Moreland or maybe the Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry platoon, the Rangers are in for a season of possible non-contention. Lord knows what they do if somebody like Nellie Cruz gets hurt (put Jeff Baker in right?).
I suspect a lot of people get fired here too.
Houston: It could be worse. They could’ve actually decided to go with Fernando or J.D. Martinez in right instead of Rick Ankiel and Brandon Barnes (which would’ve made their debut in the American League the dreaded – I apologize in advance – Two-Martinez Launch). There is the Jose Altuve Experience, which is nice. Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell show glimmers in the outfield and Brad Peacock tries to recover from a bad year in AAA by stepping down a notch into the Houston rotation.
But this is going to be a grim season for a franchise that was in the World Series only eight years ago.
I do hear nice things about the back-up catcher, Carlos Corporan. He was stinging the ball in Florida, which belies one blog’s identification of him as the perfect Astro: no-field, no-hit.
I don’t mean to pile on, but while these new Astros uniforms have to be better than the 2012 versions, the attempt to merge the ’62-64 Colt 45s shirts with the ’70-71 Astros shirts doesn’t really work. The Houston franchise has an extraordinary heritage of great shirts: the 1965-66 Astros “Shooting Star” jerseys, the 1975 acid trip pullovers, and maybe best of all, the gunslinger unis from the original team. Remember, they didn’t drop the name “Colts” out of some sort of sense of inappropriateness – it was a purely business decision based on a dispute with the gun manufacturer, and a desire to capitalize on the astronaut program as it crested in the second half of the ’60s.
Seattle: I’m conflicted on whether the Mariners are capable of stepping up into contention or near it.
The critical off-season offensive improvement (the acquisition of DH Kendrys Morales from the Angels) blocks off the escape route for Jesus Montero’s stunning incapacity to catch. The likely critical mid-season all-around improvement (the promotion of 2012 top draftee and catching wunderkind Mike Zunino) would seemingly force Montero to the bench. If somebody would just take Montero aside and say, ‘Hey, you and your once-in-a-generation opposite field power on the high fastball? You don’t have to catch any more. Maybe you could see if you could play first base, but, honestly, just spend all your time in the batting cage,’ the kid might approach a triple crown.
Bringing Michael Morse back was a great move and Justin Smoak had an outstanding spring. But Dustin Ackley still has come nowhere close to his advance billing, and the team is relying on Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders to help drive the offense. Ackley is a career .243 hitter, Gutierrez is a .256, Saunders a .220. And apparently either Gutierrez or Saunders is going to lead off with the other batting second. Gutierrez’s lifetime On Base Percentage is .308 and Saunders’ is .283.
This makes pitching discussions somewhat academic, although it is curious that with these waves of young pitchers in the system – the Hultzens, Paxtons, and Walkers – the rookie who makes the rotation is Brandon Maurer, who two winters ago was pitching in the Australian League, and there was a need to sign Joe Saunders. The bullpen might be Seattle’s unexpected strength with Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor coming into their own.
But you have to hit a little and the Mariners seem intent (squeezing out Montero, putting out-makers at the top of the order) on not doing so. I can’t see them pushing upwards even as the Angels and Rangers collapse above them.
Oakland: So – to reprise our indexing from the Rangers’ entry – nobody believed in a) Yeonis Cespedes, b) Bob Melvin, c) the Oakland bullpen, d) Josh Reddick, e) the kid starters, or f) their ability to stay in contention. They merely jerry-built a line-up that started churning out runs in the second half and not only stayed with Texas but surpassed them with a mid-game rally on the final day. With a little luck and a little more experience they might have knocked off the Tigers in the Division Series.
And as the 2013 A.L. West is previewed, the A’s still aren’t being taken seriously.
No, I don’t think Eric Sogard is going to hit .444 nor Josh Donaldson slug a homer every 20 at bats, as they did in Arizona. But Cespedes is a beast, and that 23/82/.292/.356/.505 (and 16 SB) line – with the now comparatively low 102 strikeouts – was just the warm-up offered by the man’s first season in this country, and he could easily win an MVP award now or in the near future. The line-up is strengthened with parts added like Chris Young, Jed Lowrie, and John Jaso (and if Sogard were to hit .274 they’d be ecstatic). The rotation has Brett Anderson added back into the mix, evidently in fine fettle, and even more power arms like Evan Scribner and Pedro Figueroa joining the now-experienced likes of Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in the pen.
It’s a good team with a good manager. I’m biased towards him – he’s one of my favorite friends in baseball. But what I can tell from his players, they rely on Melvin’s rare combination of an encyclopedic knowledge of the strategy of the game, his calm leadership, and his always-unexpected wry humor. That Reddick could “pie” him after the season-ending win underscores the sense that he is not a part of them but nor is he apart from them – and that is the highest compliment players can offer a manager.
The division: I like the A’s to consolidate 2012 and add to it. Even in collapse the Rangers and Angels will give them a fight with L.A. finishing second and Texas third. Seattle will verge on contention but never quite reach it. The Astros are even money to lose 110 games.
Chicago: The cupboard is not as bare here as widely believed – but it’s close. Firstly, the Cubs have two of the game’s emerging stars in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro (when he’s watching the game he’s in). There is also an able and patient management structure, from field boss Dale Sveum through president Theo Epstein. Behind them are three of the higher-potential impact position prospects in infielders Javier Baez and Junior Lake, and outfielder Jorge Soler.
The problem is, the next most interesting thing about the Cubs is the debate over whether they should commemorate the centennial of Wrigley Field next year (to note 100 years since it was built, as Weeghman Park, for the Chicago Whales of the long-gone Federal League) or in 2016 (to note 100 years since Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved them to his stadium).
Because possibly for the next four seasons, Rizzo and Castro and the When’s-The-Centennial question might be the only things to talk about at 1060 West Addison Street. Cubs fans have to hope Rizzo and Castro are still there by the time Baez and Soler (and to a lesser degree, Lake) get there. And they have to hope that some pitching finds its way there, too. Because right now there’s none, other than the intriguing Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa and his counterpart among domestic spelling confusion, Jeff Samardzija.
Cincinnati: Lost in the debate that lingered through nearly the length of this lengthiest spring training – does Aroldis Chapman close, or get moved to the rotation – was the fact that on September 7, 2012 Chapman imploded. He faced seven Astros in the ninth, struck only one of them, gave up four hits (including a three-run homer to Matt Dominguez), and blew a 3-2 Reds’ lead. Three days later he walked three of the five Pirates he faced. Dusty Baker then gave him 12 days off, and although Chapman recorded saves in his last three appearances, he was no longer the untouchable pitcher of the season’s first five months (4 innings, 3 K’s, 3 BB, 1 hit). He then nearly coughed up Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants (5-1 lead: two walks, two wild pitches, a hit) while following up with clean but irrelevant innings in the losses in Games 3 and 5.
My point is that, as often happens, debate obscures trouble. Any weaknesses Chapman showed in Arizona this spring (5 strikeouts, 4 walks, in nine innings – an opponents’ batting average of .294) could be attributed to the aborted starting experiment rather than something like, say, a pre-critical-mass arm problem.
That Cincinnati has at least one viable alternative in the pen (Jonathan Broxton was lights out this spring) is not the point. Chapman, as starter or reliever, is the pitching centerpiece of a team in a division where the contenders can all hit, and are separated by their mound strength. If Chapman is not the guy he was most of last year, the Reds are down one asset. As it is now, his failure to convert to the rotation means Cincinnati can’t survive any more of the past yo-yo seasons from the likes of Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. If something serious happens to Chapman, Broxton will adequately replace him – but the bullpen depth, which already hits Manny Parra levels surprisingly early, will be taxed.
Obviously the Reds are improved offensively. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the game’s underrated outfielders (career OPS: .847. Matt Kemp’s career OPS? .853 ) and provided his back woes of the last two weeks are transient, will handle both the leadoff spot and centerfield with ease. That’ll give Billy Hamilton a year to learn to play the position in the minors and become a Vince Coleman-like figure in Cincinnati (without so much of the throwing-firecrackers-at-fans part).
But as Chapman goes, so go the Reds.
Milwaukee: That the Brewers think Corey Hart will be back far earlier than the original July/August timeframe is indicated by their willingness to stick Alex Gonzalez at first base – rather than a prospect like Hunter Morris or a retread veteran – in his absence. With Hart’s bat, the Brewers’ new formula – in which at least four of the guys (Aoki, Gomez, Segura, Weeks) are as much about getting on as getting over – can churn out runs. Without him there’s a dead spot in the middle of the lineup and suddenly Ron Roenicke is depending on catcher Jonathan Lucroy to drive in 90 runs.
The Brewers’ starting pitching may have been better than thought even before they ransomed Kyle Lohse from The Island Of Misfit Scott Boras Clients. Yovanni Gallardo is a stud and Wily Peralta will eventually be one, leaving quality needed from only two of the group consisting of Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Chris Narveson, and the AAA rotation.
Milwaukee can win this division but all the ifs will have to turn in their favor. Lohse will have to succeed outside of St. Louis, Hart will have to heal quickly and hit hard, and Peralta will have to be ready now. Because the bullpen could be a disaster. John Axford blew 9 of 44 save chances last year, briefly lost his job to a terrified looking Jim Henderson – and there is no depth behind them short of imported lefty specialists Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny.
Pittsburgh: With a few breaks the Pirates could leap into contention this season, but if the Brewers need all the ifs to run in their favor, Pittsburgh needs that from ifs nobody’s yet envisioned. It speaks to the degree the franchise has shed its farce label that Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin chose to sign up rather than stay with the Yankees; it speaks to reality that only after he rallied with a strong September did Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin manage to hit .211 last season.
There’s always something like that with the Bucs. Here they can go and trade off closer Joel Hanrahan for a hatful of Boston prospects and try to turn ace set-up man Steve Grilli into his successor – yet this also means that they are relying on a 36-year old novice closer, who made his major league debut five weeks into this millennium yet in all that time has had exactly 11 save opportunities (five of them last year – three of which he blew).
Andrew McCutchen is a great player and Pedro Alvarez and maybe Starling Marte have the potential to be nearly if not great. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are living up to the pitching hype. But the Pirates can find a cloud for any silver lining. The same people who chose and developed all five of those men (and Neil Walker too) gave pitching prospect an over-slot bonus of $2,250,000 three drafts ago. Last year they had to convert him to being a first baseman. He hit .213 – as a 21-year old facing 18-year olds in rookie ball. That a draft choice named Stetson might prove to be all hat and no cattle as pitcher and hitter would just about sum up the Pirates.
St. Louis: You know what would be really cool? If Jon Jay could play shortstop and Oscar Taveras could play second base.
Over the last few years the Cardinals have developed a reputation as the Drs. Frankenstein of the middle infield. They’ve tried to make Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, and now Matt Carpenter into second basemen, each with ineffective if not entirely unhappy results. Now would be the time for one of their creations to rise from the operating table, because the middle infield is the only hole in an otherwise dominant ball club – but what a hole it is.
Carpenter showed some usefulness filling in at first and third last year (and he’s due back to fill in for David Freese at third as the season starts), but there’s no sign he’s a second baseman. And Pete Kozma’s credentials as a defender at short are passable, but the hitting he did down the stretch and in the playoffs last September and October is just about all anybody should expect. The Freese injury may be the happiest of accidents, shuffling Carpenter off second and forcing the definitionally adequate Daniel Descalso into the lineup at second TFN.
Otherwise the Cards are just great. Won’t miss Chris Carpenter or Kyle Lohse. Still producing kid pitchers in clusters (this year’s – after previews last year – Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Joe Kelly), still two or three deep at the back end of the bullpen (Motte’s hurt? Get Boggs and Salas ready). The aforementioned Taveras could step in if (when) Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran get hurt. Yadier Molina is as good as they get.
So – how much does an offensive hole at short and a defensive hole at second hurt an otherwise impeccably built team? We’ll see. I think the Cardinals can get through the division. After that? Notice what happened to the Tigers when they tried to sneak poor execution past the Giants.
I’ll take the Cardinals in a tight race over the Reds with the Brewers finishing third – and I’m not sure if they’re a factor or not (ask Corey Hart). Pittsburgh’s fourth (maybe challenging for third). The Cubs will finish last.
But one passing thought: what if the Rangers, who have too many middle infielders but not enough outfielders and actually sent Jurickson Profar down, and the Cardinals, who have too few middle infielders but too many outfielders and actually just sent Oscar Taveras down, had the collective cajones to swap Taveras straight up for Profar?
Having yesterday picked the Giants to surpass the more-talent/less-knowhow Dodgers in the West, we look ahead at the N.L. East:
Atlanta: And now, one of the great personnel questions in baseball history: If you put two underachieving brothers on the same team, in their home region of the country, for the first time in their lives, will they blossom? Can the purely personal premise of sibling rivalry (“Uptons Lead Braves To…”) overcome the undeniably statistical (27-year old B.J. Upton peaked at 22; his younger brother Justin has never been more than an average player when not inside the comfortable dome in Phoenix)?
The Uptons aren’t the only critical new couple in Atlanta. After years of tantalizing spring trainings, winter seasons, and MLB mini-hot streaks, Juan Francisco gets his shot to put up – and the Upton trade brought the Braves a useful righthander to platoon with him in Chris Johnson. Neither of them will make you think of Chipper Jones at his defensive peak, but nor did last year’s version of Mr. Chips. That they will not provide a speck of his leadership is a given.
Pitching is intriguing. Julio Teheran’s almost unhittable spring – climaxing in last Saturday’s six innings of being literally such – could combine with a full-season of Kris Medlen’s nearly unhittable 2012 finish. If so, the Braves could match the Nats arm-for-arm, especially if Mike Minor fulfills his promise. But if Fredi Gonzalez gets three lemons there, the Braves are finished, no matter how well the Uptons do, or Chipper’s successors do, or the bullpen does.
Plus there’s no Brian McCann. It’ll be at least May 1 before his shoulder quiets down and his travails this spring have the ring of one of those season-long things. Even though they let his perennial caddy David Ross walk over the winter, the Braves might have an intriguing Plan B in behemothian rookie Evan Gattis, who can catch, more or less, and lose a lot of baseballs because he seems to hit them into the clouds.
Nevertheless, there are too many “ifs” here. I hope the Uptons prove me wrong – even many of the people who let them leave Florida and Arizona last off-season speak nothing but praise for them as people – but as of today the record gives no reason to suspect they aren’t going to be busts in Atlanta, too.
Miami: Don’t get me wrong – the Marlins, Version Negative 2.0, aren’t going to win very much. But they might not be quite as repulsively bad as we all thought when the State of Florida’s bad bet on Jeffrey Loria’s business acumen predictably came up snake eyes – they might be better than the Mets. This will presumably turn on Miami’s willingness to promote the next great star who will eventually leave the team, Christian Yellich, who hit five homers and drove in 14 in 44 spring training AB’s. If the Marlins try to go cheap and keep Yellich in the minors not until May but until 2014, Miami’s huge holes could sink them completely. If they let Yellich up to join some combo of Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Ruggiano, Juan Pierre and Chris Coghlan, they will suddenly have an outfield nearly on par with Washington and the Phillies. The rest of the team is basically promising catcher Rob Brantly, and Other People’s Pitchers. Literally, outside of Ricky Nolasco, all the starting pitching candidates were underachieving pitching prospects obtained by trade (Alvarez, Eovaldi, LeBlanc, Slowey, Turner).
Far more interesting than the numbers put up by the team, will be those produced by the fans. I argued here last year that there was no chance Miami would suddenly turn into a 35,000-per-night city. Sadly I was right, and now we get to see how many will come to see these Dead Fish, and whether that spectacular new building might see an average as low as 3,500 a night.
New York: It has been postulated that the Yankees have let themselves go to hell because they saw a way to monetize the reality that the Mets just keep getting further away from respectability. One site specializing in such things suggested that New York’s opening day line-up could feature Marlon Byrd playing right and batting third. Last season, Marlon Byrd hit .070 in Chicago and then rocketed to a .320 slugging percentage in Boston and tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Byrd said he wasn’t using it for that purpose. Man, I hope so.
If David Wright’s injury recurs, the Met infield could be Ike Davis, Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada, and Zach Lutz. The outfield could easily be Byrd (or Mike Baxter) and Collin Cowgill next to Lucas Duda. The latest rebuilt bullpen might be worse than last year’s and the rotation could be the worst since Tom Seaver was a rookie (and could provide similar contrasts for young right-handers who may be all Mets fans have to root for this season: Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler).
New York knows the Mets are bad; it does not seem evident here that it’s very possible that they’re Worse-Than-The-Marlins-Kinda-Bad. Making things worse, the team’s first five series are against the Padres, Marlins, Rockies, Phillies, and Twins. Thus the Mets could easily be an utterly deceptive 10-6 or even 11-5 before – as the worn-out joke goes – the older kids get out of school.
Philadelphia: If you’re my age, or even close to it, you know the drill. Every morning some part is going to hurt, you just don’t know which one and how badly. Sadly the Phillies remind me way too much of me. Carlos Ruiz’s renaissance turned out to be an adderall-fueled illusion. Ryan Howard still doesn’t look 100%. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 34. Michael Young is 36. Roy Halladay had frightening moments of deadarmism this spring and it seems impossible to believe that it was only three years ago when we were assured he was the last puzzle piece to the greatest starting rotation in the history of mankind.
In a vast irony, perennial prospect Domonic Brown finally appears to be ready.
Don’t get me wrong: the Phillies could contend for second place here. I mean there are days when I creak less at noon than I did at 9 AM. Of course these only happen once or twice a month.
Washington: I thought this was the best overall team in baseball last year, and after its achilles heel was revealed in the decisive game against the Cardinals, management didn’t just lick its wounds – it invested even more in the squad. I am surely not the first to suggest that when you upgrade your fourth starter to Dan Haren, your first three starters are probably Cy Young candidates. The Nats surely did not need to sign Rafael Soriano as closer; clearly one of the internal candidates would’ve stepped up. But the mantra here appears to be don’t just try to beat everybody else – make sure you kill them.
That ‘don’t just try to beat them, make sure you kill them’ front office scheme? It mirrors words to that effect that Bryce Harper said to me after his first MLB exhibition game in 2011. It is a bit much to ask Harper to be the National League’s MVP, but it isn’t too much to put a bet down on him even at some very short odds. He debuted with all the technical skills, then had his moment of zen against the Phillies on May 6. Cole Hamels tried to put the veteran of seven big league games in his place by hitting him in the back. Moments later, Harper put Hamels in his place by stealing home on him.
Harper gave me his view of life way back in 2011! That is the remarkable thing about Harper that gets lost in the reality that he seems to have been around forever as prospect and mega-prospect and cover boy: he turns 21 next October. He’s fourteen months younger than Mike Trout. From 22/59/.270/.340/.477 – as a teenager – what kind of improvement can we expect this year? Is there a reasonable prediction for how high you go off that launch pad?
And it’s not as if he’s all Washington has. The infield is airtight, and power-packed at every position, and has rookie third baseman Anthony Rendon banging on the door. A healthier Jayson Werth is joined by Denard Span and Harper in the outfield. Catching are the unglamorous but highly-skilled Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos, and as referenced earlier the pitching staff is impossibly deep. Of course for the Nationals, there actually is a hole. The next power arm scheduled to join the Nationals’ bullpen is a fellow named Christian Garcia. He just partially tore a tendon in his pitching arm.
Other than that I don’t see anything missing here. And for those who think the Braves are going to keep pace with them, I disagree. It might be a race for awhile but it’ll probably end with Washington winning 100 games and lapping the field by 10 or more. Take the Phillies for somewhere around .500, and the Marlins and Mets amazingly out of contention.