Results tagged ‘ Pittsburgh Pirates ’

2013 Previews. NL Central: Maybe You Can Be Weak Up The Middle?

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?

 

2012 Previews: N.L. Central

First of all, this photo of my six-year old niece helping me keep score at the Yankees’ opener doesn’t have a thing to do with the NL Central. It’s just that it represents her first tentative steps towards fandom, and is to my mind fully representative of the rituals of the sport. Just the other day she ceaselessly quizzed her ball-playing older brother about what all the players do. Now she’s trying to figure out what the hieroglyphics represent, and carefully entering abbreviations at my instruction, and asking with delighted amazement: “What does that mean?” (She also insisted we take a walk, I told her we’d go wherever she wanted in the park because she was in charge. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know”).

Anyway.

The history of winning the World Series and then altering your uniform the next year to advertise the fact is a star-crossed one. The 2009 Phillies, 2007 Cardinals, and 2005 Red Sox all dipped their toe into the pool and wore special gold trim on their unis for their first one or two home games. The 2011 Giants wore a particularly garish patch all season long. Not one of them repeated their previous year’s triumphs. Go back into history and there are greater calamities still: the 1920 Cleveland Indians overcame the mid-season death of their star infielder Ray Chapman after he was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch, then surged past the scandal-ravaged White Sox to grab their first pennant, then won the World Series in large part because of an unassisted triple play by Chapman’s double-play partner Bill Wambsganss.

Next year, Wamby and his teammates dressed in these uniforms:The “Worlds Champions” finished second in 1921, did not seriously contend for the pennant again until 1940 (when they were decimated by an internal player revolt against their manager, earning the players the nicknames “The Crybabies”), didn’t win another Series until 1948, and haven’t won one since.

The 1927 Cardinals did something similar, although a little less garish, were punished by being crushed in the ’28 Series by the Yankees and the ’30 A’s, but were winners again by 1931.

Frank Bowerman

The 1906 New York Giants wore these modest little outfits, at home and abroad, to celebrate their 1905 title. The Giants fell out of contention in ’06 and ’07, suffered the singular ignominy of the 1908 pennant race and the Merkle Game Controversy in ’08, watched the president of the National League kill himself over that controversy in ’09, didn’t compete in ’10, had their ballpark burn down in ’11, lost the epic series on the Fred Snodgrass “muff” and the Mathewson Wrong Call in ’12, lost another Series in ’13, watched one of their cast-off pitchers lead the last place team past them and to the Series title in ’14, saw the team break up amid gambling rumors in ’15, won 26 in a row and still finished only fourth in ’16, lost the ’17 Series when nobody covered the plate on a rundown from third base, and didn’t come out of it until they won the Series of 1921 and 1922.

I’m not suggesting wearing a uniform devoted more to bragging than team identification caused these calamities, but there is a remarkable amount of trouble associated with teams that merely tinkered with their jerseys after they prevailed. The Cubs went from wearing a simple “C” for their 1907 shirt to a “C” with the “Cubby Bear” nestled inside in 1908. They repeated the title that year, but changed the jerseys to an even more ornate version with “Chicago” spelled vertically down the buttons in ’09, and you might recall what ’09 was the start of for the Cubs.

Adam Wainwright in Cards' home opener. Photo by Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

This is a very very very long way of leading up to this question: This gold-lettered uniform the Cardinals wore Friday? Why did they wear it?

I mean, none of the teams in the National League Central are among baseball’s best this season. They just aren’t and more over, they know it. The division has been drained by the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and despite producing two playoff teams, a World Champion, and a (brief) Cinderella Team, it wasn’t a very good division last year, either.

I’m saying the title might come down to superstition. So why tempt it? I mean, the caps are a little kitschy but the unis are kinda nice. But did you notice that after wearing it for one day, David Freese is already hurt again?

ST. LOUIS has to be the default favorite, but Carpenter’s gone, Wainwright has looked like crap, Berkman’s already suffered two minor injuries that could linger and limit him, or explode and finish him. Among all humans who’ve never managed before, Mike Matheny is probably the 2nd best choice to try to start on the big league stage (Robin Ventura is the 1st), but on what experience will he call if the injuries continue, or the bullpen falters, or Carlos Beltran is sidelined by a scratched nostril,or the Cards all get blood poisoning from the jinxed gold-flecked unis?

Conversely, managerial experience is no automatic indicator of success – ask CINCINNATI. We all love Dusty Baker, one of the great human beings, but his reluctance to trust youngsters has imperiled the career of Aroldis Chapman and is now reflected in his insistence on catching Ryan Hanigan more than Devin Mesoraco. The Ryan Madson injury will only make Dusty even less willing to trust anybody under 35, and I just have to wonder if at some point ownership is going to wake up in the middle of the night and say “we have committed 297 and a half million dollars to the least important quadrant, the right side of the infield” and disappear into the Arctic or something. How on earth is a market like Cincinnati supposed to produce such revenues? Is the news about the Minnesota Twins censored on the internet in the southern half of Ohio? More immediately, there’s a serious question about every Red pitcher (except Chapman, and of course he is used only as the 6th or 7th most important man on the staff).

The Conventional Wisdom suggests Aramis Ramirez was brought to MILWAUKEE to partially offset the loss of Prince Fielder. Nuh-uh. He was brought in to offset the disappearance of Casey McGehee. The Brewers’ swaggering line-up of 2011 looks awfully human with Gamel and Gonzalez and Ramirez in it in 2012. Randy Wolf looks like he’s at the end of the line and the internal dissatisfaction with Zack Greinke is astounding. It’s a very good bullpen, but in any other division this would not be a serious contender.

If Jeff Samardzija and either Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo are for real, CHICAGO may be better than expected, but not much. LaHair has hit well in the NL and Rizzo in the PCL and the obvious move would be to stick LaHair in the outfield, which is already a defensive wasteland, call up Rizzo, and let ‘er rip. Or better yet, off-load David DeJesus or Soriano or Byrd for whatever you could get for them, and give Brett Jackson a shot out there, too. But even if the Cubs hit, past Garza and maybe Samardzija the rest of the rotation is dubious and the bullpen (with the possible exception of rookie Rafael Dolis) will give away a lot of games.

There is a narrow pinhead through which PITTSBURGH might squeeze, and force their way into contention. Revivals from Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett would give a good bullpen something to save. Andrew McCutchen might blossom into an MVP candidate. Starling Marte might come up next month and hit .330. But masked by the completeness of the Buccos’ post-play-at-the-plate collapse last year was what happened to the fuel of their brief spring in the sun. Jose Tabata vanished. Garrett Jones vanished. Kevin Correia vanished. Jeff Karstens vanished. Inexplicably, Pedro Alvarez vanished and the Pirates insist on still playing him. Midnight struck and Clint Hurdle was suddenly managing a pumpkin farm. Everything that went right last year has to go right again this year – and then some.

There is one bright spot in HOUSTON. If the new owner and Poor Brad Mills (the manager’s new first name) had had to have taken this team into the American League this year, the Astros might’ve gone 30-132. There may be sparkles from Jason Castro behind the plate, Jose Altuve at second, and Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, and Jordan Schafer in the outfield, but it is plausible that beyond Carlos Lee there might be nobody on this team who hits 15 homers. There certainly aren’t going to be any starting pitchers who win 15 games. Good lord, as I read this to myself, it dawns on me: all the starting pitchers might not win 35 games among them.

2012 N.L. CENTRAL FORECAST:

Man, I have no idea. If these teams were scattered among the other divisions there wouldn’t be a lead-pipe-cinch pennant contender among the six of them. I guess St. Louis will win, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee behind them, and Chicago and Pittsburgh arguing over fourth, and the Astros disappearing from National League history like the Cheshire Cat. The pennant race might prove variable and exciting, but it will not be good, and it will make fans in places like Toronto and Seattle and Miami wish that realignment were a reality.

My Friend, Nellie King

Nelson “Nellie” King, pitcher and announcer of the Pittsburgh Pirates – author of one of the most distinctive baseball autobiographies ever written – one of the special people, beloved by most everybody who got to know him – passed away early this morning at the age of 82.

Few of us today can understand the necessity of persistence. Nellie lived it. He determined to pitch in the big leagues when that first meant convincing an independent club in the South to hire you, and another one to hire you after the first one changed its mind. Learn and practice and sweat and stick to it for eight years and you’d finally get there, as he did with the Pirates in 1954. And then watch it vanish due to an injury within four years. 
So he started anew in another field: broadcasting. He did it not the way a player will today, stepping directly from the field to a big league booth. He went out and learned it, working at a series of small radio stations in suburban Pittsburgh – going to Forbes Field to report on the very team he had just been pitching for – and doing that for another seven years before getting a big break and a spot with the Pirates’ announcing team.
When fickle management made that end eight years later, Nellie King persisted again, going to Duquesne University as Sports Information Director, color announcer on the school’s basketball broadcasts, and golf coach. This career, his third, stuck. He only retired from the last parts of it six years ago.
Nellie recounted all of this in an extraordinary autobiography called Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog which I recommended at length here in this blog last November. The book is available here, and a wonderful obituary has been posted on the blog of the Duquesne radio station.
I had spoken to Nellie last Saturday and for what we both knew to be goodbye; the conversation was upbeat and philosophical and there were even some laughs. And though I was the one getting up and going back into the world and not he, the reassurances and the encouragement came from him to me.
I understand that was pretty much everybody’s experience with Nellie King, every day. I don’t think there’s anything better you can say about someone’s life. Farewell, Nellie, and — and I know it’s an odd word at a time like this – congratulations.

Tea Leaves

If you have a fantasy league team – or just like to play Closer Roulette – there is nothing more perversely fascinating than to watch an actual big league club suddenly go to Bullpen Plan B, or even Plans C and D, seven weeks into the season.

Such a scenario seems to be playing out in Milwaukee where future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman may have finally taken a curve he can’t handle. Carlos Villanueva was handed the keys and wound up on the sidewalk, too. And suddenly it was rookie John Axford successfully stanching the flow in Minnesota Sunday, with his fellow freshman Zach Braddock setting up.
The key for reading signs in Milwaukee was Tuesday’s game, and with the Brewers up 2-0 on Houston in the seventh it seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out what Ken Macha had in mind. Then the Brewers scored four and suddenly there was nothing to be gauged by the exercise innings of Villanueva and Todd Coffey in the 8th and 9th.
Maybe there was. While it was still 2-0, Macha had Villanueva warming up to pitch the 8th, putting the lie to the presumption that Axford had pitched Sunday only because Villanueva was overworked. We will never know who Macha would have used in a save situation, but it clearly wasn’t going to be Carlos.
Brewer management, incidentally, is giddy over the power arms of the two rookies. It is always sad to see the possible end for a class act and nearly unbeatable performer like Hoffman (and make no mistake about it, this could easily be the end), and it seems a little cruel to hear of two guys who combined don’t have a week invested in the pension plan drawing drools, but such is baseball life.
All of which reminds me somehow of one of those rare instances in which Rotisserie can speak volumes about reality. I am in my fourth year with a bunch of actors in an NL-only league. Among the ten of us, and counting 12 guys on our two-man disabled lists, we “own” 262 National League players. Only ten of them are Pittsburgh Pirates and it’s only that high because somebody just took a flier on Neil Walker (the other nine are Doumit, Cedeno, LaRoche, Jones, McCutchen, Milledge; Dotel, Hanrahan, and Meek – we count Holds).

2010 Forecasts: NL Central

Having already tabbed the Rockies for a possible runaway in the West (pursued perhaps by the Giants), we move to the Central:

CHICAGO
may represent a startling fact about this division – there not only isn’t a
great team here, there isn’t even a good one. The starting line-up is
five-eighths made up of guys who significantly regressed from 2008 to 2009,
plus Marlon Byrd. The new ownership seems to have already committed to the age-old easy way out of worrying more about the ballpark than the ballclub. Larry Rothschild has gratefully plugged Carlos Silva and Tom
Gorzelanny into his rotation. The bullpen is headed by a shaky Carlos Marmol
and not one experienced right-handed set-up man. The Cubs are a mess.

It still
didn’t make any sense for CINCINNATI to invest in Scott Rolen, nor bring back
Ramon Hernandez, and with considerable irony, this might as well still be 2007
when the Reds were pinning their hopes on Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce. Their
epiphanies – Bailey’s last September, and Bruce’s during his injury – must be
lasting for the Reds to compete. But there is at minimum some sense of upswing
in Cincinnati. Dusty Baker gave Drew Stubbs the chance to play last year, and
might even find spots for Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, and Yonder Alonso this season. The
bullpen is strong, the rotation potentially deep.

For years,
Terry Francona’s top lieutenant, Brad Mills, has deserved a major league team
to manage. He may yet get the chance – for now he’s stuck with Houston. There
is an outfield and there are two starting
pitchers (providing Roy Oswalt isn’t seriously hurt, and doesn’t go home to his
ranch in sheer frustration). The rest of the line-up, and the pitching staff, are disaster areas, made no better by today’s news than Lance Berkman’s bionic knee is ‘cranky.’ Things could brighten somewhat if
Matt Lindstrom harnesses his talent, and if Jason Castro or J.R. Towles squat
up behind the plate, and if three fans turn out to be viable starting pitchers.
Otherwise, this is a franchise that has gone to seed.

What’s the
psychological saw about repeating the same unsuccessful action with confidence
that this
time it
will succeed? The Brewers are confident Dave Bush, Doug Davis, and Manny Parra and/or Jeff Suppan constitute three-fifths of a pitching staff. They’re certain Rickie Weeks and
Corey Hart will harness their talent. Everybody knows
this is the year Yovanni Gallardo
leaps to the forefront of NL starters. This is a recording. The Brewers will be
deceptively entertaining as long as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are around,
and they could get a wonderful spark if Carlos Gomez decides not to style his
way out of the game before his 25th birthday. But all the bullpen depth in the world
isn’t going to help that rotation.

PITTSBURGH
deserves better. Surely they are, on average, a better set of players than the
Astros. But nothing seems to progress in Pittsburgh; Andrew McCutchen and
Garrett Jones arise fully grown from the minors, but Freddy Sanchez and Jack
Wilson are dished off. They make a seeming salary dump to Atlanta and in fact
rip the Braves off, selling Nate McLouth at his high point, opening up a spot
for McCutchen, and getting the remarkable arm of Charlie Morton – and Morton is
the only guy in the state who doesn’t believe he has
a remarkable arm. And still, if
lightning strikes – if Pedro Alvarez, Chase D’Arnaud, and Tim Alderson were all
productive big leaguers by June 1, they’d suddenly have an actual real-life
.500 team. And a .500 team might run away with this division.

Pittsburgh can hope, because
ST. LOUIS is the most overrated team in the majors. Albert Pujols glitters so
brightly, he makes you forget that the rest of the infield is an assortment of
Brendan Ryans and Felipe Lopezes and David Freeses. Chris Carpenter and Adam
Wainwright were so dominant that they obscured the reality of what happened if
you actually beat them on consecutive days – the Cards’ season would be snuffed
out in a sweep. This is a team that was ready to trot out a rotation in which
Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny, and Rich Hill would pitch more often than did Carpenter
and Wainwright (the first light bulb going off: giving the fifth spot in the rotation not to Hill but to Jaime Garcia). The bullpen is a jumble, the bench non-existent, and lord help
Tony LaRussa if Yadier Molina is really hurt or Pujols’ back is cranky for more
than 45 minutes at a stretch.

PREDICTIONS:
You know what? I’ll take the long-odds bet on the dice coming up for the Reds
and not the Cardinals. It’ll be an exciting race, to see if you actually can
get into the playoffs with 79 victories. Chicago third, Milwaukee fourth just
ahead of Pittsburgh, and Houston sixth, unless they decide to conserve energy
and just forfeit all games in lieu of much needed fielding practice and weeding
through resumes of infielders and pitchers.

Recommended Reading: Nellie King

People will little note nor long remember what Steven Jackson did pitching in relief last season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. For that matter, not until now, were they likely to remember what Nellie King did pitching in relief for the Bucs in 1956.
Without both of these men, and all others like them, baseball would cease to exist.
2009 was an encouraging year for Jackson. Up from Indianapolis, he pitched 40 times for a total of 43 innings, 21 strikeouts, 22 walks, two wins, three losses, and a 3.14 ERA. This was the culmination of nearly six years along a heavily-guided, clearly-lit, little-left-to-chance route that began when Howard McCullough of the Diamondbacks started scouting him at Clemson in 2003. The next year, Arizona drafted him in the tenth round, and, despite the fact he was already 22, they started him in the instruction-focused Pioneer and Northwest Leagues. The Yankees were following him, too, and when they worked out a deal to return Randy Johnson to Arizona, Jackson was one of the pitchers they demanded. New York began to work Jackson in relief in ’07 and their instructors helped him find a new arm slot that turned a mediocre sinker into an out pitch. He was the third arm the Yankees called up from the minors last April, but they wasted his last option by letting him sit in the bullpen for a week without an appearance. When they tried to sneak him off the major league roster, the Pirates pounced and picked him up on waivers. Within weeks, he was a regular in the Pittsburgh bullpen.
This tortuous recital of the provenance of Steven Jackson – scouted, trained, guided, instructed, groomed (and paid around $275,000 in his first big league season) is provided to underscore a point about ex-Pirate reliever Nellie King’s wonderful new book Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog. In King’s first full season in the bigs, in 1956, he appeared 38 times in Pittsburgh, pitched 60 innings, won four and lost one, and finished with a 3.15 ERA (and earned about $6,000 – still just $47,000 in 2009 dollars). This was the culmination of eleven years of fighting to get anybody to notice him long enough to invite him to a mass tryout camp, then possibly to spring training, then possibly onto the roster of a minor league team like the New Iberia Cardinals of the Class-D Evangeline League.
Class D.
As he vividly recounts in this warm, understated memoir, Nellie King’s career began in a time when a ballplayer had at least three jobs: what he did during the actual season, what he did delivering packages or bailing hay during the off-season, and what he had to do 24 hours a day to make sure he didn’t get released with no more than ten days’ notice and not even a bus ticket home. It is almost unfathomable to consider the pioneer-like hacking through the woods of hidden opportunity that King so fondly recalls. A part-time Cardinals’ scout liked what he saw of him in a glorified summer high school league and invited him to a tryout. He got a uniform with a three digit number on it. Hooking on with a team in Louisiana he arrived there by bus in the middle of the night, clueless of who to contact or where to go. He was released twice before his 19th birthday, and made it back into organized ball only because that first scout had gone to work filling out the rosters of some independent clubs. And that only got him into the Pittsburgh system because the owner sold those obscure franchises to the Pirates. 
And that’s when he got to begin his climb up the ladder in a Pirates’ farm system that was a little smaller than most – it only had about a dozen clubs. Having won 15 or more three separate times for Pirates’ farms (a feat which today would put him on the cover of The Baseball America Prospect Handbook) and having survived, unfazed, two years at Fort Dix during the Korean War, Nelson Joseph King finally got to the big leagues in 1954.

“It had taken me eight years, including two outright releases in 1946, plus two years in the Army, to get to this moment at Ebbets Field. I thought of all those innings and games I spent pitching in small, minor league towns such as Geneva, Ozark, Brewton, Troy, Dorhan, Greenville, Andalusia, and Enterprise, in the Class “D” Alabama State League during my first season in professional baseball. The contrast between Ebbets Field and those minor league towns and fields magnified the contrasts and the satisfaction I was feeling. Having viewed Ebbets Field only in black and white photos and on television in World Series games, I was now seeing it up close, in full color and from the center of the picture. In my eighth decade of life, the memory of that moment is so vivid I can still visualize Ebbets Field…”

Injuries would end King’s pitching career in 1957, and he went into radio – following the same steep staircase that described his playing days – through local markets in Western Pennsylvania. Finally, a decade after he stopped pitching for them, he rejoined the Pirates a decade later as an announcer, and the primary partner of the legendary Bob “The Gunner” Prince. Once again the reality of the business of today and that of an earlier time is underscored. As the third announcer of a major league team just 42 years ago, Nellie King was paid $13,000 – and even that only translates to $83,000 in today’s money.
The remarkable part of King’s story is that the struggle and the finances seem to have made every step, and every misstep, all the more satisfying. Nellie King’s story is a triumph of perseverance and contentment. Even the title comes from one of the odder of the aphorisms of the legendary Branch Rickey, for whom King worked in the Pittsburgh organization. Figures like Rickey, and Bill Mazeroski, and Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell, populate its pages, but Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog should not be mistaken for the kind of dramatic but sometimes self-important recent biographies of, say, Satchel Paige or George Steinbrenner. And though King goes into depth about the two epic Pirates’ World Championship years he covered, he does not seek to elevate either to world-changing status, such as a recent book on the 1912 Series does.
Nellie King has simply written a book about the backbone of baseball, a tale like that of 75 percent of the players in the game’s history. And in its own matter-of-fact style, it’s terrific. It’s available from the usual suspects like Amazon, but more directly (and economically) from the publisher, and Nellie and his family have also launched a blog for Cur.

CORRECTIONS AND NOTES:
In advocating for Danny Murtaugh’s Hall of Fame qualifications I gave him credit for one more NL East title than he deserved. I’d forgotten Murtaugh retired four times as Pittsburgh skipper, not three, and the 1972 crown belonged to Bill Virdon… And having composed this as MLB Network rolled out its World Series highlight films, these trivial observations about Yankee Stadium. The boxes remained in the “opera style” – no permanent seats, just as many hard wooden chairs as you needed or could fit in – through at least 1943. And the dirt stripe from the mound to the plate, most recently resurrected in Detroit and Phoenix, was in place in the Bronx through at least 1947 – but gone by 1949.

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