I have a few more things gleaned among the cacti to report (besides the fact that Billy Hamilton is the fastest ballplayer I’ve ever seen, and seems to be going faster than freeway traffic).
But first, the photo album from a week in the incredibly convenient Cactus League:
No, this is not the world’s oldest, saddest boy band. Nor, despite the angles, are Manager Terry Francona of the Indians and President Theo Epstein of the Cubs actually resting their heads on my shoulder (they’d join me in saying ‘thank goodness’). I was privy to witness the reunion of the Men Who Made The Red Sox Great at HoHoKam Park, two weeks ago tomorrow. They’re both among my baseball friends and typically we spent almost no time talking baseball. Also got to see Billy Williams, Dale Sveum, and Brad Mills that day, too (“Nice to see you back with a Major League Team,” I said to Millsy. He smiled and was respectful enough to say nothing, but he looked 10 years younger – as did Tito).
This is not Jackson Browne, though I’ve seen them both in the last 18 months and if the gentleman spotted at Peoria during a Brewers-Mariners game dyed his hair, they’d look like brothers.
That’s Ted Simmons, now an advisor in the Seattle front office, and simply put one of the smartest men in the sport. When Pirates fans harken back to the last winning Pittsburgh team they invoke the names of Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds (and occasionally even Stan Belinda), they don’t mention the last winning GM: Ted Simmons. He was just getting into the rebuilding of the post-Bonds Pirates when he suffered a heart attack during the 1993 season and retired. He’s been a coach and executive since – and that was after his 46.5 WAR (greater than Hall of Famers with careers of similar length like Nellie Fox, Kiki Cuyler, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Lombardi, and the just-elected Deacon White). Narrow that down to catchers (Bill Dickey 52.5, Gabby Hartnett 50.7, Simmons 46.5, White 44, Lombardi 43.6 – and you occasionally hear Jorge Posada’s name mentioned at 39) and it’s obvious that “Simba” is a Hall of Famer. Despite a career line of .285/.348/.437 and seven .300 seasons, his work was overshadowed by being Johnny Bench’s exact contemporary for 15 years, and then spending nearly all of his last five at DH or 1B.
Dale Murphy returned to the game last season in the Braves’ tv booth, and returned to uniform this spring as the first base coach for the USA team in the WBC. One of the older arguments for the Hall was the “wozzy” test – “was he considered for any length of a time one of the top five players in the game?” After two MVPs and a decade as one of the most feared hitters/least feared people in the game, Murph kinda flatlined starting with his 13th season in the majors. But again, WAR puts him in historical context. Lou Brock’s a 42.8, Jim Rice a 44.3, Chuck Klein a 41.5. Murphy: 42.6 – and in this time when one element in the Cooperstown ballot has suddenly taken on added importance (“character”), his was and is impeccable – and generous.
When I tweeted this photo I believe I said that I first interviewed George Brett in 1980. In fact, that was when we were first “introduced.” I actually interviewed him in 1976, 1977, and 1978 during the A.L. Playoffs – the “nice to meet yous” came during the 1980 World Series during a memorable and scatological interview about the hemorrhoids that plagued him during the post-season. This might have been the same day I met a mid-level Royals’ executive named Rush Limbaugh (how would you ever forget a name like that). He and Brett remain best friends, and George and I laughed our way through 15 minutes in the KC dugout, which no matter how you diagram it means baseball trumps politics every time. George remembered that ’80 interview of course, but also (to my surprise) recalled that I got to interview him – for Fox – after his election to Cooperstown in ’99.
This, of course, is Wash.
All the other guys on the photo tour are Hall of Famers, or should be, or might very will be (Terry Francona needs one more measurable success in his managerial career to cinch a spot – and he’s only 54 – while if Theo Epstein also turns the Cubs around, he’s a lock).
The first person to tell you he’s not getting to Cooperstown – surely not as a player – is the ever-affable skipper of the Rangers, Ron (.261/.292/.368, ten years, one as a starting player) Washington. But few figures in the sport are greeted with greater affection, by his players and rivals alike. Just to amp this shot up a little bit, check out the copyright. That’s Jon SooHoo, who I’ve known ever since I was a local sportscaster in LA and who has shot 30 years of incredible images on behalf of the Dodgers.
There were many other men I’m proud to call friends who I didn’t trouble for photos: Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, Bruce Bochy, Bob Melvin – the average was about three a day, and it emphasized that while we get swamped by scandal and controversy and stats and new-age stats and boasting and showboating, the game is about good people whom you get to know and cheer for, for a very long time.
But occasionally, even in middle age, you make new acquaintances. While I summarize my thoughts for a future post, take a look at this, which might be – pound-for-pound – the best baseball stadium built in this country at least since 1962:
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – He has checked out and gone home so the statute of respect towards fellow hotel guests has expired, I guess.
I arrive at my hotel here the other night and the place is spread out enough that they recommend that you let them throw on to a golf cart for transport to your room, not just your bags – but you. And we go about 20 yards in the darkness when a big, broad guy with short hair sort of steps in front of the cart and the bellman/driver says “excuse me” and the fellow turns around and sort of stares for a moment before saying “Oh! I’m sorry. I kinda froze there for a moment,” and with a genuine laugh, hops out of the way. And he looks really familiar and while I’m staring at him I realize he’s staring at me and our light bulbs go off simultaneously and as I say “stop the cart for a second,” he smiles.
“This is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” he says with another patented Jim Lunchpail Thome laugh. I say back to him “this is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” and we trade career anecdotes and I ask about the Yankees and he says “I doubt it.” And we try to figure out if we first met in 1993 or 1994 and he says he’s working out but otherwise he’s pretty much by the pool each day and I should try to find him when I get back from the ballpark each afternoon. And I joke about how I nearly made his latest free agency academic by running him over with a golf cart and we say good night.
And Thome, who is easily the most universally respected player in the game, is still unsigned despite Twins rumors and Yankees rumors and the reality that somebody should sign him with an idea of convincing him to manage them in a year’s time because the other players think he’s pretty much the epitome of professionalism and knowledge. I think he knows he can’t play in the field any more but that would still let him fit in at Yankee Stadium because lord knows almost none of them can field any more either.
Thome was how my Cactus League jaunt began but the amount of additional quality human beings whom I’ve known forever that I’ve again been able to spend time with exceeds all my previous spring training trips. In the Angels’ camp it was Mike Scioscia (28 years) and executive Tim Mead (28 more), and from their opponents the Reds, writer Hal McCoy (about 10). At the Mariners’ facility it was consultant – and should-be Hall of Famer Ted Simmons (33 years), and manager Eric Wedge (20 years) and our traditional greeting of “Happy Birthday” (we share one; he’s much younger), and the announcers Dave Sims (32 years; we both worked for Charley Steiner in the 1981-82 timeframe) and Rick Rizzs (12). Rick was nice enough to ask me to come on his broadcast for an inning. Then I found out it was after Bob Uecker of the Brewers (36 years) was going to come on for an inning and as I said to Rick on the air: “I thought you liked me.”
At Wednesday night’s Team USA exhibition I got to visit with manager Joe Torre (32 years) and first base coach – and another guy who is a no-brainer Cooperstown pick – Dale Murphy (30). And today in Glendale it was the Texas staff: manager Ron Washington (10), coach Dave Magadan (11) and coach Dave Anderson (30 years ago this month I interviewed him at Vero Beach when we thought he might be the next Dodger rookie-of-the-year – “boy were you wrong,” he said, again). Upstairs I had a great chat with Rick Monday, who I’ve known for 33 years as everything from a player to a World Series star to a rival sportscaster when he was on Channel 11 every night in LA at exactly the same time I was on Channel 5.
To top it off, of course, was my annual visit with Vin Scully. I readily admit that it took me nearly three years to screw up the courage to introduce myself to him – and I was on local tv in LA during all that time – and when I finally did he said he was relieved, because he thought I’d done something to offend him. I’m sure Vin is not the saint we all portray him as, but that’s really just a hunch because nothing I’ve ever seen him do suggests otherwise. The self-deprecation never ends; even today his first words after hello were “thank you.” I said you’re welcome and then asked him what I’d done. He said “thank you for writing that excellent and kind blog about the Piazza interview.”
Ohhh, yeah. That was nearly a month ago and that was what he wanted to talk about. We batted back and forth the singular personality that is Mike Piazza, but mostly he was talking about friendship and support, and I mentioned that this was the kind of loyalty his kindness and patience engendered, and that I knew I spoke for many when I said I felt like it was our job to fire the arrows when he was attacked – especially when it was as unjustified and as inexplicable as it was in poor Piazza’s self-destructive book. And then there were the usual friendship questions that I invariably suddenly realize are being asked and answered by the Babe Ruth or William Shakespeare of his field and I remember why it took me three years to stop shaking long enough to say hello back in 1988.
So I know Vin for 25 years now – and remember that this represents only about 40 percent of the time he’s been bringing you Dahhh-ger base-ball. And if you wonder how much of a self-starter you can be as you begin your 64th year at one job, Vin and I visited for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then he had to pre-record something for his broadcast and when I looked back in his booth after that he had begun his daily ritual of scribbling and reviewing notes for the game ahead. The exhibition game. The exhibition game on a drowsy Thursday afternoon. The exhibition game three weeks before the season begins. And he would continue to do so for at least an hour.
Talk about a role model.
Later in the week here I’m going to formalize what shallow insights I’ve been able to glean from the games I’ve seen (hint: Billy Hamilton) but for now I’m thinking of everybody that Spring Training provides me the opportunity to see again, from Thome to Scully.
That’s fifteen men who I’ve known for a total of 390 years. And every moment of that time, with every one of them, has been a privilege.
It’s been a pretty good trip, huh?
Imagine for a second this scenario: a New York team wins consecutive pennants. They lose the first World Series to a lightning-in-a-bottle fast-finisher from the other league. They lose the next year to another one-month-wonder despite twice being one strike away from sealing the deal in Game 6. The New York team owner – one of the most famous men in sports – has to decide whether or not to retain his popular, African-American manager after the latter tests positive for cocaine. This was after he built the batting order around a recovered addict, who then falls off the wagon in the weeks before he was to get a nine-figure contract extension.
Can you picture that? It would be Armageddon every day at that ballpark as the media – not just in New York but nationally – struggled merely to decide whether these misceants were to be called the worst chokers of all time, or a bunch of druggies, or the team with the owner who needed to be run out of the game on a rail for letting such tainted underachievement continue. It would be, to adapt Dorothy Parker’s phrase to baseball, a Fresh Hell every day.
Of course, you don’t have to imagine anything here but the geography. This is not the imaginary story of the most controversial New York team of all time. It’s the 2012 Texas Rangers – and only their worst headlines – and in one of the most meaningful and revealing truths about baseball, and sports media, and America itself, they remain one of our feel good stories.
It’s not just New York, by the way. The 180 degree difference in how the New York Baseball Rangers would be treated, would also be true of the Boston Rangers or the Philadelphia Rangers or the Los Angeles Rangers. Regardless of the venue, it’s amazing, and it’s real.
And it’s relevant to a preview of the American League West because it means what is largely the same team can try it again for the third straight year – without Josh Hamilton being traded for Ken Phelps or Ron Washington being replaced by Dallas Green. There are only two notable changes: a real closer in Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson being swapped out for Yu Darvish.
The former move seems to reduce the variables; the latter may do the opposite. Darvish is the prototypical Japanese pitcher – with slight deception in the delivery, a mastery of five pitches and about four subtle varieties for each of them, and a rubber arm (at least for awhile). But Darvish is something Nomo and Matsuzaka and the rest are not: he is a Giant. He is 6’5”, 215, meaning he’s bigger than Nathan and Colby Lewis, and at least taller than Josh Hamilton. So the four different fastballs come in as fast as 95.
Watching Darvish against Colorado last week was watching the biggest kid in Kindergarten playfully slapping all the other ones. Half of them fell unconscious to the floor. The others? He missed them and he fell to the floor. The Rockies got their licks in, but in six at bats against him, Cargo and Tulo struck out six times and didn’t look close on any of the swinging strikes. It is almost a given (since we still condescendingly look at even Japan’s greatest veteran stars as our freshmen) that Darvish takes the Rookie Award in the AL. He may take the Cy. He may also go 12-15. The question isn’t whether or not he’ll make American batters look bad most of the time, but whether he might make American pitchers look bad most of the time.
The Rangers have competition in Orange County, but the ANGELS are the most tragically snake-bitten of all teams, and investments like the zillions spent on Wilson and Albert Pujols have always ended in tears – usually the late Gene Mauch’s. Despite the addition of Pujols and the resurrection of Kendrys “Just Shake Hands” Morales, the Cherubs are nowhere near a match for Texas offensively (hell, the ’27 Yankees might not be). The Mark Trumbo third base play comes at considerable defensive risk, and the bullpen remains a series of risky albeit probably good gambles. Ironically, for all that money, the difference-maker for Mike Scioscia might be his fifth starter, either retread Jerome Williams or rookie Garrett Richards, who at times looked lights out this spring.
There might be something to watch in SEATTLE. My affection for Jesus Montero’s opposite field power has been elaborated upon here before. But there is a flock of young hitters around him who might also blossom, and not just Dustin Ackley. Smoak, Carp (hurt), Saunders, Liddi, Gutierrez (hurt), and behind them Catricala and another Fernando Martinez might make the Mariners Wild Card eligible in a year. Probably would’ve helped if they hadn’t traded Doug Fister, because the rotation gets dicey just about the time you ask “Kevin Millwood is still alive?”
My friend Bob Melvin gets his first full year managing again, in OAKLAND. He loves to do it and was born to do it, and if anybody can drag this team back into respectability after its latest re-casting, it’s Bob. Unfortunately, even though he only played 11 games there in his career, Bob might be the best first baseman he has, and that’s a problem. The base hits get thin once you get past the exciting Jemile Weeks and the possibly exciting Yoenis Cespedes. And I won’t write anything long-winded on the latter for fear of being accusedof being Cespedes-sesquipedalian.
It’ll be fun watching the A’s continue their role as baseball’s breeding and/or training grounds for B+ pitchers. Mulder, Zito, Hudson, Harden, Haren, Street, Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Anderson, et al. The new names are De Los Santos, Milone, Parker, and Peacock and maybe baseball can get on the stick and get the A’s into San Jose before they become eligible for the A’s Alumni Association, too.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST FORECAST:
TEXAS wins again, with Darvish filling the Wilson vacuum. LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM/THE OC, afflicted by some calamity, still has enough to claim a wild card. SEATTLE approaches .500, and OAKLAND does better than you’d think.
Love the Braves taking a flier on third baseman Juan Francisco. He may amount to nothing, but he is capable of a Jose Bautista like breakout, and he’s no more of a load defensively than Cabrera or Trumbo. He was dying a slow death in Cincinnati where I believe Dusty Baker never played him two games in a row. Because he isn’t 37.
Firstly, Rangers fans should be delighted by the headline – my 2011 predictions have been execrable (according to this blog, the series opens in Atlanta tomorrow night with the Red Sox as the visitors – or maybe it’s in Boston; maybe I got the All-Star Game wrong too).
Worse still I have a great affection for Ron Washington, his third base coach Dave Anderson, and his Game One starter C.J. Wilson. Beyond that, there is no love lost between me and Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa. The purist in me is offended that the regular season is so irrelevant that what it proved was the fourth best team in the National League is my pick to win the Series. And I happen to hate team catchphrases and don’t particularly care about whether the Cardinals’ flights are happy or morose.
Nevertheless, here are a few points that made this forecast unwelcome but necessary. You know that dreadful Cardinals’ starting rotation? Its post-season ERA is a nauseating 5.43 – and the Rangers are at 5.58. That anemic St. Louis line-up with the pitcher and the relief pitchers and a few popgun bats off the bench all hitting? It’s batting .288, getting on base at a .345 rate, slugging .448, for an OPS of .793. The awe-inspiring Texas line-up so deep with the DH that Boomstick Himself hitting way down there in the seventh? .259/.330/.434/.764. Having thus far played one more game than the Rangers, the Cardinals have outscored them 62 to 55.
Speaking of Boomstick, what if that tweak in Game 6 of the ALCS, that seeming oblique injury, merely hinders Nelson Cruz in the Series? What happens to a slugger who can’t twist his body fully without searing pain? Cruz has been fragile enough that to begin with his health is always in doubt. Worse still, there are probabilities in play here, and if your performance in the Division Series was 1-for-15 with no homers and no RBI, and then your performance in the Championship Series was 8-for-22 with six homers and 13 RBI, your performance in the World Series is much likelier to look like the first set of numbers than the second.
The DH “thing”? The Cardinals led the majors in hitting on the road, finishing third in road home runs behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Cardinals, thought to be comparatively weak sisters at the plate, basically led the National League in every offensive category except home runs, and struck out the fewest times in the NL. To be fair, Texas struck out even less – 48 times less – but without pitchers hitting the stat is slightly deceptive for comparison purposes. Cardinals’ pitchers struck out 111 times as batters during 2011, meaning their eight position players (and pinch-hitters and DHs) only struck out 867 times in total.
Then there is the little matter of the efficacy of starting three lefthanders against the Cardinals (in point of fact, if all three games scheduled for Arlington are played, St. Louis would face the three southpaws in a row). I appreciate the fact that the Cardinals did better against righties than any other NL team (and overall sit behind only Texas throughout the sport), and I’m aware that the key to beating the Cards this year has been to make Lance Berkman bat from the right side, where he is useful but not a force. But it still strikes me as inherently dangerous to offer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a blossoming David Freese, and Allen Craig the opportunity to face the likes of Wilson, Holland, and Harrison. To me the play is to bag one of the lesser two and opt for Alexi Ogando, rather than waiting for Holland to blow up again and then going and getting Ogando. Against lefties in the post-season the Cardinals battered Cliff Lee, were bewildered by Randy Wolf, and held their own in a loss to Cole Hamels.
The bullpens have both been superb – the Cardinals’ particularly – and the fact that neither team had to go to a seventh game in the LCS means both sets of relievers are likely to be fresh. If there is one intangible in Texas’s favor in this series, it’s that they’ve faced Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski this year, with some success. In fact they hung a loss Rzepczynski as recently as July 23, even though the Eyechart Man was effective against David Murphy (0-2) and Mitch Moreland (0-1) in four appearances. As images of Rzepczynski nearly getting Pujols killed Saturday night dance in the heads of Cardinals fans, it is trivially noteworthy to remember that his loss in Arlington nearly three months ago resulted from his own throwing error on a Moreland sacrifice.
So if you want to get an exotic wager in on the weirdest thing that could happen in the World Series, it would be Rzepczynski blowing an inning, or a lead, or a game, by picking up a bunt and running face first into Pujols for a solid E-1 and possible concussion.
Of course, just picking the Cardinals is an exotic enough wager.
The bad news for the Yankees is that Mark Teixeira suffered a Grade 2 strain of the hamstring and will miss the rest of the season.
As 5 PM Eastern nears here in the Bronx, ex-Yankees Bernie Williams and Tom Flash Gordon are here. Bernabe is to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (by itself something of a thaw in his slightly chilly relationship with the club since they dropped him – hes yet to go to an Old Timers Day). I suspect Flash showed up to come in for Burnett in the 2nd. This fourth game has all the feelings of the end of another up cycle for New York, a night reminiscent of the end of the 2003 World Series or the ALCS the next year or – for the elderly – more like the end of the 81 Series or some of the grim regular season finales later in that decade. The Yanks surefire stopper, Andy Pettitte, was vanquished (and before the top of the first inning last night) and having learned the lesson of the Pinstripes Latent Vampirism, Ron Washington played the six-run top of the ninth like he was down by a dozen. And three hours to game time and there isnt a Yankee on the field. It is as quiet as the cliche here – too quiet.
After that exhibition of lunkheaded managing by Ron Washington in the top of the 8th of Game One of the ALCS, I believe anyone who predicted a Rangers’ triumph over the Yankees should be given a mulligan.
1. You used four relievers in the eighth inning and none of them are your flame-throwing closer Neftali Feliz?2. Having already used two of the four lefties in your bullpen, the 5-0 and 5-1 leads now just memories, southpaw Clay Rapada on the mound with lefty-killer Marcus Thames coming to the plate, you pull Rapada and replace him with another lefty in Derek Holland? Apart from everything else you are now down to one lefthander left in your pen, rookie Michael Kirkman. And of course, oopsie, lefty-killer Thames kills lefty Holland with the game-winning hit.3. Harold Reynolds made a great point on MLB Network. Up 5-1, with Gardner on and C.J. Wilson tiring, you have Michael Young playing in close at third against Derek Jeter? Fearing he’s going to bunt? When all he still does well is pull lefties? Don’t you want Jeter to bunt? You need six outs and you can give three runs. Idiocy.
4. This is the weakest point but it still needs to be raised. Why did Washington let Wilson start the 8th? I know the set-up men are not lights out, but once again, as with Ron Gardenhire in Game One of the ALDS, you have Sabathia beaten. If you don’t think Darren O’Day (tied for 7th in the AL in Holds) and Oliver and all the rest are good enough to get you three outs, revert back to Question #1.
The Yankees are, as noted here during the Twins series, Vampires. It is not necessary for the opposing manager to walk his virgins across the field and offer up their necks to them on a platter.
Whether or not his team actually beats the New York Yankees, I have to start this by standing up and applauding Ron Washington’s primary gamble.
Versus All Minnesota LHP 11-39 .282 two 2B, two 3BVersus Fuentes & Mijares 1-7 .143Versus Duensing & Liriano 10-32 .313
Admittedly it’s a small sample (two starts and five relief appearances) but there are some indicators. Though Marcus Thames tattooed Brian Duensing for a home run, none of the Yankee Seven hit a long ball off any of the lefties, even though Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, and Teixeira all batted righty against them.
It is 6-1 Yankees, one out in the top of the eighth, the bases are loaded and Kerry Wood has just left the mound to deafening silence.
While all eight teams are still there (for the moment) I thought this was a suitable time to salute the managers, and show them in the blossom of youth, on minor league (or in two cases, even more exotic) baseball cards from decades back.
A Tidewater set that depicted Bochy). The other one is a rookie and he’s bounced around among three teams this year: TBS, MLB Network, and PeachTree, but he might make it. I mean, if he can survive the experience of being on the Pro Cards’ 1987 Glens Falls Tigers card set, I suppose he can survive anything.