Tagged: Walter Alston
Johnny Orsino, Hall Of Famer
Ah, the joys of spring training games showing up on my television, enabling me fleeting glances between hospital visits of a spring that here in New York seems a long way off.
The first few exhibitions always make me wonder if any player ever made a greater debut than that of a fairly obscure catcher for the Baltimore Orioles during the exhibition season of 1963. In the preceding off-season, the Birds had moved on from the man who had been virtually the only catcher in their modern history, Gus Triandos, and were auditioning a kid with just 43 games of big league experience whom they’d gotten in a winter deal with San Francisco.
Johnny Orsino had shown a power bat in the minors but was an unproven commodity as the Birds assembled in Miami 47 years ago. More over, he was hurt. A bad back forced him to miss Baltimore’s first six exhibition games. So his first at bat in an Orioles uniform on March 15th was by itself something of a triumph.
Orsino promptly hit a three-run homer off Joe Moeller of the Dodgers. In his next at bat, he was accidentally intentionally walked (Boog Powell had been balked to second and manager Walter Alston was gesticulating wildly about the call; Dodger catcher Mike Brumley mistakenly believed he was being inexplicably ordered to walk his Oriole counterpart). In his third trip to the plate, Orsino hit another homer, a solo blast.
He came out of the game at that point, and missed Baltimore’s next two exhibitions. But against veteran Reds’ lefty Jim O’Toole at Al Lopez Field in Tampa on March 18th, Orsino made it three homers in three Baltimore ups. Then four in four. Then five in five.
You read correctly. Not just home runs in five consecutive official at bats, nor just home runs in the first five at bats of spring training, but five consecutive home runs in the first five at bats with a new team. The streak was finally snapped when a Reds’ prospect named John Flavin got Orsino to pop up to the catcher.
Orsino’s unbeatable debut (What? somebody’s going to hit homers in his first six at bats with a new team, even in spring training?) got him considerable attention, and he had a strong season (19-56-.272) as Baltimore’s top receiver in 1964. But the bad back lingered, and he never again played in as many as 100 games in a season. By 1966 the Orioles had dished him off to the Senators, and he spent all but one game of 1967 in the Pacific Coast League, and by 1968 was in Double-A.
But the spring training world was his. It is largely forgotten now, but the Designated Hitter made its debut on the big league level not in 1973, but in a handful of exhibitions in 1969. And the first man to get a hit as “The Designated Pinch Hitter” was a non-roster invitee struggling unsuccessfully to catch on with the Yankees: John Orsino.
I promised no politics here and I stick to it. But I never said anything about never mentioning other sports, although I think I’ll start that rule about a paragraph from now. If you’d like to read the most poorly-informed conclusion I’ve come across in sports media this year, you have your link. Proceed with caution. In short, it is the contention that the comeback of Tiger Woods will be more difficult than the one Muhammad Ali faced in the 1960’s. If the writer can let me know when Woods is punitively drafted by the military even though he is about eight years older than almost all the other draftees, I’ll begin to take him seriously. In the interim I am again left to marvel how somebody can rise to a fairly prominent media position with no discernible insight or talent, save for an apparent ability to mix up a vast bowl of word salad very quickly.
Bunning And Short And Lidge… And Happ?
I don’t really remember the last time I saw him, but it may have been 1987. I never knew his name and I could not then verify his story, but he claimed that he had been at every one of Gene Mauch’s opening days since 1965 (and a lot of other Mauch-managed games, even some in spring training).
His act was always the same. He was there when the park opened, and he stayed till it closed. And any time he thought Mauch could possibly see him, he raised his sign, which read, simply “BUNNING.” If he had one friend with him, that guy carried another sign reading “AND SHORT,” but there was supposedly a three-man version (one fellow with “AND” and the other with “SHORT.”). “He has to be reminded,” I heard the guy say. “He has to be reminded, every year, what he did.”
The vengeful fan’s argument – echoed by a lot of people then and now – was that the infamous Philadelphia Phillies collapse of 1964 was neither organic nor accidental, but the direct result of a crazy managerial strategy pronounced by then-Phils’ skipper Gene Mauch. Around the 13th of September that year, with Ray Culp lost to injury and onetime ace Art Mahaffey shaky, Mauch had pronounced that he wanted the Hall of Fame righty Jim Bunning, and the unsung southpaw Chris Short to each pitch in each of the remaining six series the Phils had to play. “Bunning and Short,” Mauch supposedly said, “these are my men. Bunning and Short.” If Mauch indeed said it on the 13th, he said it when the Phillies still had a six game lead and an 86-57 record.
They would thereafter go 6-13 and between them Bunning and Short would win a total of three games and the Phillies’ collapse would be etched for all-time as the most painful, if not the mathematically worst (they were still 90-60 after play on September 20th, still six-and-a-half up, and then lost 10 of the last 12).
So this fan followed Mauch to Montreal, to Minnesota, to the Angels, and every year trotted out his message of “Bunning And Short.” And Gene Mauch never did get to the World Series, and as history narrows his place in its nooks and crannies, it will be for the collapse, and “Bunning And Short,” that he will be remembered.
And I wonder if Charlie Manuel isn’t going to join him. Inherent in the criticism of Mauch is that there is nothing unforgivable in a manager, other than inflexibility. Indeed, some of the greatest managers have been the ones who have let go of their deathgrip on consistency. Think of Connie Mack starting the washed-up Howard Ehmke in Game One of the 1929 Series. Ehmke was, in fact, Mack’s seventh starter, behind Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove, 24-game winner George Earnshaw, 18-game winner Rube Walberg, and three lesser lights who had each won 11. Ehmke merely set the then-record for strikeouts in a Series. Later skippers like Chuck Dressen used relievers like Joe Black and Clem Labine as Series starters. As late as 1974, Walter Alston was leaning towards starting Mike Marshall – who had only relieved 114 times that year – to start the sixth game against Oakland, if the Dodgers had survived that long. Consider Mayo Smith of the 1968 Tigers deciding, on August 23rd, with his team up by seven-and-a-half games but his shortstop Ray Oyler hitting just .142, that he had better find an alternative – and giving centerfielder Mickey Stanley an audition of exactly nine games before penciling him in at short for Game One of the World Series.
And here is Good ‘Ol Charlie, insistent on closing with Brad Lidge, who has the singular flammability – and more impressive, the endurance – of the infamous Underground Fire Of Centralia, Pennsylvania. I have written before here of the paucity of viable alternatives: Ryan Madson is now at 8/14 in Save conversions this season, but just 13 of 32 lifetime. Brett Myers may not be able to pitch on any nights, let alone consecutive ones. Eyre, Park, and Romero are hurt. Condrey’s a quandary and Durbin’s doubtful.
But whatever his future redemption might be, Lidge is Charlie Manuel’s ticket to Mauch-like infamy. He needs to punt, and he needs to punt now, and he has insisted he will not. And still there is Tyler Walker and his respectable record as a closer, or if this still somehow seems more terrifying than a guy doing the Human Torch act during your three-game failed defense of your World’s Championship, take a page from Chuck Dressen or Walter Alston, mix in a little Mayo Smith, and work in reverse. Nominally, at least, you have six starters, two of whom you will not use as such no matter how long you go in the playoffs.
This is no time to stick to tradition. Crunch the numbers and talk to the men and, if need be, ask for a volunteer. Presumably you cannot envision a world in which you don’t start Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee as often as you can. But are you really risking your rotation if you pick one man out of the other four to serve as your emergency closer?
Interestingly, just a superficial look at data suggests there are two candidates, one of each arm kind. A closer must have, more than any other attribute, the ability to be effective immediately. If you get that first man out in the ninth, your track record with runners-on or in late innings becomes decreasingly relevant. And one Philly starter offers these numbers in the first innings of his games: .219 opposing batting average, .259 opposing on base percentage, less than one base-runner per first inning, 3.41 ERA. Another maps out at a.197 BA, .288 OBP, 1.05 WHIP, 1.35 ERA.
The first guy is Joe Blanton. The second one is J.A. Happ.
Charlie – you can’t get by without one of them in your rotation? Hamels, Lee, Happ, Martinez is too lefty-laden for you? What about Hamels, Lee, Blanton, Martinez? (Parenthetically, if you’re wondering about the others, Hamels has a .238 OBP in the first inning, Lee .268, Martinez .369, Moyer .381. Intuition tells you that a still-rehabbing Pedro might be the choice – the numbers don’t).
The point here, of course, is that if the Phillies swap out Lidge for Blanton or Happ, and it fails, Manuel will be criticized. But at least he won’t be criticized for ignoring the possibility that there was a way of avoiding the iceberg. Fate even offers him one righty and one lefty, to fit whichever kind of rotation he thinks will serve him best against whoever he might face along the way.
The other alternative, I’m afraid, is three guys showing up every day for the rest of Charlie’s managerial career. One has a sign reading “Brad,” the second has one reading “Lidge,” and the third one uses the fireplace lighter for comedic effect.