Tagged: Ballplayers

Cooperstown Clippings–Mick the Quick, Moeller, and Sexson

With Hall of Fame weekend only two weeks away, plans are intensifying for the annual midsummer celebration of baseball nostalgia and history.  In addition to the 50 Hall of Famers expected to be in Cooperstown for the July 27 induction ceremony, there will be the usual supplement of retired ballplayers making appearances in and around Main Street. CVS Pharmacy, now in its second year of hosting player signings, will feature Mickey Rivers and Bobby Shantz. “Mick the Quick,” one of baseball’s most offbeat characters, should be a popular figure in these parts because of his connection to the championship Yankees teams of 1976 to ’78; the same could be said of the affable Shantz, who will be making his first visit to Cooperstown in years. Shantz pitched for the Yankees from 1957 to 1960, appearing in two World Series along the way…

Speaking of the Yankees, many of their fans continue to ask themselves why Chad Moeller is being kept on the roster as a third catcher. Moeller hasn’t appeared in a game since July 2 (approximately ten days ago) and hasn’t started a game behind the place since the final days of May (almost two weeks running). Brian Cashman’s insistence (or is it Joe Girardi’s?) on carrying the light-hitting Moeller has crippled Girardi in the late innings of games, often leaving him without decent pinch-hitting or pinch-running options. Perhaps the Yankees need to be reminded that this isn’t 1978 anymore, and that with 12 to 13 pitchers hogging roster spots, it makes little sense to carry three catchers, especially when two (Moeller and Jose Molina) can’t hit…

No one should have been surprised when the Mariners finally cut their losses by releasing Richie Sexson this week. Already a poor defensive first baseman, Sexson had become an offensive wasteland, his production declining every year since his injury shortened 2004 campaign with the Diamondbacks. As badly as Sexson has played, he won’t be out of work for too long. His numbers against left-handed pitching are decent, which will make him desirable to a team like the Twins, Yankees, or Blue Jays.

 

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Tygiel, Mays, and The O-Tigers

One of baseball’s best authors lost a lengthy battle with cancer on Tuesday. Jules Tygiel, who wrote the seminal book, Baseball’s Great Experiment, died at the age of 59. For those who consider themselves historians of the game, Tygiel’s book is a must-read. Written in an in-depth academic style, it meticulously tracks the integration of major league baseball, highlighted by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ “experiment” of bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues. He also wrote the critically acclaimed Pastime, a compilation of baseball essays.  I had the privilege of meeting Jules on two occasions. In 1995, he served as the keynote speaker for the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and culture. During his visit, he provided the Hall of Fame with some valuable feedback on the museum’s new exhibit about the African-American baseball experience. A few years later, I ran into Jules at the SABR Convention in Boston, where I thanked him for writing a review about my first book, A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. It wasn’t a rave review; in fact, he had several criticisms of the book, primarily concerning my lack of familiarity with Oakland and the Bay Area. But he also had some good things to say. Heck, I was just thrilled that someone as knowledgeable and acclaimed as Tygiel took the time to review it in the first place. That was a reward in and of itself. And it’s an honor for any author who can say that he shares the same profession with someone like Jules Tygiel…

Baseball fans in the Cooperstown received some lukewarm news this week with the announcement that the nearby Oneonta Tigers, who have just been sold, will remain in Oneonta for at least two and a half more seasons. But there is no guarantee that new owner Miles Prentice will keep the franchise in central New York beyond 2010. I know very little about Prentice (other than the fact that he owns other minor league teams, including the Huntsville Stars), but the decision by Sam Nader to sell the franchise is tinged with sadness. Nader has kept the franchise in Oneonta since the late 1960s, in spite of mediocre attendance and an aging ballpark. In running the team like a family business, Nader has maintained a strong connection to the region encompassing Otsego County. Hopefully, Prentice will be able to foster the same kind of relationship. Otherwise, the area will be losing yet another baseball franchise, only months after learning that the Hall of Fame Game had come to an abrupt end…  

Thanks to faithful reader “dontcallmemikey,” we’re now displaying a new card on the homepage. It’s a 1966 Willie Mays, No. 1 in that season’s Topps set. Somehow, after all these years, Mays remains underrated. When Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were still alive, they were generally acclaimed as the “greatest living ballplayers.” Mays was rarely afforded that honor. Even now, with “Joe D” and the “Splendid Splinter” gone and Barry Bonds’ reputation tainted by steroids, Mays is not always the first answer raised in response to that cumbersome question. I that know that a strong argument can be made for Bonds or Stan Musial, but I’ll take Mays and his legitimate five-tool capabilities. “Say Hey” regularly slugged .580 or better despite playing most of his career during the depressed offensive years of the 1960s, drew a ton of walks, stole bushels of bases, played a wonderful center field (second only to Paul Blair among players I’ve seen), and may have been the greatest baserunner of the past 60 years.  He literally had no weakness in his game, not one. Yes, I’ll take Willie Mays.

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–The Bench, The Twins, and The Bullies

It’s amazing how a team with nearly unlimited financial resources can annually put together one of the worst benches in all of baseball. Yet, somehow the Yankees manage to do it, which leads me to believe that Brian Cashman does not know how to construct a bench. How else to explain a current bench that includes Jose Molina, Chad Moeller, and Alberto Gonzalez, three offensive nonentities that basically cripple Joe Girardi’s ability to pinch-hit in the late innings? Then there’s backup outfielder Justin Christian, a non-prospect who wasn’t even on the team’s 40-man roster at the start of the season.

The Yankees really haven’t had a productive bench since 2000, when Cashman smartly pulled off mid-season deals for useful veterans like Jose Vizcaino, Luis Sojo, Glenallen Hill, and Luis Polonia. With those four players, the Yankees had backups capable of covering three infield positions, two outfield slots, and capable pinch-hitters from the left (Polonia) and the right sides (Hill). In 2008, the Yankees have exactly one bench player capable of providing a dose of offense, and that’s Wilson Betemit. And with Hideki Matsui now on the disabled list, the Yankees will probably play Betemit every day, further depleting their paper-thin bench. In the meantime, the Yankees continue the ridiculous practice of carrying three catchers (who does that anymore?), with two of them being identical good-field/no-hit types in Molina and Moeller.

If the Yankees end up missing the playoffs by a game or two, a lot of critics will point to the depleted starting rotation and the inconsistent offense. We could just as easily point fingers at the bench, which looks more and more like a frightening by-product of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory…

When the Twins lost Torii Hunter to free agency, finally traded Johan Santana, and then handed their center field reins to the seemingly overmatched Carlos “GoGo” Gomez, most fans (including this one) penciled them in to finish no better than third in the stacked American League Central. For the moment, at least, we can forget about such preseason predictions. As we approach the halfway point of the season, the Twins are solidly entrenched in second behind the surprising White Sox, having won ten of their last 11 games. They are scoring runs in bushels, even though they lack power throughout their order. So how are the Twins doing it? They score runs primarily because of a remarkable ability to hit with runners in scoring position (RISP), with a batting average of nearly .315 in such situations. As Tim Kurkjian of ESPN pointed out over the weekend, the Twins are the only major league team that actually simulates situations with runners on base during their batting practice sessions. This is unheard of in the major leagues, which makes me wonder why? So many hitters waste batting practice by trying to hit tape measure home runs, instead of working on situations that are more likely to come up in that evening’s game. Additionally, hitters should be encouraged to take BP pitches that are not strikes, as opposed to swinging at anything that is close. As with hitting with RISP, this would foster better habits from hitters, who might be more patient at the plate during the games. Batting practice might not be as fun to watch that way, but it would seemingly be more productive for those teams willing to take a thinking-man’s approach to this longstanding pre-game routine…

Unlike some Internet pundits, I find nothing amusing or endearing in the two off-field incidents that have grabbed headlines over the last week. The first involved Shawn Chacon’s despicable attack against GM Ed Wade. The second, for those who may have missed it, involved Manny Ramirez, who shoved the team’s traveling secretary after being told that he could not have any additional complimentary tickets for an upcoming game. Chacon has already been dumped by the Astros–and let’s hope the Players’ Association displays a shred of decency here by not filing a grievance against Houston–while Ramirez faces no sanctions after delivering an apology. What Ramirez did was bullying, plain and simple, as he tried to exert some power over a lesser-paid employee. (Like most decent-minded folks, I can’t stand a bully.) Let’s face it, if this involved someone in anything but the entertainment or sports industry, he or she would have been fined or suspended, or possibly fired. Now I’m not calling for the Red Sox to “fire” Ramirez, or even suspend him, but I do think there should be some sort of discipline enforced. The Red Sox should require Ramirez to make an appearance for charity, or perform some other act of community service. Otherwise athletes will get the idea that they can bully anyone–and will only to have to apologize for it after the fact.

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Junior, The Phillies, and Cards

Having just returned from Philadelphia, I saw members of the Philly media begin to sow small seeds of panic over the Phillies’ recent struggles. The Phillies didn’t win a single game during my recent visit there–covering Wednesday through Sunday–thereby stretching their losing streak to five games. Much of the media and fan focus has centered on Chase Utley, who was enduring a career-worst 0-for-24 slump before finally breaking out with a base hit on Sunday.

Utley’s woes have certainly posed a problem, but they’re just one of several deficiencies that have sprung leaks at Citizens Bank Park. The high-octane offense as a whole has struggled of late, particularly with runners in scoring position. Ryan Howard’s season-long swandive has drained the middle of his order; his .220 batting average, .318 on-base percentage, and 107 strikeouts (putting him well on pace for over 200 K’s) have short-circuited far too many rallies. If neither he nor Jimmy Rollins play like an MVP candidate, the Phillies will struggle to win the NL East. They also need much more from journeyman Geoff Jenkins, who has played too much like Milt Thompson and too little like Bobby Abreu.

Then there’s the starting pitching, which remains questionable beyond lefty ace Cole Hamels. Brett Myers has been borderline awful. If he pitches up to his potential, the Phillies can boast a 1-2 pitching punch as good as any team in the East. If Myers’ ERA continues to hover near five and a half, the Phillies will have a dogfight trying to fend off the Mets and the Braves. They simply don’t get enough innings from Jamie Moyer, or enough quality from backenders Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton.

Still, the Phillies have plenty of weapons that make them one of the teams to beat in the East. Their offense is capable of cutting a huge swath, especially if Utley, Howard, and Rollins find their strokes the way that Pat “The Bat” Burrell has. They also have a surprisingly good bullpen (where Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Chad Durbin all have ERAs below 1.50) and a terrific bench, headlined by the versatile righty/lefty duo of Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs, and a superb backup catcher in Chris Coste…

Over the weekend, Ken Griffey, Jr. created a stir when he was asked to name his favorite memory of Yankee Stadium, now in its final season. Griffey’s response? “Leaving Yankee Stadium.” It seems that Griffey is still angry with the Yankees because of an incident that happened in the mid-1980s, when Yankee skipper Billy Martin threw “Junior,” the son of then Yankee outfielder Ken Griffey, Sr., out of the clubhouse.

When I worked in radio, I made a small cottage industry out of criticizing the younger Griffey. He gave me plenty of material to work with during his early days with Seattle, from his proclaimed ignorance of Jackie Robinson, to his unwillingness to promote the Mariners at a time when the franchise was in danger of being moved, to his refusal to accept an invitation to Bill Clinton’s White House. And then, slowly but surely, Griffey began to show maturity. He played hard and didn’t complain, becoming an upbeat, positive force for baseball. Heck, I had actually jumped onto the Griffey bandwagon.

Just when Griffey had made me a believer, he stirred up this old grudge. As a former president once said, “There you go again.” This ridiculous, never-ending grudge against the Yankees is just so silly and petulant on so many counts. Here are a few:

*Billy Martin didn’t like kids in the clubhouse, whether they be players’ kids or the general manager’s kids. Griffey wasn’t the first child to be given the heave-ho by Billy the Kid, and he almost certainly wasn’t the last.

*Martin is now deceased. In fact, he’s been gone for 19 years. Therefore, he no longer works for the Yankees. Joe Girardi and the current Yankee players have little or no connection to Billy Martin.

*How many years ago did this incident occur? It had to have been more than 20 years ago since the elder Griffey last played for the Yankees in 1986. Is this the worst thing that has ever happened to Junior in his life? If so, he has led a charmed existence.

Enough already. It’s time to move on. Find something new to complain about…

Finally, we’ll be taking your baseball card suggestions for our home page for the rest of Monday and Tuesday. Just post your suggestion and give us a short reason (a paragraph or two) explaining why you’d like that card to be featured here at “Cooperstown Confidential.” Thanks in advance for your recommendations.

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Guillen & The Position Switch

The constant shifting of Carlos Guillen from one position to another has raised a few chuckles across the major leagues. After starting the season at a relatively new position, first base, Guillen was then asked to move to third base. And then over the weekend, Tigers skipper Jim Leyland announced that Guillen would now play left field, which he did without incident on Sunday. Counting shortstop, that makes four positions for Guillen over the last two seasons. To his credit, Guillen has handled the shapeshifting without complaint, in contrast to the way that most current major leaguers take umbrage over being asked to even consider a position change.

So what should we make of the latest move involving Guillen? It does make some sense, principally because it enables Brandon Inge, the Tigers’ best defensive third baseman, to return to his preferred position of expertise. Guillen also seems to have the athletic ability to make the move. After all, if you can play shortstop in the major leagues, you can probably play the outfield, assuming you have the requisite arm strength. I think Guillen, given his athleticism and attitude, will make a decent adjustment this summer.

Generally speaking, I think it’s easier to move from the infield to the outfield than the other way around (excluding switches to first base, the easiest of all the positions). The Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano has done fairly well, exchanging his below-average defense at second base for a level of respectable fielding in left field. Pete Rose, originally a second baseman, became an excellent outfielder, with enough of an arm to play right field for the Reds, in addition to left. Former Orioles’ switch-hitter Don Buford also made a successful move from second base to left field, just the way that Soriano has. With the Yankees, Bobby Murcer developed into a very good center fielder after flopping at shortstop. In more recent times, Ron Gant become much more acceptable in left field than he was at second base, where he was simply awful. Danny Tartabull, originally a second baseman with the Mariners, made a similar shift to right field. Tartabull never became a particularly skilled outfielder, but he wasn’t horrible, and could throw well from his post in the outfield.

Still, there are no guarantees when it comes to switching from the infield to the outfield. Steve Sax and Jorge Orta moved from second base to left field with less than rousing success, but then again they had to be moved somewhere because of their defensive problems on the infield. Sax never adjusted to left field, as he struggled both in terms of getting jumps and taking good routes. Orta probably would have struggled anywhere a glove was required; he had rocklike hands and a below-average throwing arm. Then there are those who tried to switch to center field, the most demanding of the outfield positions. The Mets know all about that. Howard Johnson was a failure in center field after being switched from third base. Juan Samuel, after coming over in the Lenny Dykstra deal, failed to make a smooth transition from second base to center field.

Moving catchers to the outfield can be a recipe for disaster. Manny Sanguillen, Carlton Fisk, and Todd Hundley come immediately to mind. In Sanguillen’s case, he tried to replace the late Roberto Clemente in right field, an extremely difficult task given his close friendship with The Great One. Fisk and Hundley each moved to the outfield as part of an effort to make room for other catchers, Joel Skinner and Mike Piazza, respectively. Fisk’s age and Hundley’s lack of athleticism doomed each of them to failure.

Only two players that I can remember made successful transitions from behind the plate to the outer limits. Former Dodger and Cardinal Joe Ferguson played acceptably in the outfield, mostly because he had a terrific arm from right field. And then there is Dale Murphy, whose throwing problems resulted in a switch to center field, where his instincts and speed helped him become a Gold Glover. A player like Murphy stands as the golden exception to this rule.

So how about the other end of the spectrum, involving outfielders who have made the move to the infield? I can’t think of many outfielders who made successful switches to third base or second base, or even tougher, shortstop. Teams too often try to make the outfield-to-third base-switch, but that’s only resulted in famous failures like Amos Otis and Hensley Meulens. Perhaps the greatest successful move from the outfield to the infield, as pointed out by an astute reader, involved Hall of Famer Honus Wagner. Originally an outfielder, Wagner became arguably the greatest shortstop in major league history. Wagner didn’t take a direct route to shortstop; instead, he played second base, then some third base and second base, before gradually moving to shortstop. He didn’t become a fulltime shortstop until 1903–his seventh season in the National League.

On a lesser but still significant note, Mickey Stanley made a pretty good short-term transition to shortstop for the ’68 World Series, but then moved back to the outfield the following season. Perhaps the Tigers can hope for a similar scenario in 2008. If they somehow rebound to make the World Series, and Edgar Renteria slumps at the plate, they can always move Guillen back to his old haunt at shortstop.

Lurch, Piazza, and Berkow

Whenever “Lurch,” the gigantic but loveable butler on the “Addams Family,” felt motivated to offer a negative opinion in response to the happenings in Gomez’ and Morticia’s mansion, he groaned pathetically in his uniquely baritone voice, “Uhhhhhhhhhh.” That’s exactly how I’m tempted to answer when asked to assess the performance of the Yankees over the first 45 games of the season.

At this writing, the Yankees are 20-25–and boy, have they earned every bit of that dismally disappointing record. While the injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada haven’t helped, they only begin to scratch the surface in accounting for the Yankees’ abysmal effort over the first quarter of the season. Even when A-Rod and Posada have played, the Yankees have struggled to score runs. Other than Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu, Yankee batters don’t work the count and draw walks like they once did. When they do put runners on base, they don’t deliver clutch hits. Defensively, the Yankees always seem to be a step short, whether it’s Derek Jeter’s lack of range and his scattershot arm, Jason’s Giambi’s imitation of Dick Stuart at first base, Johnny Damon’s ragtag Venus de Milo arm, or Abreu’s bizarre fear of outfield walls. (Doesn’t he know that most of the walls are padded these days?) Then there’s the starting pitching, which has been mostly brutal on days when Chien-Ming Wang and Darrell Rasner haven’t pitched, and has been lowlighted by the dismal efforts of heralded right-handers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

In addition to the tangible deficencies, the Yankees have displayed little in terms of attitude and atmosphere. They play most nights without energy, enthusiasm, or urgency, another symptom of a team that is too old in too many positions. Unfortunately, management has done little to address the situation. Jor Girardi seems to have a mortal fear of putting on the hit-and-run or the stolen base, while GM Brian Cashman has mostly sat on his hands since re-signing A-Rod, Posada, and Mariano Rivera.

When it comes to blame in the Bronx, fingers can accurately be pointed in many different directions…

At times, Mike Piazza could be one of the most arrogant and aloof of athletes, especially when it came to dealing with (or simply avoiding) basic questions from the media. He also lost some respect in a few circles when he essentially went through the motions in trying to learn first base late in his career with the Mets. But none of that should detract from this simple fact: Mike Piazza was the greatest hitting catcher the sport has ever seen. (Johnny Bench is the best I’ve ever seen on the defensive side of the ball, but Bench didn’t hit with the kind of consistency or plate discipline that Piazza had in his prime.) Piazza is such a leadpipe cinch to be elected to the Hall of Fame after his five-year waiting period elapses that it’s almost pointless to engage in a debate about his merits for Cooperstown; he’s as worthy as Bench, Berra, Josh Gibson and the other catching icons of the last 70 years. Perhaps as much as anything, I’ll remember Piazza for that classic follow-through on his maximum effort swing, an approach that gave him remarkable power to both center and right field. They’ll be showing highlights of that trademark swing for years to come in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater… 

On a completely different note, the Hall of Fame has settled on a keynote speaker for its upcoming annual symposium on baseball and American culture. The choice is longtime New York Times columnist Ira Berkow. While I’m no fan of the Times, Berkow is an excellent selection. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of more than ten books, including a tome on legendary sportswriter Red Smith.