Tagged: Cooperstown

A Smattering of Intelligence: Martinez, Hurdle, and the HOF Classic

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Along with most rational and reasonable fans, I would expect
that rookie ballplayers, fresh off their recall from the minor leagues, will
run hard and play hard at all times in order to make a good impression. With
that in mind, it is with some sadness that I feel motivated to discuss Fernando
Martinez’ decision not to run out a
pop-up on Wednesday night. As Washington’s Wil
Nieves dropped the ball, Martinez
remained near home plate and nearly 90 feet away from first base, when he
should have been crossing the bag.

 

How can this possibly happen, especially in what was only
the second game of Martinez’
major league career? Believe it or not, there is an explanation. Martinez , the
No. 1 prospect in the Mets’ farm system, has obviously been watching too many major
league highlights from his Triple-A perch with the Buffalo Bisons. For the last
two and a half seasons, the major league Mets have made a painful habit of not running out pop-ups, not running hard on drives to the
outfield wall, not understanding that
you don’t make the third out at third base, and not sliding on close plays at second base or home plate. The Mets
epitomize all that is wrong with the sorry start of baserunning in today’s
game, where the notion of running hard three to four times a game has
mindlessly become optional for too
many contemporary players. (Since when is it so strenuous for major league
athletes to run hard a few times a game?) The Mets have set a terrible example
for fans and young ballplayers, an example that top prospects like Martinez have become all
too obliged to follow.

 

Frankly, the Mets’ baserunning problems have become so
embarrassing that the situation has reached a boiling point. It’s time for
manager Jerry Manuel to take off the kid gloves and adopt a zero tolerance
policy toward lackadaisical baserunning. He needs to say something to this
effect to his ballplayers, veterans and rookies alike: if you don’t run hard, you will sit the bench the following day. If the
problem persists and you again don’t run hard, you will ride the pines for two
days. And so on and so forth.
At this point, the threat of the bench is
perhaps the only way to get through to the Mets’ thick-headed players.

 

Unfortunately, the Mets have been so thick-headed when it
comes to baserunning that if Manuel adopts such a policy, he will probably run
out of players within a week…

 

 

Two years ago, Colorado’s
Clint Hurdle and Arizona’s
Bob Melvin were on top of the world, both men leading their teams to the 2007
National League Championship Series. Both are out of jobs now, after Hurdle was
fired on Friday in what may be the least surprising ousting of a manager in
major league history. The Rockies have played brutal, uninspiring ball all season
for Hurdle, a veteran of seven seasons as Colorado’s skipper. Hurdle has displayed
some unusual tendencies, like often playing for one run during the early
innings of games at the Coors Field hitter’s haven. He has also failed to
motivate his players to play hard, always an indictment of a manager. Of
course, Hurdle has also had to play shorthanded. His best player, Matt
Holliday, is now in Oakland.
His best pitcher, Jeff Francis, is out for the season after surgery. His best
reliever, Brian Fuentes, is now an Angel. 

While some observers could build a reasonable case that
Hurdle deserved longer rope from the Rockies,
there is no reasonable case for the hiring of Jim Tracy, the team’s bench
coach. Tracy
has failed badly in not one, but two managerial stops: first with the Dodgers
and then with the Pirates. Most successful managers possess either a fieriness
that helps them motivate or a strategic acumen that gives them an in-game
advantage; Tracy
appears to have neither of those qualities…

 

 

More names continue to be added to the list of participants for
the first Hall of Fame Classic. Former Yankee Kevin Maas, a one-year wonder in
the Bronx, is the latest retired player to commit to the June 21st old-timers game here in Cooperstown. He will
join other ex-Yankees Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat, Dennis Rasmussen, and Lee Smith,
who all made prior commitments to the game. There have been rumors that two
other former Yankees, Mike Pagliarulo and Chad Curtis, will play in the Hall of
Fame Classic, but neither has been formally announced.

 

Several retired Red Sox will also play at Doubleday Field,
including Steve “Psycho” Lyons, Joe Lahoud, Ferguson Jenkins, Bill “Spaceman”
Lee, and Mike Timlin. Thus far, only two ex-Mets have signed up for the game:
George Foster, better known for his hitting exploits in Cincinnati, and Jeff Kent, who retired after the 2008 season.

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A Conversation With Orlando Cepeda

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Last weekend, the Hall
of Fame opened a new exhibit, Viva Baseball, which chronicles the history of
Latin Americans in the game. Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando
Cepeda, a native of Puerto Rico and one of 11 Latinos currently enshrined in Cooperstown, attended the exhibit opening. During a wide-ranging
conversation with Mark McGuire of the Albany-Times Union, Hall of Fame researcher
Bill Francis, and me, Cepeda talked about his father, Negro Leagues shortstop Perucho
Cepeda, his own experiences playing in San Francisco, and his relationship with
fellow Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente. Humble in discussing his own
accomplishments, Cepeda lavished praise on a number of lesser known Latino
standouts, including Minnie Minoso, Ruben Gomez, and Hector Espino.

 

 

McGuire: What do
you think, looking around this exhibit, seeing your dad’s stuff [on display]?

 

Cepeda: Awesome.
Awesome. Awesome. Incredible. You know, he never saw me play [in the major
leagues]. You know he died one day before I played my first pro game. He died.
I remember like in 1952, I was 15 and I got my knee operation. He had to talk
to the doctor and asked him, “Do you think my son will be able to play ball?”
My father always had it in his mind that someday I would be a ballplayer.

 

McGuire: Who was
better, you or him?

 

Cepeda: He was
better.

 

McGuire: When you
look at the state of Latin players, we think of them as one big group,
regardless of what country they come from. Do you notice different styles of [Latino]
players from different countries? Or is it pretty much the same?

 

Cepeda: The same.
Baseball is [played] one way. They [the Latino players] are the same. So many
great players, from the Dominican, Venezuela, from Cuba, they never had the
opportunity to play in the big leagues–they never made the Hall of Fame–but
they were as good as people who are in the Hall of Fame. So many great Latino
players, like Minnie Minoso, they opened the door for us. He was the first
Latino star in the big leagues, Minnie Minoso. There was also Vic Power, Ruben
Gomez, so many great players that never made it to the Hall of Fame, but they
were very good players.

 

McGuire: What do
you think of the idea that you’re part of an exclusive club here in the Hall of
Fame of Latino players, but it’s pretty much going be doubled [in membership] soon.

 

Cepeda: Yeah, it
is. We’re so proud that we were the first ones in the Hall of Fame. A day like
today will live forever. So that’s why I say thank you to Hall of Fame
president Jeff Idelson for thinking about putting this [exhibit] together. It’s
a great day for Latinos.

 

McGuire: It’s
kind of strange how you growing up couldn’t necessarily have dreamed of playing
in the major leagues [because of skin color], but with Albert Pujols, Jose
Reyes, Johan Santana now, you really can’t picture baseball today without
Latino players?

 

Cepeda: Al Kaline
told me last year that if it weren’t for the Latino player, baseball would have
been dead by now because there are just so many great Latino players today.

 

Markusen:
Earlier, Juan Marichal talked about how you and Felipe Alou helped him when he
first came to the big leagues with the Giants. Who helped you when you first
arrived in San Francisco?

 

Cepeda: Ruben
Gomez. Ruben Gomez. In 1958, I lived with him. You need somebody to work with
you. And that’s what we did with Juan in 1960. We made him feel welcome right
away.

 

Markusen: Of all
the major league cities you played in, which was the most receptive to Latin
Americans?

 

Cepeda: Oh, San Francisco. San
Francisco, because they had so many people from different backgrounds, so much
diversity. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans. So they welcomed me
right away in San Francisco.

 

Francis: Can you
talk about how the Giants embraced the Latin American player? It seems like the
Giants had a lot of Latin Americans. Was it because of Alex Pompez [the scout]?

 

Cepeda: No, it
wasn’t Alex Pompez. The guy who signed me–his wife is here today– was Pete
[Pedrin] Zorrilla. Pedrin, he was very close to Horace Stoneham, the Giants’
owner.

 

At one time, the Giants had like 30 Latinos in the minor
leagues. Manny Mota, Jose Pagan, me. From 1954 on, a lot of Latinos.

 

Francis: Can you
talk about the Alvin Dark incident? Was that the worst experience you had in major
leagues?

 

Cepeda: Yeah,
about that, he told me a few years back that he was very sorry that happened.
He didn’t know the Latino heritage, that for a Latino to come here and do well,
was very difficult. He was very sorry for that.

 

Francis: That
must have been tough.

 

Cepeda: Yeah,
very hard, very hard. Because baseball is a tough game in all aspects, and now
you had to deal with Dark and you had to deal with the pitcher. You had to deal
with the game every day; it was very hard.

 

Markusen: How
close were you with Roberto Clemente?

 

Cepeda: Well, I
knew Roberto since 1950. He played for my dad, you know, for a couple of games,
but didn’t make the team. In 1955, we came here to the states. He came here in
1954, to Montreal.
In ’55, we flew together to Florida for spring
training to Fort Myers,
the Giants’ minor league complex. Yeah, very close. Still very close to the family,
his wife, Roberto Jr., who is here today.

 

Markusen: You
must remember very well where you were when you heard that he had died.

 

Cepeda: Oh yeah,
I was at my brother’s house, when I heard the news.

 

Markusen: Another
player prominently featured in this exhibit is an underrated player, Hector
Espino, who was called the “Babe Ruth of Mexico.” Did you ever play against
Espino?

 

Cepeda: Yeah, I
played against him in 1974. He came up, I believe it was in 1960, with St. Louis. He signed with St. Louis [but never
played in the major leagues]. I played against him in ’74, when he was in the
Mexican League.

 

Markusen: How
good was Espino?

 

Cepeda: Great.
Great hitter.

 

Markusen: Do you
think he would have starred in the majors.

 

Cepeda: Yeah,
yeah. He was a great low ball hitter. If you’re a great low ball hitter, you
can play anywhere.

 

Markusen: Thanks,
Orlando, for
your time.

The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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With Carlos Delgado out of commission for at least two
months and possibly longer, the Mets need to face facts and acquire a first
baseman who can hit with some power. Even with Delgado for most of this season,
the Mets have hit the third fewest home runs among the 30 major league teams;
only the Giants and A’s from the power-starved Bay Area have lower totals. Of
the available first basemen, Nick “The Stick” Johnson appears to be the best
player. According to the estimable Peter Gammons, the Nationals have asked for
right-hander Bobby Parnell in return. As much as Johnson could help, I don’t
see the Mets making that deal. Parnell, who was just clocked at 100 miles per
hour at a weekend game in Fenway
Park, has a full arsenal
of four pitches and could contribute long-term as a No. 3 starter. Given
Johnson’s injury history, the Mets would be wise to hold onto Parnell and
substitute another pitcher or two (Brian Stokes? Sean Green?) in his place…

 

The Mets have also expressed interest in Mark DeRosa, the super-utilityman
who could become the first victim of Cleveland’s
dreadful start. DeRosa’s versatility would be wasted as a first baseman, but he
could always move to left field or second base once Delgado returns in July.
The Mets have received virtually no home run production from their second
basemen or corner outfielders, which points out the lack of depth within their
top-heavy lineup…

 

Is it just me or is anyone else getting sick of Jake Peavy’s
pickiness when it comes to finding a new place to pitch? First, Peavy didn’t
want to go to Atlanta,
and now he’s given the heave-ho to the White Sox, who had agreed to send two
prospects to the Padres. Peavy wants a contract extension to accompany any
trade, and has also indicated that he prefers to play in the National League,
and not the American League. Does Peavy have such little confidence in his
ability that he feels he can’t be successful in the tougher league? If that’s
the case, I’d be awfully hesitant to trade a large package for Peavy,
ostensibly one of the top five or ten starting pitchers in the game. Peavy’s
reticence, along with his inability to get into the seventh or eighth innings,
should serve as red flags to opposing general managers…

 

While the Padres failed in their latest attempt to trade
Peavy, they did execute a minor deal on Friday, sending Jody Gerut to the
Brewers for Tony Gwynn, Jr. Let’s chalk this one up as strictly a public
relations move, as the Padres acquired the son of their first full-fledged Hall
of Famer. At best, the younger Gwynn looks like fourth outfielder material,
hardly a fair return for Gerut, who has some power and can handle all three
outfield positions. If Gerut can stay healthy, he’ll help the surprising
Brewers in the jumbled NL Central…

 

How much longer do the Orioles wait before summoning No. 1
prospect Matt Wieters from Triple-A? The O’s, who are going nowhere in a
stacked AL East, have been playing an aging Gregg Zaun as their first-string
catcher when he’s clearly a backup at this stage of his career. Orioles fan need
some reasons to hope; let that hope begin with the promotion of Wieters…

 

Is it any wonder that the A’s aren’t scoring runs? Not only
have they suffered a huge power outage at McAfee Coliseum, but now they’re
batting Orlando Cabera in the leadoff spot. I actually like Cabrera as a
player, but if he’s a leadoff man, then Perez Hilton is a great journalist…

 

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels might be an early
favorite for American League executive of the year honors. Daniels took a great
deal of heat for some of his offseason moves, like moving Michael Young to
third base, but most of Daniels’ plans seem to be working. The Rangers are much
better defensively with Young at third base and rookie Elvis Andrus at
shortstop, allowing Hank Blalock to concentrate on his hitting skills as a DH.
The signing and revival of Andruw Jones has also paid dividends, giving the
Rangers depth in the outfield and a potential trade chip should they fall out
of contention…

 

The Hall of Fame staged a nice event on Saturday, when it
debuted its new exhibit, “Viva Baseball,” which chronicles the history of Latin
American participation in the sport. Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Juan
Marichal attended the opening, with both speaking eloquently about their pride
in the achievements of such fellow Latino standouts as Felipe Alou, Roberto
Clemente, and Minnie Minoso. A full house of media, including a number of
prominent Latino broadcasters and writers, made for standing room only in the
VIP seating area bordering the exhibit. With its array of vivid colors, selection
of multi-media interviews with Latino Hall of Famers, the impressive
large-screen video board, and the bilingual approach to storytelling, the
exhibit is brilliantly presented…

 

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, two new names have been added
to the roster for the first ever Hall of Fame Classic, scheduled for June 21 in
Cooperstown. Jeff Kent and Mike Timlin, both
retired after finishing their careers in 2008, have committed to play in the
old-timers game scheduled for Doubleday Field. (I could see Kent hitting three or four home
runs while taking shots at the short left-field porch at Doubleday.) Aside from
Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Ferguson Jenkins, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro, and
Brooks Robinson, the Hall can now boast the following headliners for the game: Kent,
Bobby Grich, George Foster, Jim Kaat and Lee Smith. Of those latter five, I’d
vote Kent and Grich for Hall of Fame induction, with tough “no” votes for Kaat
and Smith. And here’s perhaps the best news about the Hall of Fame Classic.
Tickets are only $12.50, a far cry from the small fortune being asked by the
Yankees to attend games at their new stadium.

A Smattering of Intelligence: Managers, Mitts, and Cactus Jack

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Now that Bob Melvin has been fired as the skipper of the
Diamondbacks, the speculation can begin as to which team will be the next to
fire its field manager. The Cleveland Indians could be that team; with a record
of 13-22, the Indians have the worst record in the American League. That may
not bode well for the future of Eric Wedge, who has been on the hot seat ever
since the Indians started last season
so poorly.

 

Many observers have pointed to the Indians as first-class
underachievers, one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Just two months ago,
the Indians were the fashionable pick to win the American League Central, a
balanced division ripe for the taking. Personally, I think that prediction was
a bit of a stretch, considering the departure of CC Sabathia, the regression of
Fausto Carmona, and the unsettled state of Cleveland’s outfield beyond superstar
Grady Sizemore. Still, there’s no question that the Indians have underachieved. They shouldn’t be
buried so many games below .500, just a couple of ticks ahead of the Washington
Nationals, the most dreadful team in either league. There’s just no excuse for
such a poor standing.

 

The Indians will probably give Wedge at least two to three
more weeks before making any kind of a change. If they do, they have two highly
logical candidates in place within their organization. First up is Joel
Skinner, currently their third base coach and now in his ninth year on the
staff. Skinner also has prior managerial experience. He served as the Indians’
interim skipper in 2002. Prior to that, Skinner managed for several years in
the Tribe’s farm system, developing a reputation for winning and developing
young talent. A former catcher, Skinner is very bright and familiar with the
organization from top to bottom. The other top candidate is Torey Lovullo,
currently the manager of the Columbus Clippers, who just so happen to be the
Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. Lovullo’s minor league managerial record is
spotless. He has won two International League titles, the highlight of a resume
that features a winning record every season he’s managed.

 

If none of those candidates are to your liking, then how
about this blast from the past? Mike Hargrove, who left the Mariners in
mid-season two years ago, is also available. He’s scheduled to manager a summer
league team of college prospects, but that contract could be broken in favor of
a return to the Midwest…

 

There’s an old axiom in baseball that says, “Every game you
watch, you’ll see something different, something you’ve never seen before.”
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but baseball is such an unpredictable game
of diverse outcomes that we often do come away seeing something new and without
precedent. That happened to me on Tuesday night, as I watched the game between
the Mets and Braves. In the top of the 10th inning, Mets utilityman
Alex Cora, who’s normally a middle infielder, took over at first base. (Cora
had played the position just once before, back in 2005 with the Red Sox.) After
warming up with a standard issue first baseman’s mitt, Cora decided he wasn’t
comfortable with it, ran to the dugout, and replaced it with a regular infielder’s
glove. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen commented that he had never seen that
before, I thought the same thing. I’ve never
seen a first baseman play the position without a first baseman’s mitt, just
like I’ve never seen a catcher go behind the plate without a standard catcher’s
mitt. It’s something that probably happened during baseball’s early history,
before gloves and mitts became so advanced and specialized. It might have even
happened sometime since World War II, but I just can’t recall it. Perhaps
someone out there has seen a first
baseman play without a mitt. If so, feel free to let us know…

 

Earlier this week, former big league right-hander Jack Billingham
visited the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown.
As Billingham explained to a friend of mine, Hall senior researcher Bill
Francis, he and his wife Jolene, along with his sister and brother-in-law, have
been touring the country in RVs. Along the way, they’ve visited some of Jack’s
old stomping grounds, including Cincinnati (where he pitched most of his career
with the Reds) and Detroit (where he pitched for three seasons late in his
career).

 

This was not Billingham’s first visit to Cooperstown.
Forty years ago, he came to town as part of a contingent with the Astros to
play in the annual Hall of Fame Game. He also has an indirect connection to the
Hall of Fame. Billingham is a distant cousin of Christy Mathewson, part of the
inaugural Hall of Fame Class in 1939.

 

“Cactus Jack,” as he’s sometimes called, remains one of the
most underrated members of Cincinnati’s
“Big Red Machine.” Too often Billingham is remembered for giving up Hank
Aaron’s record-tying 714th home run, and that’s just not fair. While
the Reds’ offensive stars, like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony
Perez, garnered most of the publicity, Billingham turned in workmanlike
performances for a reliable rotation that also included Gary Nolan, Don
Gullett, and Fredie Norman. Durable and consistent, Billingham used a
sinkerball to post consecutive 19-win seasons in 1973 and ’74, before winning a
total of 27 games during the two world championship seasons of 1975 and
’76.  He raised his level of pitching in
World Series play, allowing only one earned run in just over 25 innings, and
still holds the record for lowest ERA in World Series history.

 

Yes, Cactus Jack was pretty good.

Bunts and Boots: Updating the Hall of Fame Classic

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Fans of baseball in the 1970s and eighties will have plenty
of memories to draw from on June 21, when the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic
takes place here in Cooperstown. The list of
retired players who have committed to play in the classic–a seven-inning
old-timers game at Doubleday Field–continues to grow. Last month, the MLB
Alumni Association announced the names of the five Hall of Famers who would
play in the game. Now we’re learning the identities of some of the other
players who will fill out the rosters for the National and American League
teams.

 

The Alumni Association has indicated that it will place a
special emphasis on recruiting players with ties to the Red Sox, Yankees, and
Mets, the three teams followed most rabidly in the Cooperstown
region. With that in mind, here is a rundown of those players who will be
joining Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson, Bob Feller, Ferguson Jenkins, and Phil
Niekro in Cooperstown on Father’s Day Weekend.

 

Bobby Grich: Of
all eligible players not in the Hall of Fame, Grich is one of the best–and one
of the most deserving of enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Hopefully, the Veterans Committee will one day put Grich in the Hall, on the
legitimate merits of his vacuum-like defense at second base, his keen batting
eye, and his surprising power, unusual for middle infielders of his era. Grich
also carried one of the best nicknames–“The Lizard”–during his hey day in the
seventies and eighties.

 

George Foster:
“The Destroyer” should find the short left-field fences at Doubleday Field to
his liking. It’s easy to overlook Foster’s contributions to the “Big Red
Machine,” considering all of the deserved publicity received by former teammates
Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. But let’s not forget his status as one
of the game’s great run producers of the late 1970s, capped off by his 50-home
run season in 1977. Given the Hall of Fame Classic’s slant toward the New York teams, I’ll be
curious to see whether Fosters wears a Mets uniform in the game. His days with
the Mets were not the happiest, especially in contrast to his prime years with
The Machine.

 

Lee Smith: The
king-sized closer has become a frequent visitor to Cooperstown,
though not as a Hall of Fame member. (At least not yet.) I remember the first
time I saw Smith enter a game for the Cubs; as he jogged in from the Wrigley
Field bullpen, he looked absolutely gargantuan,
a cross between a linebacker and a power forward. (Now I know how fans must
have felt when they first saw Dick “The Monster” Radatz.) Once Smith harnessed control of his
fastball, he became one of the dominant relievers of the eighties and nineties.
It seems like he pitched for just about everybody, most notably the Cubs,
Cardinals, and Red Sox, but he also played briefly for the Yankees during their
ill-fated run at the AL East title in 1993.

 

Jim Kaat: Like
Bert Blyleven and Tommy John, “Kitty Kaat” is part of a contingent of longtime
starters who fell just short of the 300-win club but remain on the cusp of
election to the Hall of Fame. Kaat did most of his damage with the Twins and
White Sox, but did pitch briefly for the Yankees in the early 1980s. After a
short retirement from broadcasting, where he excelled on the YES Network’s
coverage of Yankee games, Kaat has returned to the booth as an analyst with the
new MLB Network. Even though Kaat is now in his seventies, he keeps himself in
terrific physical condition, so don’t be surprised to see him log a couple of
innings in the HOF Classic.

 

Jon Warden: This
former Tigers left-hander pitched only one season in the big leagues, but it
was a memorable one, coinciding with Detroit’s
world championship in 1968. Though his career was cut short by subsequent arm
trouble, Warden has made a name for himself as one of baseball’s funny men. A
sort of modern day Joe Garagiola, Warden enjoys poking fun at himself, his
hefty physique (he’s the anti-Kaat), and any players who do anything the least
bit embarrassing during the Alumni Association gatherings. If the HOF Classic
has a “Kangaroo Court,” Warden will surely serve as the presiding judge. And,
much like Garagiola or Bob Uecker, he will get his deserved share of laughs.

 

Bill Lee: Like
Warden, Lee will bring plenty of color to Cooperstown
for the Classic. Always outspoken, “The Spacemen” has forged a reputation as an
idiosyncratic rebel and offbeat philosopher. He became a cult figure in Boston, where he
eventually feuded with Don Zimmer. After his major league playing days came to
an end, Lee has traveled the globe as a semipro pitcher, written two critically
acclaimed books, emerged as a star on Ken Burns’ Baseball, and even managed a team in the now-defunct Senior League.
Not surprisingly, Lee drew the ire of management and received his walking
papers after only a handful of games.

 

Steve Rogers: A
teammate of Lee with the Expos, Rogers emerged as one of the National League’s
top starters in the late seventies and early eighties, in spite of a testy
relationship with manager Dick Williams. Along the way, he claimed five berths
in the All-Star Game, a league ERA crown in 1982, and two huge wins for Montreal in the 1981
Division Series. Highly intelligent and well spoken, Rogers has become a high-ranking member of
the Players’ Association, where he reports to union chief Donald Fehr.  

 

Johnny Grubb:
Though he had a name that rhymed with “scrub” and played much of his prime
years with some dreadful Padres and Rangers teams in the 1970s, Grubb was an
underrated offensive player who did well in a platoon role, usually as a
sure-handed left fielder. The owner of a lifetime on-base percentage of .366,
the lefty-swinging Grubb did his best work against right-handed pitching. He
lasted 16 seasons, long enough to earn an All-Star Game selection and pick up a
world championship ring as a backup outfielder for the 1984 Tigers. After his
playing days, Grubb served as one of Phil Niekro’s coaches with the Colorado
Silver Bullets, the now-defunct women’s professional team.

 

Joe Lahoud: Like
Grubb, Lahoud was a left-handed hitting outfielder who had to scrape for
playing time. Lahoud didn’t hit for average and had a reputation as a poor
defensive outfielder, but he did draw walks and hit with power, making him a
subtle contributor to teams like the Brewers and Angels. During the early stage
of his career, Lahoud found himself caught in the middle of the Red Sox feud
that developed between Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro. Lahoud was
friendly with both players, but the clubhouse tension contributed to the trade
that sent him and Tony C. to Milwaukee
as part of the George Scott-Tommy Harper blockbuster.

 

Jim Hannan: The
former Senators and Tigers right-hander is best known for being part of the
Denny McLain blockbuster. Along with Aurelio Rodriguez and Eddie Brinkman,
Hannan went from Washington to Detroit as part of the
payoff for McLain. At age 69, Hannan will be one of the oldest retired players to
participate in the Classic. He’ll also be one of the most outgoing, an
energetic sort who has done some terrific work in building the Alumni
Association since its inception in the early eighties.

 

Other players scheduled to participate in the Classic
include utilityman Steve “Psycho” Lyons, now a broadcaster with the Dodgers, former
big league right-handers Ron Robinson, Anthony Telford,
and John Doherty, and ex-Yankee left-hander Dennis Rasmussen. An additional
five players will be added to the rosters for the Father’s Day game, with those
announcements coming over the next several weeks. As always, we’ll try our best
to keep you posted.

The Hammer Hits The Hall

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In trying to answer the question, “Who is the greatest
living player?,” only a few players even enter the discussion. Willie Mays
comes to mind, as does his controversial godson, Barry Bonds. Fans mindful of
the game’s history may want to include Stan Musial in the conversation. A few
bold contemporary fans might even throw Albert Pujols into the fray, even
though he is still in the midst of career greatness.

 

The other man who deserves to be mentioned in this
discussion actually visited Cooperstown on
Saturday. Hank Aaron, the game’s longtime home run king who is now second on
the all-time longball list, came to Cooperstown
to participate in the opening of a sparkling new exhibit, known as “Chasing the
Dream,” which details the life and career of “The Hammer.”

 

Aaron has long wanted the Hall of Fame to honor him with an
exhibit. Clearly, he believes he deserves it. When asked what it meant to join
Babe Ruth as the only men to have entire rooms dedicated to them at the Hall,
Aaron did not supply a politically correct answer that smacked of humility. “It
means I’m supposed to be on the same platform [as Ruth]. I’m proud of what I’ve
accomplished.”

 

I can’t say that I would argue with The Hammer. Given his
ceaseless consistency, his sustained brilliance, his unquestioned success in
the face of racism and hatred, Aaron deserves a special place in the Cooperstown museum. Aaron was not the most colorful or
flashy of ballplayers–he didn’t hit tape measure home runs and he didn’t run
out from under his cap–but he was, if you will, a workmanlike superstar. He was
a true five-tool player who graded out as excellent in all departments:
hitting, speed, defensive prowess, strength of throwing arm, and, of course,
power. And he remained a high-level player well into his late thirties, at a
time when most other stars of his and earlier eras had begun to show
significant levels of decline.

 

Aaron’s accomplishments become even more impressive in the
face of the shackles that were placed on him early in life. He grew up as part
of a poor family in Mobile,
Alabama. “As a black kid, we
didn’t have that many things to do. You either had sports or you could become a
schoolteacher. There was not many things you could do.”

 

As a youth, Aaron impressed scouts from the Negro Leagues
enough to merit his first professional contract. “I was signed from the
sandlots of Mobile,”
Aaron told a packed house in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. “I got $200
per month. Back then, that was big money,” Aaron said with a chuckle. “I had
been making nothing in Mobile.”

 

During Negro Leagues stints with the Bears and the Indianapolis
Clowns, Aaron caught the eyes of the Boston Braves, who would soon become the
Milwaukee Braves. The Braves gave Aaron a raise, but sent him to Jacksonville of the South
Atlantic League. Aaron made history by becoming part of a contingent that broke
the league’s longstanding color barrier. “We had three black players on that
team. I had a very good year. I led the league in everything but hotel
accommodations.”

 

Not only did Aaron and his two black teammates have to stay
in separate hotels and eat in different restaurants; they had to endure uncivil
behavior at the games. “The problem we had was with spectators. We had a rough
time in the South. It got ridiculous.

 

“At some ballparks, we could not dress in the clubhouse. If
you went 0-for-4, the fans would throw bananas at us. After the game, we would
be at the [boarding] house together and say to ourselves, ‘How silly is this?’
Some people were so hateful to us.”

 

Such abusive and outward racism subsided when Aaron received
his first call to play for the Braves. “Milwaukee
was a great city,” Aaron said unequivocally. “If not for Milwaukee, I didn’t know if I’d be a
ballplayer. The fans were really good. I give them all the credit.”

 

Aaron not only started his big league career in Milwaukee, but he
finished it there. When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron moved with them,
staying there long enough to hit his record-breaking 715th home run
in those gaudy blue and white Braves uniforms. After that historic 1974 season,
the Braves sent him back to Milwaukee–by
now the home of the Brewers. Aaron played two seasons with the Brewers as a DH,
before retiring at the end of the 1976 season. He realized that it was
appropriate to call it quits. “The last year in Milwaukee, Del
Crandall was the manager. I slid into what I thought was a base, but the base
was 15 feet away. I knew it was time.”

 

Just like it was time for the Hall of Fame to create an
exhibit in his honor. It’s tastefully done and aesthetically pleasing, with a collage of
Aaron photos as you first enter, followed by four distinct sections that
chronicle The Hammer’s youth, his minor league days, his halcyon major league
career, and the good work he’s done after baseball, highlighted by his “Chasing the Dream” foundation.

Thirty five years after succeeding Ruth, Aaron and the Babe now stand alone–with rooms all to themselves–right here in Cooperstown.

Card Corner: Sweet Lou Piniella

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Piniella.JPG

In 1984, Topps printed its final card for Lou Piniella as a
player. Even though he was hitting .302 at the time, Piniella realized that he
was blocking the way of younger outfielders in the organization and agreed to
retire in the midst of that season. The sweet swing, the reliable hands, and
the clubhouse agitation–all prominent features of the longtime Yankee–departed
the Bronx to make room for a new wave of outfield youth.

 

Piniella was one of the last remnants of Gabe Paul’s regime
as Yankee general manager. After the 1973 season, Paul sent aging reliever
Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella, who had won the American League’s
Rookie of the Year in 1969 but had slumped to a .250 batting average and a .291
on-base percentage during his final season in Kansas City. Paul figured that Piniella had
endured an off year, nothing more. Piniella fit Yankee needs precisely–given
their lefty-leaning lineup–providing them a semi-regular outfielder and DH who
would play against all left-handers and occasionally against right-handers,
too. In three of his first five seasons in pinstripes, Piniella hit .305 or
better while filling in day-to-day gaps in left field, right field, and at DH. He
became a vital complementary piece to the world championship teams of 1977 and
’78, culminating in his miraculous “stop” of Jerry Remy’s sun-screened line
drive in the tiebreaking playoff game of 1978.

 

Aside from his one-hop snare of Remy’s drive, I’ll remember two
features of Piniella’s game more than others. First, he owned one of the best
opposite-field strokes of any hitter I’ve seen. As he took his stance, he kept
his hands back, wrapped almost behind his right shoulder. With his left
shoulder tucked in and his back visible to the pitcher, Piniella pushed the
ball toward right field with the same kind of ease and precision that most
players reserve for their pull side. Then there was his reliability in the
field. Though he lacked speed and had nothing more than an average throwing
arm, Piniella possessed hands of velvet. If he could reach a fly ball, he
caught it. And whenever he pounded his fist into his glove, he was sure to make
the play.

 

Piniella’s line-drive stroke and sure hands represented the
best of his talents. But he had his critics–Clete Boyer was among them–those
who felt that he was vastly overrated. Piniella didn’t hit with much power,
rarely drew walks, and ran the bases poorly, sometimes atrociously. Most of his
value was tied up in his batting average. If he batted .300 or better, he could
help you, but if he hit anything less, he was just wasting at-bats that could
have gone to Roy White or Cliff Johnson.

 

While with the Yankees, Piniella also enhanced his
reputation as “Sweet Lou,” which had begun to form with Jim Bouton’s revealing
passages about him in Ball Four. As
is common with many nicknames, the origins of “Sweet Lou” derived from the
theory of opposites. Like the 400-pound guy who is called “Tiny,” both friends
and detractors of Piniella referred to him as Sweet Lou because of his sour
moods, sarcastic sense of humor, and his explosive temper tantrums. On the
field, his displays of anger, including incidents of helmet-and dirt-kicking,
sometimes reached comic proportions.

 

I first encountered Piniella three years after his
retirement from playing. By then, he was the Yankees’ manager, one of many
successors to Billy Martin. In 1987, the Yankees played the Braves in the Hall
of Fame Game here in Cooperstown. Aside from
recalling the hijinx of Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington
at the Sheraton Hotel in UticaHe’s telling
me to go away
, I thought to myself. Stopping dead in my tracks, I soon
realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else, someone he knew.
Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me,
I was nonetheless intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of Sweet Lou.

(that’s an article for another day), my strongest memory of that weekend
involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio, I had the assignment of
doing on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my
prime interviews. I made my way in his direction amidst an army of media types
that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact each other. As I drew
closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a
dismissive wave of the hand.

 

Piniella did not return to Cooperstown
until last year, when his Cubs were scheduled to play the Padres in the final
Hall of Fame Game. The two teams never actually played, the game canceled after
several downpours of rain. Unfortunately, Piniella provided the other downer of
the day. During the pre-game parade that made its way down Main Street,
Piniella made it obvious he wanted to be anywhere but Cooperstown, underscoring
some earlier negative comments he had made about having to travel to upstate
New York. According to my spies, a number of fans screamed “Lou! Lou,” hoping
that Piniella would wave–or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown,
maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place.

 

In spite of my disappointment in Piniella’s dismissive
attitude toward the Hall of Fame Game, I like him as a manager. Except for Tampa Bay,
he’s consistently posted winning records, even for teams with a recent history
of failure. Last year, Piniella guided the Cubs into the postseason for a
second straight fall (though the team followed up with a second straight early
exit from the playoffs). It’s amazing the impact that he continues to have on
his teams offensively, whether it was in New York
in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City
in the 2000s. When Piniella took over Chicago’s helm four years ago, the Cubs
found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described
as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs.
By 2008, Piniella’s philosophy had taken hold. Aside from Alfonso Soriano,
almost all of Chicago’s
hitters worked the count capably last summer. Youngsters like Geovany Soto
thrived under Piniella, as did seemingly past-their-prime veterans like Jim
Edmonds. Even the role players, from Mark DeRosa to Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson,
make ample contributions. It’s no wonder that the Cubs scored 855 runs, putting
them well ahead of all teams in the National League. Simply put, runs
scored translated into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella
long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.

 

So with Piniella, you take the bad–the temper tantrums and
the moodiness–with the good. Just a few weeks ago, Piniella unleashed another
tirade, this one directed at ESPN’s Steve Phillips. The former Mets general
manager had dared to mention that the presence of an impatient manager like
Piniella made life more difficult for Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese player who
faced an extremely difficult transition to American culture. I thought it was a
fair point by Phillips, but Piniella took it as a personal insult.


There will likely be more tantrums from Piniella this
season, whether it be a public scolding of the media, an angry mound lecture to
a wild Cubs pitcher, or a childish dirt-kicking of an umpire. That’s Sweet Lou
for you: good player, better manager, and ready to scowl at a moment’s
notice.