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Less than six weeks into the season, the Diamondbacks have
decided that a major change is in order for their underachieving team. By
sacking Bob Melvin and hiring front office farm director A.J. Hinch to manage
the team, the D-Backs have signaled a radical change in the direction of their
on-field leadership. Hinch has no prior managing or coaching experience at any
level, not even in rookie ball. What he does have is an eye for young talent,
an ability that the D-Backs hope will translate into an ability to develop that talent. The latter area is
where Melvin fell short; too many of Arizona’s talented young players (like Mark
Reynolds and Chris Young) have failed to become significantly better than they were in
2007, when the Baby Backs came within two games of the World Series.
Did Melvin deserve to get fired? Perhaps, but not at this
early stage of the season. I tend to think that managers–like young unproven
players–deserve at least two full months of the season before we make
wide-sweeping judgments about their ability. I would have given Melvin until
the end of May; if the D-backs had shown no signs of a turnaround, a move would
have been mandatory. And what about Hinch? I know he’s a bright guy who has
drawn good reviews for his work as an Arizona’s
front office whiz kid, but his lack of any kind of on-field coaching or
managing experience is alarming. Contrary to what most Sabermetric general
managers like Josh Byrnes (and Billy Beane) seem to think, you cannot put just anyone into the managerial chair. It’s
not an interchangeable position. Rather, it’s a highly demanding and important
job that requires the right kind of temperament, personality, and experience.
Who knows how Hinch will do…
The Cubs made an interesting, if not major, transaction on
Friday, acquiring utilityman Ryan Freel from the Orioles for spare outfielder
Joey Gathright. Is this Chicago’s
way of trying to right the wrong that was done when GM Jim Hendry dealt Mark
DeRosa to the Indians for three middle-road prospects? Or is Hendry simply
trying to fortify his bench while ridding himself of a player (Gathright) who
had become so extraneous that he was sent to the minors earlier this week?
Freel isn’t the player that DeRosa is, either in terms of
power or versatility, but he does provide some flexibility. Freel can play
second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, while giving Lou
Piniella a decent pinch-running option in the late innings. Gathright is
certainly the more dangerous baserunner, but he’s strictly an outfielder, a
position that has become especially deep for Chicago given the resurgence of Kosuke
Fukudome and the presence of supersub Reed Johnson. This is really a no-brainer
move for the Cubs, who will benefit from Baltimore’s
inability to find a role for Freel…
In the late 1990s, Ted Williams championed Dom DiMaggio for
the Hall of Fame while serving as a member of the Veterans’ Committee. Even
with credit for the three seasons he lost to World War II, I felt that DiMaggio
fell short of the Hall of Fame standard. He was a very good player, but a bit
short of Cooperstown greatness.
That’s a trivial point, however. In many ways, Dom DiMaggio
represented everything that is good about baseball. DiMaggio, who died early
Friday morning at the age of 92, was a five-foot, nine-inch outfielder who wore
glasses; “The Little Professor” looked about as imposing on the ballfield as Chicken Little. But as
an overachiever performing in a sport where size plays little importance, he made
himself into a fine player who hit for average, drew walks, and played a dandy
center field–a very substantial player on some fine and underrated Red Sox
teams of the late 1940s. He was also, by all accounts, a true gentleman who was
highly regarded for his character by teammates and opponents alike. And that
matters a lot more than any argument about whether DiMaggio belongs in the Hall
We get through most seasons without having to experience the loss of a current day player or broadcaster. Here in 2009, we’re only eight days into the new season, a time that is supposed to be filled with new hopes and the good feeling that comes with starting fresh, but we’ve already lost both a broadcaster and a ballplayer.
Harry Kalas, the longtime voice of the Phillies, died on Monday afternoon after collapsing in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park in Washington. He was 73. His death, occurring just a short time before the Phillies’ scheduled game on Monday afternoon, comes just four days after the passing of Angels right-hander Nick Adenhart, who died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.
I had the fortune of meeting Harry Kalas twice. The first time occurred in 2002, when he came to Cooperstown to receive the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. The second time was last summer, when he attended a special exhibition game involving the U.S. Military All-Stars. I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to Harry on either occasion, but that’s only because he was usually in the midst of a crowd of enthusiastic fans and friends. So many people wanted to talk to Harry, mostly because they admired the stylish and dignified way that he broadcast Phillies games for so many years. And Harry did his best to blend in, always humble about his broadcasting abilities but also willing to answer whatever questions that were posed to him. In other words, he acted like a professional, through and through.
What made Kalas such a great broadcaster? I guess that the answer begins with his voice, so deep and resonant, and yet unique in its style. But there are plenty of broadcasters who have good voices and don’t achieve the heights of a Harry Kalas. That’s because Harry supported that voice with a sense of rhythm and timing. Sometimes broadcasters, particularly on the radio side, get lost within the complexity of a play and fall behind in their efforts to describe what has happened in front of them. I never once heard Harry rush a call, never heard him try to speed up his voice to catch up with the action. He always seemed to have impeccable timing; he watched the play as it unfolded, carefully but concisely detailing what he saw. His pace, a shade quicker than deliberate, worked beautifully with the mid-range speed of baseball. We often talk about how great ballplayers slow the game down; well, Harry slowed it down from the broadcast booth, and in the process, helped us better understand what was happening on the ballfield.
Harry will always be known for his radio and television work with the Phillies, understandable given his 38-year association with the franchise. But he also did good work before his 1971 arrival in Philadelphia. From 1965 to 1970, Kalas broadcast games for the Houston Astros, a team that lacked the glamor of some of Harry’s Phillies teams, but still featured such stars as Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and Jimmy Wynn. Older Astros fans who remember Harry’s calls from the late 1960s will undoubtedly appreciate those memories as much as Phillies fans of more recent vintage.
For nearly 45 years, Harry Kalas provided us with lively images of Morgan, Staub, and Wynn, of Steve Carlton, Greg Luzinski, and Tug McGraw, of Lenny Dykstra, Curt Schilling, and Mitch Williams, of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. And yes, of a fellow he liked to call Michael Jack Schmidt. For nearly a half-century, Harry made their exploits a little more vivid. And he made a great game just a little bit better.
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“I didn’t see that coming.” Isn’t that what someone said in
a recent commercial for beer, or pizza, or chicken wings? Well, that’s what a
lot of us are saying after hearing that the Tigers had released Gary Sheffield.
The severing of a brand name usually carries some degree of shock, and it will
carry a cost for the Tigers, who still have to pay the $12 million salary due Sheffield in 2009.
The Tigers must think that Sheffield
40, is completely cooked to swallow that sizeable sum of money. An increasing
frequency of injuries along with a substantial loss of bat speed convinced the
Tigers that Sheffield would have been more of
a hindrance than a help. With Sheffield gone, the Tigers can feel more
comfortable in giving the majority of their DH at-bats to Marcus Thames, while
also sliding Thames into an outfield rotation
that features everyman Carlos Guillen in left, super stud Curtis Granderson in
center, and political lightning rod Magglio Ordonez in right.
I had always thought that Sheffield
would age gracefully because of his incredible bat speed, which was arguably
the fastest in the game at its peak. Even with some loss of bat speed, I
figured that Sheffield would retain enough to
remain a forceful hitter into his early forties. Unfortunately, Sheffield lost so much quickness in his wrists and hands
over the last year that it rendered him merely mortal at the plate. The lack of
bat speed became plainly evident this spring, as Sheffield
wallowed with an average under .200.
Is Sheffield done? The
Tigers obviously think so, but the odds are likely that at least one of the 29
other teams will take a flier on his right-handed power. The world champion
Phillies, who remain vulnerable to left-handed pitching, have already made
contact with Sheffield’s agent. Sheffield might fit the Phils as a platoon left fielder
(where he would share time with Raul Ibanez) and occasional first baseman
(where he could spot Ryan Howard against the occasional southpaw).
In regards to Sheffield’s
milestone and home run issues, they need to be relegated to the back burner of
the stove. Outside of Sheffield’s most devoted
fans, no one really cares that he remains one short of the 500-home run club. (No
other milestone has lost more luster in recent seasons.) The Tigers obviously
didn’t care, either, knowing that no additional fans would show up to Comerica Park
to watch Sheffield pursue history.
Furthermore, writers need to stop referring to Sheffield
as a future Hall of Famer. He was always going to be a borderline case because
of his career-long crankiness and shoot-first-think-later approach to the
spoken word. Because of his association with the BALCO scandal, Sheffield now has about as much chance of winning 75 per
cent of the writers’ vote as Albert Belle does…
One of the most underrated managers in the history of the
expansion era died on
Monday. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living
ex-manager, passed away at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial mark with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he
failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. With the lack of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison to contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and
as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s
look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than
four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a
season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.
In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three
second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the
time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles
and St. Louis,
and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league
had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have
pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.
Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later
with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants.
In 1977, Franks led Chicago
to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting
pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with
Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like
George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing
time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did
similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave
Kingman and using an innovative approach with Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the
Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks
began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the
lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of
being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving
his relief ace for late-game leads.
For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven
games remaining in the season. The following year, the Cubs finished 64-98,
nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.
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It has been only one day since Joe Girardi revealed that
Xavier Nady would be his starting right fielder based on spring training
performance to date, but the reaction has already reached a severe level of
intensity. Most of the Internet analysis I’ve read has been negative; the more
Sabermetrically inclined writers favor Nick Swisher as the better player in
head-to-head comparisons with Nady.
Two thoughts come to mind in hearing this development. First,
Girardi placed a time condition on his announcement, saying only that the
“X-Man” would be his Opening Day right fielder if he had to make a decision right now. Let’s remember that nearly
two full weeks remain on the spring training exhibition schedule. Swisher could
go on a tear, someone could get hurt, or (in a long shot possibility) Nady
could be traded to some other team for a third baseman. After all, two weeks is
a long time in the baseball world. Second, most of what I’ve read about the
Nady-Swisher debate centers on a clear-cut starter and backup emerging for the
Yankees. Well, why couldn’t the Yankees put together a platoon, with Nady
playing against left-handers and the switch-hitting Swisher taking most of the
at-bats against right-handers? I know that platooning has become somewhat of a
lost art in today’s game, but if ever a team had the semblance of a workable
platoon, it would be the Yankees with Nady and Swisher. Furthermore, there’s
also the fragile nature of many of the Yankees’ veteran outfielders and DHs,
especially Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. If either of those players visits
the disabled list in 2009, both Nady and Swisher will have everyday roles…
Unfortunately, there’s sad news to pass along regarding a
fellow Internet writer. John Brattain, who has contributed to The Hardball Times
several years, died on Monday at the age of 44. While I often disagreed with
John’s opinions on heated baseball issues, I found him to be a talented and
creative writer who exuded a good-natured, upbeat personality through his words.
John was also a frequent and popular contributor to Baseball Think Factory,
where he signed all of his posts with his trademark wish of “Best Regards.” Without
question, John will be missed by both of those web site communities. A
religious and caring family man, John is survived by his wife and two
Finally, you may have heard that MLBlogs has added Keith
Olbermann to its stable of writers. My reaction? I’m genuinely disturbed by the
decision to carry and promote a blog written by the controversial and partisan
MSNBC talk show host. I plan to write more about this development later in the
week, but let me say this for now, repeating a sentiment I’ve frequently
expressed in this column. In a world
inundated with political turmoil and debate, we need to have as much separation of sports and politics as we can
possibly muster. (There are exceptions to this rule, times when politics
and sports meet head-on, but the presence of a political commentator on a
sports blog involves a far different and avoidable association.) Those who want
to discuss politics have plenty of venues to do so, both on the Internet and
through cable news programs. Those of us who prefer to focus on baseball, even for
a little while in our daily lives, deserve to have a respite from the vitriol
of the political world. I hope that MLB.com reconsiders this decision.
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After further review, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees adopted
a compromise solution that makes a whole lot more sense than their original
“wait-and-see approach.” By having A-Rod undergo an arthroscopic procedure to
repair the torn labrum in his hip, the timetable for recovery has been modified
to six to nine weeks. If that’s indeed accurate, the Yankees will have A-Rod
back in the lineup by May, a scenario that is much more workable than having
him struggle with hip pain through an entire season.
The Yankees can survive the loss of Rodriguez for what will
amount to about six weeks of regular season play. They would, however, be well
advised to shore up their depth on the infield, which was already a concern
with a healthy A-Rod. Cody Ransom
should be able to handle third base for a month and a half, but Angel Berroa is
simply inadequate as the primary utility infielder. I believe the Yankees will
end up doing one of two things: sign free agent infielder Mark Grudzielanek,
who could fill in at second and third, or make a trade for someone like the
Royals’ Mark Teahen or Atlanta’s
Martin Prado. If not, the Yankees are rolling the dice that nothing happens to
one of their other starting
infielders, a scenario that would prove nightmarish to Joe Girardi and Brian
Sometimes competition brings out the best in athletes.
Sometimes, as is the case with the current derby for the fifth starter’s role
with the Mets, it brings only results that make the coaches and the manager
cringe. Mets skipper Jerry Manuel cannot be happy with what he’s soon so far
this spring. Freddy Garcia looks like he might be done, simply unable to regain
the arm speed that he had before major surgery. Livan Hernandez has been
eminently mediocre or worse, which is no surprise to fans of the Nationals and
Twins. And ex-National Tim Redding
pitched terribly in his spring debut on Sunday, after having missed the early
portion of the Grapefruit League schedule with a surgically repaired toe.
Ideally, the Mets wanted one of these veteran right-handers to take hold of the
No. 5 spot so they could have kept young left-hander Jonathon Niese in Triple-A
to begin the season. That plan may have to change now. Given the presence of
the defending world champion Phillies in their division, the Mets cannot afford
to give away games in April while waiting for veteran starters to regain form.
If the early trends of spring do not change soon, the Mets will have no choice
but to call on Niese–or even consider the alternative of signing Pedro
Martinez. For those who missed it, Martinez hit
91 miles per hour in his first World Baseball Classic appearance for the Dominican Republic,
as he showed the kind of arm strength that was missing for most of 2008…
Former Yankee Tom Sturdivant died last week at the
age of 78. Though not a household name, Sturdivant made his mark in New York during the
1950s. He’s probably best remembered for throwing a devastating curveball,
which earned the right-hander the nickname “Snake,” reflecting the pitch’s
extreme and sudden movements. (Strangely, learning about Sturdivant’s nickname
made me think almost immediately of “Snake Pliskin,” the hero of Escape From New York.) At his peak,
Sturdivant emerged as an important part of Yankee pitching staffs that helped
the team win three straight pennants and one world championship from 1955 to
1957. In 1956, Sturdivant won Game Four of the World Series–the game that
everyone forgets because it directly preceded Don Larsen’s perfect game.
After a terrific two-and-a-half-year run, Sturdivant hurt
his arm in 1958, rendering him to mere journeyman status. Pitching mostly in
relief, he bounced around both leagues, making stops in Kansas
City, Boston, Washington,
and then a return engagement in New
York–this time with the expansion Mets. He called it
quits in 1964, ending a ten-year career with a won-loss record of 59-51 and a
respectable ERA of 3.74.
George King sometimes makes strange observations in his role as a beat writer for the Yankees. In Sunday’s New York Post, King warned the Yankees not to commit Joba Chamberlain to the rotation because of the age of closer Mariano Rivera. “The Yankees… pray the end isn’t here [for Rivera],” King wrote on Sunday. “Because if they use Joba Chamberlain as a starter, there isn’t a closer candidate in the organization.” Really? Right off the top, I can think of three. Hard-throwing right-hander Mark Melancon is generally ranked among the top ten prospects in the Yankee system and is scheduled to begin the season as closer at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Then there’s the talented Humberto Sanchez, finally recovered from shoulder surgery two years ago and also a step away at Triple-A. The Yankees also have right-hander Anthony Claggett, who dominated hitters at Double-A Trenton and might start the season in Scranton, too.
Simply put, closers are easier to find than quality starters, especially in the current Yankee farm system. That’s not to say that the Yankees will find anyone the equal of Rivera, who might just be the best reliever in major league history. Heck, unless the Yankees can find the next Dennis Eckersley, chances are that ANYBODY they choose will fall short of the great Rivera. But the Yankees clearly have promising options outside of Chamberlain–options that aren’t light years away. So let’s not start this Joba-must-be-in-the-bullpen nonsense just yet…
For a team that has accomplished so little over the past two seasons–except for executing embarrassing late-season collapses–the Mets are sure exhibiting plenty of chutzpah early in spring training. Newly signed closer Francisco Rodriguez has already declared the Mets the team to beat in the National League East, in spite of the fact that he’s spent about three seconds with the team. And for some reason, the Mets’ brass decided to hang a rather presumptuous sign over the clubhouse door in Port St. Lucie. The sign reads, “Through these doors pass the best players in baseball.” That bit of news will surely makes its way to Clearwater, where the Phillies happen to have their spring training home–as the game’s defending world champions. Unlike the Mets, the Phillies don’t have major question marks in both left and right field, and at second base (at least once Chase Utley returns from injury). The Mets would be well advised to change the wording on the sign–or at least wait until October, when perhaps they’ve actually won something…
Former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender died last Thursday at the age of 68, the victim of a heart attack. Cruelly, his passing came only one day after he’d received some uplifting news in his ongoing battle against multiple myeloma. A fleet-footed outfielder who played a nifty center field in the late 1960s, Uhlaender saw his career fall off abruptly by 1972, but not before he made a cameo appearance in the World Series for Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.” A few years ago, I met Uhlaender in spring training, where he was working as a coach with the Indians. As I asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions about the ’72 World Series, I noticed his face; he had that stern, sandpaper look of a hardened baseball veteran. Though I was intimidated at first, Uhlaender answered all of my questions, calmly and without fanfare. He was a pro, a characterization that was confirmed for me when I read Tracy Ringolsby’s touching tribute to him last week. Like the late John Vukovich and Pat Dobson, Uhlaender was a baseball lifer whose hard-edged appearance only masked a deep love of the game. As with Vuke and Dobber, we’ll miss a solid guy like Uhlaender.
Most readers of “Cooperstown Confidential” have heard of Ramon Hernandez the catcher, now the No. 1 receiver for the Reds. I suspect that only a few readers are familiar with Ramon Hernandez the left-handed reliever, who pitched for a variety of teams in the 1960s and seventies, including a prominent world championship club.
Ramon Hernandez, the pitcher, died last week at the age of 68, his cause of death still publicly unknown. Practically no one in the baseball community has noticed his passing; it has gone almost completely unreported on the Internet. Though his career was relatively obscure, he was important to me because of the small but vital role he played in helping the Pirates win the 1971 World Series. That team became the subject of my book, a labor of love called The Team That Changed Baseball. Hernandez was also a damned good pitcher for most of his career, far better than most historians remember. How good was he? In 1972, he was the best relief pitcher in the National League, that’s how good. In 1973 and ’74, he was the best left-handed reliever in the league. Beyond that, he was a memorably unusual character. Bottom line, Ramon Hernandez deserves to be remembered.
Originally signed by Pirates scout Howie Haak out of his native Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, the five-foot, nine-inch left-hander bounced around from franchise to franchise before eventually making his way back to Pittsburgh. During the way, Hernandez consumed cups of coffee with the Los Angeles Angels’ farm system, the Braves, the Cubs, and the Cardinals’ minor league system. By the end of the 1960s, he had developed a bad reputation around the baseball world. Most scouts frowned upon him because they believed him to be older than his listed age. Some of his managers considered him a disciplinary problem, especially Don Zimmer, who once managed him at San Juan in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Zimmer was scared of Hernandez, who rarely smiled, said little, and carried a gun with him. He also liked to break the manager’s rules. So infuriated by Hernandez’ flouting of team regulations, Zimmer vowed not to pitch the left-hander during the team’s late-season drive toward the Winter League playoffs.
Prior to the 1971 season, the Pirates acquired Hernandez from the Cardinals for a little-known minor league pitcher named Danny Rivas. After beginning the 1971 season in the minor leagues, Hernandez earned a mid-season call-up. The little left-hander immediately drew the attention of fans and media with his slinky sidearming delivery, roundhouse curve, and funky screwball. He also retired just about everyone he faced, at first left-handed batters, and then right-handers, too. Pirates fans took to him quickly, with younger ones imitating his unusual sidearm motion.
As Hernandez became an effective reliever with the Pirates, he also garnered a reputation as the silent man in the clubhouse. He rarely conversed with players and reporters. His fellow relievers good-naturedly kidded him in the Pirate bullpen, but Hernandez said little in response, perhaps in part because of his limitations with the English language. Or maybe he just wanted to be left in his own little corner of the world.
Although he remained quiet, Pirate players did not seem to resent Hernandez. According to his countryman Roberto Clemente–and fellow native of Carolina, a small town in Puerto Rico–Hernandez achieved a level of acceptance in the Pirate clubhouse. “The big thing about Hernandez is that he knows he is welcome here,” Clemente told Charley Feeney of The Sporting News. “He doesn’t speak English real good, but the players on this club let him know they like him, just by an occasional smile, or a jab in the ribs.”
Hernandez pitched in only 10 games for the Pirates in 1971, but had the impact of a player who had spent the entire season in Pittsburgh. After helping the Bucs clinch the NL East with several clutch performances against the rival Cardinals in September, he found himself left off the postseason roster–the victim of a numbers game. Undeterred, Hernandez went on to enjoy his best season in 1972. By the end of that summer, the stylish southpaw had emerged as the Bucs’ left-handed relief ace, with a 5-0 record, 14 saves, and an earned run average of 1.67, all accomplishments that helped the Pirates win their third straight Eastern Division title. With his impeccable control and variety of moving pitches, several scouts considered him the league’s best reliever that season. In 1973 and ’74, his level of pitching fell from brilliant to merely outstanding. Among National League left-handers, no one pitched better. He finally started to show some slippage in 1975 and ’76, convincing the Pirates to trade him to the Cubs. The unpopular move enraged several of his Pirates teammates, including John Candelaria, who wondered aloud whether the front office knew what it was doing.
Hernandez finished out the ’76 season at Wrigley Field, but he lasted less than two months into the ’77 season before the Cubs traded him to the Red Sox for outfielder Bobby Darwin. After initially balking at reporting to Beantown, Hernandez struggled in most of his 12 appearances with the Sox, thus ending his major league career.
And just as quietly as Hernandez emerged on the Pirates’ scene in 1971, he faded silently into baseball oblivion. He never went to work for a major league organization, didn’t become a pitching coach or a scout, remaining completely anonymous and out of the public spotlight for the past 32 years.
Somehow, I think that’s just the way that Ramon Hernandez would have wanted it.