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Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.
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The Mets finally did the sensible thing in placing Carlos Delgado
on the disabled with a potentially career-threatening hip injury, but now they
face a bit of a quandary in trying to replace him. Do they continue to play
Gary Sheffield in left field every day, thereby freeing up Fernando Tatis and
Daniel Murphy to play first base? And why are they playing Jeremy Reed, a
mediocre hitter with limited experience on the infield, as part of a
three-headed monster at first base? I don’t know that Sheffield
will hold up, considering his age and the fragile state of his shoulder. A
better plan might be to play Murphy every day at first base, while switching
between Tatis and Sheffield in left field.
Tatis or Reed could then serve as defensive caddies for Sheffield,
replacing him in the late innings of games in which the Mets hold the lead…
Jerry Manuel’s Sunday night lineup against the Giants left
me scratching my head. Manuel put Reed at first base and kept Murphy in left
field, even though Reed hasn’t played the position fulltime since college and
Murphy is still a brutal defensive outfielder. Wouldn’t it have made more sense
to put Reed in left, where he is very good, and switch Murphy to first base,
where he has been working out in recent days? That way, the Mets would have had
only one player out of position, instead of two…
I’m simply amazed at the ferocity with which Raul Ibanez
continues to hit for the Phillies. So much for the theory that hitters need a
few months to acclimate themselves to a different set of pitchers in a new
league. Ibanez has obviously kept some good notes from his experience in interleague
play, because he is off to a career-best start in 2009, even though he’s 36 and
supposedly on the downhill climb. (He’s also enjoying the benefits of playing
his games in a hitter-friendly home part, in contrast to the pitchers’ parks of
Seattle (Safeco Field) and Kansas City (Kauffman Stadium). With 13 home
runs and a Babe Ruthian slugging percentage of .714 through the first six
weeks, Ibanez has been the Phillies’ clear-cut MVP, an impressive achievement
considering the presence of teammates Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy
Rollins. Now the Phillies just need to straighten out their starting pitching,
where everyone is underachieving, and their closer situation, where Brad Lidge
has reverted to the struggles of his latter days with the Astros…
As I watched the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval for the first time
this weekend, I immediately thought that Gates Brown had come out of retirement
to play third base for San Francisco.
(Brown, the old Tiger left fielder and DH, had the ultimate bad body, but was
one of the most dangerous pinch-hitters and part-time players of the sixties
and seventies.) Nicknamed “The Panda” by his teammates, the hefty Sandoval
carries the oddest physique (5’11” and 245 pounds) I’ve ever seen at third
base, a position that requires a degree of nimble dexterity. Sandoval is more
agile than his body would indicate, but it’s on offense where the switch-hitter
stands out. He can flat-out hit, and with his sizeable power to all fields,
he’s the Giants’ cleanup-hitter-in-waiting. He also brings the bonus of
versatility; Sandoval can catch, which gives the Giants some depth behind the
underrated Bengie Molina…
The Red Sox can still win the AL East without a vintage David
Ortiz, but his inability to hit with any semblance of power will make the chore
that much more challenging. With Ortiz at or near his peak, the Red Sox had
three hitters that struck fear into opposing pitchers. Now they’re down to two,
Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, both right-handed hitters. The Red Sox say
that Ortiz will return to the lineup on Tuesday after being benched for three
games over the weekend, but they may need to make contingency plans if Ortiz
cannot regain his lost bat speed. The Red Sox could eventually turn to prospect Jeff
Bailey or veteran Rocco Baldelli to take up the slack at DH, but the lack of a
left-handed hitting platoon partner for either player remains a concern…
With three consecutive walkoff wins against the Twins, the
Yankees achieved something they had not done since August of 1972. That was the
last time that the Yankees posted three consecutive wins with game-ending
at-bats. Johnny Callison accounted for two of those victories with game-winning
singles, while old favorite Horace Clarke won the other game with a sacrifice
fly. Callison and Clarke now have company, as Melky Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez,
and Johnny Damon provided the more recent heroics with a single, a home run,
and another home run, respectively…
The Yankees are hoping to receive a triple-boost of talent
sometime this week. It’s possible that Brian Bruney, Chien-Ming Wang, and Jorge
Posada could all return from the disabled list within the next seven days.
Although he is the lesser name among the three players, Bruney’s return could
loom the most important. The Yankees have struggled to find pitchers who can
handle roles in the seventh and eighth innings; Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez
have both flopped badly, while lefty Phil Coke has brought forth mixed results.
Without Bruney, the Yankees don’t have a single favorable eighth-inning option
among their current pitching contenders. With Bruney, the Yankees can continue
to resist the talk show calls for Joba Chamberlain to return to the bullpen.
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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
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And now, it’s time for something entirely new. Here is the first edition of the “Sunday Scuttlebutt.”…
The Red Sox are playing very well right now, with six
straight victories heading into Patriot’s Day, but are also facing the very real
possibility that Jed Lowrie will miss the rest of the season with a serious
wrist injury. If that happens, GM Theo Epstein will have to make a trade for a
more seasoned shortstop. Journeyman Nick Green, currently filling in, is not a
long-term answer, nor is the declining Julio Lugo, who remains on the disabled
list. Do not be surprised to hear rumors of the Red Sox dealing for someone
like Oakland’s Bobby Crosby or Pittsburgh’s Jack Wilson…
The Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang will receive at least one more
start before being demoted to the bullpen–or to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
If Wang endures another beating in his next start, which is currently scheduled
for next weekend in Boston,
the Yankees will replace him in the rotation with Phil Hughes and move the
sinkerballing right-hander to the bullpen. There is an outside possibility that
the Yankees could send him back to the minor leagues, but as a vested veteran,
Wang would have to grant his permission to such a move…
Jorge Posada isn’t exactly thrilled with Joe Girardi’s plan
to remove him from the latter stages of games in which the Yankees are nursing thin
leads. On Friday, Girardi pulled Posada before the top of the ninth, replacing
him with defensive specialist Jose Molina. Posada then left the Yankee
clubhouse before reporters arrived, fueling speculation that he was upset by
being yanked from the game. From where I stand, Girardi’s plan is a smart one.
Posada, returning from major shoulder surgery, has thrown out only two of eight
basestealers this year. Even when fully healthy, Posada is vastly inferior to
Molina in terms of arm strength and general catching skills. Right about now,
Molina might just be the major leagues’ best throwing catcher…
The Johan Santana trade is looking better and better for the
Mets. Earlier this week, the Twins designated right-hander Philip Humber, a
major piece in the package the Mets surrendered for the great Santana. The
Twins will now have to trade Humber at a
bargain basement price or hope that he clears waivers and accepts an assignment
to Triple-A Rochester. Humber has been a huge
disappointment in the Twin Cities, unable to crack a young rotation that lost
both Santana and Matt Garza over the past two years…
Notwithstanding Luis Castillo’s game-winning infield single
on Friday and his current flirtation with a .400 batting average, the Mets
still have major worries over the future production they can expect from the
aging middle infielder. The Mets are already considering a contingency plan
that involves a platoon of Alex Cora and Fernando Tatis. Here’s the problem:
Tatis has almost no experience playing second base, having started his career as
a third baseman before learning to play the outfield corners. But Mets GM Omar
Minaya believes in Tatis, largely because of his athleticism and the way that
he has taken to playing the outfield…
Citi Field, the Mets’ new home, has received criticism for
detailing too much baseball history that has no direct connection to the Mets
and for failing to acknowledge the team’s own rich history, which dates back to
1962. The latter criticism is legitimate–the Mets should have a Hall of Fame,
or at least a Wall of Fame somewhere within the large confines of Citi
Field–but the former criticism is bogus, to say the least. Why shouldn’t the Mets honor the legacy of
someone like Jackie Robinson, who not only changed the course of the Brooklyn
Dodgers’ franchise, but laid the groundwork for alterations to all of
baseball’s rosters? The Mets, like all other 29 franchises, have had important
African-American players along with dark skinned Latinos, many of whom would
have seen their major league debuts delayed if Robinson had failed. The Jackie
Robinson Rotunda is a fitting tribute to someone who remains pertinent to the
game today, even 62 years after he first took the field at Ebbets Field…
How much did Harry Kalas mean to the Phillies’ organization
and their nation of fans? On Saturday, Kalas lay in state at Philadelphia’s
Citizens Bank Park,
making him the first baseball man since Babe Ruth to have his casket displayed
at his team’s home ballpark. Thousands of fans poured through Citizens Bank
Park to pay tribute to
the man who had become almost as synonymous to the franchise as Mike Schmidt.
Kalas, who died on Monday at the age of 73, was still regarded as one of the
game’s best play-by-play men and was likely years away from retirement. He will
be missed enormously.
The Tampa Bay Rays have themselves a new closer–along with their first American League pennant!
On Sunday, the Rays did what probably 85 per cent of baseball fans thought they would not do, and that is win a Game Seven against a steamrolling Red Sox team featuring its ace, Jon Lester. Among others, Rays manager Joe Maddon redeemed himself for that awful collapse in Game Five. Maddon managed the eighth inning of Game Seven as if it was the ninth inning–and that is exactly what he should have done considering that the Red Sox had the heart of the order batting. After relieving a tired Matt Garza and replacing him with Dan Wheeler to start the inning, Maddon played the matchups throughout the fateful frame. He skillfully used JP Howell, Chad Bradford, and David Price, taking away Boston’s platoon advantage whenever possible, And then Maddon showed true grit in the ninth, when he left the inexperienced Price, who has less than a year of pro ball on his resume, on the mound to finish off the game. Price has the best stuff of anyone on the Rays’ staff–and that includes Garza and Scott Kazmir–making him the best option to handle the bottom of the Sox’ order. Price will also become the Rays’ principal closer in the upcoming Series against the Phillies.
Along with Maddon, I feel especially good for Rocco Baldelli, who drove in the game-winning run for the Rays in the bottom of the fifth. No major league player has suffered the swarm of injuries and illness that has plagued Baldelli, a onetime top prospect whose career seemed over at more than one juncture this year. We now know that the former comparisons to Joe DiMaggio are ridiculous, but Baldelli still has a chance to become a serviceable major league outfielder. He can play all three outfield positions, has legitimate power, and has shown little fear throughout this postseason. Outside of Phillies fans, just about all of America will be rooting for Baldelli in this World Series.
As for the Red Sox, another incredible postseason comeback ended because of their inability to hit after the first inning of Game Seven. After Dustin Pedroia’s early home run against Garza, the Sox managed exactly one hit the remainder of the night. The Red Sox’ hitters still grinded out at-bats in typical Soxian fashion, fouling off pitch after pitch with two strikes, but they simply could not finish off those at-bats with a sufficient number of hits and walks. The Red Sox were also done in by the lack of right-handed bats available to pinch-hit in the ninth. Mark Kotsay, allowed to bat against Price, went down easily, as did Jed Lowrie, the replacement for Alex Cora. Here’s where the Red Sox may regret their decision to carry three catchers in the series, including two light-hitting backups.
With the Red Sox eliminated, the World Series ratings will suffer, but diehard fans of the game probably care little about the lament of television executives. Those fans will now prepare for what appears to be a very even matchup, featuring two franchises with a grand total of one world championship between them. Well, that total will double over the next 10 to 12 days.
Two thoughts come to mind in recalling the Red Sox’ historic comeback in Game Five of the ALCS. First, the Red Sox are an amazingly good team when it comes to hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position. From Dustin Pedroia to David Ortiz to J.D. Drew, the Red Sox’ hitters continue to display the kind of doggedness, determination, and patience that make them as tough to pitch to as any team in the game.
Second, Joe Maddon did not manage a very good game for the Rays. He made several tactical errors in Game Five, mostly involving his pitching staff. For example, Maddon didn’t necessarily have to take Scott Kazmir out after pitching six shutout innings. Yes, Kazmir had already thrown 111 pitches, but he had shown few signs of tiring and could have been pushed a little harder considering that his next start would not have occurred until a) the World Series next week or b) next season. Maddon also displayed far too much patience in keeping Dan Wheeler on the mound throughout the seventh and eighth innings. Wheeler doesn’t have much raw stuff to begin with, but can survive when his control is good. Unfortunately, it was abysmal on Thursday night. He should have been taken out after coughing up the two-run homer to Drew in the eighth inning, if not sooner. That brings us to a third point with Maddon. He failed to call on one of his most reliable relievers, Chad Bradford, despite the fact that his bullpen was taking on flood water in the final three innings. As Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and J.P. Howell blew up, Bradford remained chained to the bullpen.
So what does all of this mean for Game Six? Damned if I know. The Red Sox have the same kind of true grit that helped them come back in 2004 against the Yankees and in 2007 against the Indians. They’re certainly capable of winning two more games in this series. As for the Rays, they’ve forged a remarkable record at home this year and have shown little inclination toward allowing crushing defeats to leave lasting impressions.
While I have no idea who will win this series, I do know this. I am glad that we will have some baseball to enjoy and savor this weekend.
Normally masterful during the postseason, Joe Torre made a series of highly questionable bullpen moves in Game Four of the National League Championship Series, as the Dodgers absorbed their third loss in four games. The second-guessing–or was it first-guessing?–began when Torre took Derek Lowe out after five innings, despite the fact that the veteran sinkerballer had a low pitch count in the 70s and seemed to have settled in to a groove. Instead, Torre turned to rookie left-hander Clayton Kershaw, trusting the 20-year-old in a critical one-run playoff game.
Two innings later, Torre delivered the real head-scratching moment of the game. In the top of the eighth inning, he removed Hong-Chi Kuo, who had breezed through the seventh inning, replacing him with Cory Wade. After watching Wade allow a game-tying home run to Shane Victorino, Torre then summoned closer Jonathan Broxton, who proceeded to give up a game-deciding two-run shot to supersub Matt Stairs. By the end of this quagmire of befuddling bullpen moves, the Dodgers had to crawl home as 7-5 losers, putting them on the precipice of postseason elimination…
While the Phillies have taken control of the NLCS, the resurgent Rays are threatening to do the same in the American League. It’s amazing how quickly momentum can shift in these short postseason series. Let’s remember that the Red Sox, fresh off a 2-0 win in Game One, had taken an early lead in Game Two, scoring two first-inning runs against a laboring Scott Kazmir. Since that moment, the Rays have dominated the scoreboard, scoring 18 runs against one of the game’s premier pitching staffs. Their young hitters, led by B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, have shown little fear in taking in their first doses of postseason play.
The Red Sox’ offense simply hasn’t been able to keep pace with the Rays. As good as the Red Sox are, they do not have the offensive firepower of their 2004 and 2007 editions. We all know that Manny Ramirez is gone, but it’s the back end of the lineup that really suffers, in part because of the absence of Mike Lowell. Their bottom three of Mark Kotsay, Jed Lowrie (or Alex Cora) and Jason Varitek brings little thump to the table. Kotsay is playing for the purposes of speed and defense, Varitek is virtually shot as a hitter, and Lowrie, while a good complementary player, doesn’t hit with much more than occasional power. With their offense running at something less than full efficiency, it becomes even more imperative for the Red Sox’ vaunted pitching staff to regroup and keep them close at the outset of Games Four and Five.