The Sunday Scuttlebutt: Goodbye and Farewell

Baseball’s amateur draft, slated to begin a week from Tuesday, would carry
far more luster if Major League Baseball would change its antiquated rules
preventing teams from trading draft choices. All of the other sports allow
draft choices to be traded, except for baseball, which continues to operate
under the fear that agents like Scott Boras would demand trades for clients
drafted by undesirable teams. (What teams don’t seem willing to admit is that Boras already tries to redirect players by refusing to sign contracts
with their drafting teams, thus enabling those players to re-enter the draft
the following year.) By allowing teams to trade draft picks both during and
after the selection process, MLB would accomplish two objectives. First, the
occurrence of draft-day trades would jazz up the festivities on June 9,
bringing more publicity to an event that is currently only followed by draft
diehards. (Imagine the stir that would be caused if the Nationals traded their
No. 1 pick, essentially the rights to uberprospect right-hander Stephen Strasburg,
to a team like the Phillies for three or four prospects.) Second, with so many
contending teams reluctant to deal their near-ready major league prospects for
short-term fixes, they would instead be able to substitute draft choices in
dealing for veteran players who can provide immediate help in the pennant race.
We would therefore see far more trades between now and the July 31st
deadline, spicing up what has become a lackluster trading season in recent
years…

 

Even with a healthy Brett Myers, the Phillies needed to add
another starter to make a successful run at their second-straight National
League East title. With Myers likely out for the season because of looming
labrum surgery on his hip, the need has only intensified. Heck, the Phillies
may have to add two starters to a core of starters that features ace Cole
Hamels, Joe “Bulldog” Blanton, and the sphinx-like Jamie Moyer, who just won
his 250th game. That threesome simply is not good enough to win the
East, especially with the Mets looming…

 

The hype attached to this week’s recall of super prospect
Matt Wieters by the Orioles is like nothing I’ve seen since the Rangers brought
David Clyde to the major leagues immediately after he was drafted out of high
school in 1974. In a way, I feel bad for Wieters, who has been praised to the
point that we expect him to become Carlton Fisk, Joe Mauer, and Ted Simmons all
rolled into one. Wieters will probably develop into a very fine player, perhaps
a great one, but it is quickly becoming impossible to scale the Mt. Everest
of expectations that has been created by so many talent evaluators and
prospects gurus. Let the young man breathe a little bit…

 

Not long ago, David Dellucci was a productive platoon player
capable of hitting for power, drawing walks, and fielding any of the three
outfield positions. On Friday, the Indians designated Dellucci for assignment,
a prelude to what will probably be his unconditional release. Based upon the
laments of Indians fans who have watched him stagger through the last season
and a half, Dellucci’s career looks to be cooked. He can’t hit, run, or field
at a competent level anymore, not even well enough to play regularly for an
Indians team crying for help in the outfield corners…

 

You know the first-place Yankees are doing well when Mike
Lupica makes only two references to them in his Sunday “Shooting From The Lip”
series of one-liners. If the Yankees were still struggling, as they did for the
first month of the season, every other segment of Lupica’s “column” would
feature some kind of potshot against the organization. The pattern has become
oh-so predictable from the guy who has been paid to hate the Yankees for over
30 years…

 

In a season filled with injury, disappointment, and general
underperformance, the A’s have found a bright spot in the play of veteran
second baseman Adam Kennedy. Acquired from the Rays as a replacement for the
perennially injured Mark Ellis, Kennedy is hitting .400 with five stolen bases
since being anointed the interim pivotman for Oakland. The Rays must be kicking themselves
for dumping Kennedy in a cash deal, especially after they lost Akinori Iwamura
to injury for the balance of the season. Tampa’s
unsettled second base situation is one of just several problem areas, in
addition to the season-long slump of Pat Burrell and the injury- ravaged
bullpen, where journeyman sidewinder Randy Choate is now receiving chances to
close games…

 

 

***

 

These words will mark my final musings for MLBlogs. After an
eventful and fruitful four-year run as the author of this blog, I’ve decided to
pack up the laptop and move to another venue. I want to thank at least some of
the people who have helped me along the way, such as Mark Newman, who has
provided guidance and assistance since my first article appeared here in May of
2005. Jacob Wilson has also helped by providing technical assistance, a
necessity for someone who is as computer ignorant as me. Additionally, I must
mention the contributions of those who have posted comments, along with the
loyalty of the readers, a small but dedicated group who have motivated and
supported my efforts. I hope you have all enjoyed the writing here, a product
of hard work and an undying love for our great game.

 

I will continue to write for Alex Belth’s Bronx Banter, but
beginning this week, I will be writing a weekly article for The Hardball Times,
an outstanding web site featuring original in-depth comment. I will also be
contributing periodically to the site’s new blog, THT Live. So beginning this
Friday, you can find my writing at www.thehardballtimes.com.
I hope that at least some of our readers and posters will follow us over there
while continuing to support some of the good people here at MLB, like Bronx
Banter, Julia’s Rants, The Newberg Report, and Curt Smith’s Voices of the Game.

 

So it is time to bid goodbye and farewell, but hopefully
only until the next adventure begins in a new location. See you at The Hardball
Times.

 

Sincerely,

 

Bruce Markusen

“Cooperstown Confidential”

Cooperstown,
NY

 

 

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

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.

A Conversation With Orlando Cepeda

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.

Card Corner: Gene Michael

Michael.jpg

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.


The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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.

The Other Side of the Steve Phillips Argument

General manager-turned-broadcaster Steve Phillips has taken
a lot of flack over the last few days, ever since he made a series of critical
comments about the Mets’ Carlos Beltran during ESPN’s Sunday night broadcast.
Frankly, some of the blowback against Phillips has been overdone, with his
comments taken severely out of context by some critics who don’t like his commentary to begin with or haven’t forgiven him for a spotty record as a general manager.

 

First of all, Phillips only suggested trading Beltran IF the
Mets were to fail to make the postseason for a third consecutive year. Let’s be
honest here. If the Mets fall short of the playoffs for a third summer, no one in the organization will be
untouchable. GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel will likely be fired, and
one of the Mets’ big three–either Beltran, Jose Reyes, or David Wright–will
almost certainly be traded. (And if you don’t agree with that possibility, you
simply haven’t been following the Mets’ fortunes since October of 2006.) Furthermore,
one of the reasons that Phillips “picked on” Beltran has to do with the ages of
both Reyes and Wright, who are both 26 and likely have a number of prime years
remaining. Beltran is no kid anymore–he’s 32, an age by which most players
start to show some decline–and therefore not likely to have as prolonged a
future as either Wright or Reyes. Yet, because of his all-round greatness as a
player, Beltran will still command something substantial in a potential trade.

 

In posing some of his criticisms of Beltran on Sunday night,
Phillips chose some of his words badly and came off sounding awkward. For
example, he talked about Beltran not delivering enough “winning plays,” a
strange and nebulous way of wording things, to say the least. That kind of
terminology certainly did not help Phillips’ argument, leading to some of the
negative reaction on the Internet. That’s fair criticism. But some of Phillips’
points about Beltran are legitimate. Twice this year, Beltran has inexplicably failed
to slide on the basepaths when sliding should have been his first and only
option. (Beltran is just part of the problem here; as a team, the Mets are simply
atrocious running the bases. They don’t hustle, they don’t understand game
situations, and now they even miss bases.) In the field, Beltran has also made
a habit of missing the cutoff man, which is surprising for a center fielder of
his rather considerable defensive talents. And Beltran has never been much of a
vocal leader, which is an attribute the current Mets severely lack–and have
lacked for a few years now. Hey, when you make the big bucks, like Beltran
does, some people expect you to speak up in the clubhouse every once in awhile. 

 

Did Phillips make his case against Beltran poorly? Yes,
absolutely. Did he belabor his criticisms of Beltran during the broadcast? No
question. But let’s keep things in context here, while looking toward the
possible future. If the Mets continue their inconsistent play and miss out on a
postseason berth for a third consecutive season, Beltran will be one of just
many people in the organization holding their heads on the chopping block. And
if the Mets can get the right package of players in return for Beltran–who is
still one of the top ten players in the game and a future Hall of Famer–that might be one of the steps they
need to take to change the dynamics of a team that too often seems dazed and
disinterested.

Card Corner: Billy Almon

Almon79.jpg

Photography on baseball cards sometimes shows players in
delightfully awkward poses or clumsy moments. Card No. 616 of the 1979 Topps
set provides an example of that; it features journeyman infielder Billy Almon,
the No. 1 choice in the 1974 draft who never reached expectations of stardom in
the major leagues. The card’s photo, which was snapped during a game at Shea
Stadium, shows Almon dressed in the Padres’ highly unattractive uniforms of the
day. As baseball researcher Maxwell Kates points out, those yellow-and-brown
beauties are believed to be the last uniforms featuring both the team name and
the city name on the front of the jersey.

 

Beyond the ghastly colors of the Padres’ uniforms, there is
something intriguing in the odd way that Almon is holding the bat, which he is
gripping by the wrong end Perhaps after being called out on strikes yet again?
Or perhaps he is getting ready to crack the bat over his thigh, ala new Hall of
Famer Jim Rice? And then, as Kates suggests, there’s the dazed expression on
Almon’s face, as if to say, “What should I be doing with this piece of wood? I
am after all in the major leagues.” In 1979, Almon would bat only .227 with an
on-base percentage of .301 and a total of one home run. For his career, the
shortstop-third baseman performed only a bit better, batting .254 with 36 home
runs in 15 seasons with the Padres, Expos, Mets, White Sox, A’s, Pirates, and
Phillies. He was, however, an excellent bunter, leading the National League
with 20 sacrifices in 1977.

 

The Padres expected far more than good bunting from Mr.
Almon. Just how highly was Almon regarded as an amateur? When Almon graduated
high school in 1971, several teams wanted to draft the lanky shortstop in the
first round, but he wrote to each club informing them of his decision to attend
an Ivy League school (Brown University). The Padres drafted him anyway, taking
him with a 10th round selection in the ’71 draft. Three years later,
the Padres once again targeted Almon, selecting him with the first overall pick
in the draft after he set a school record by hitting ten home runs in a short
season. The Padres even gave Almon a $90,000 bonus–a huge amount at the
time–but he struggled to hit in both the minors and the majors, making him just
one of many No. 1 picks to turn into big league disappointments.

 

Unlike the NBA, there’s little certainty that comes with being
the first man taken in the major league draft.


The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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.

The Nickname Game: The Road Runner

Garr.jpg

Several
players of 1970s vintage were known as “Roadrunner,” including Pirates
teammates Gene Clines and Manny Sanguillen, but only one man became the true “Roadrunner”
(or “Road Runner,” to be completely accurate).

 

That
honor belongs to former Braves, White Sox, and Angels outfielder Ralph “The
Road Runner” Garr. For those who saw Garr play, the name made obvious sense.
Garr, a slashing line drive batter who hit to all fields, could flat-out fly
around the bases. Of all his contemporaries, only one may have been faster.
That was Mickey Rivers, who actually began his pro career in the Braves’
organization at virtually the same time as Garr. Rivers was traded to the
Angels as part of the Hoyt Wilhelm deal, but Garr remained with the Braves long
enough to win the 1974 National League batting title–with a remarkable average of .354

 

Garr
became almost as well known for the “Road Runner” nickname as the original
Looney Tunes cartoon figure created by Chuck Jones. The Braves’ public
relations department gave Garr the nickname after he arrived in the big
leagues; in fact, the Braves so wanted to market Garr that they wrote to Warner
Brothers, Inc. to receive official permission to use the nickname and the catch
phrase “Beep! Beep!” in promotional efforts.

 

Warner
Brothers, through its agent, Licensing Corporation of America (LCA), came to a
history-making agreement with the Braves. “Our contract with the Braves makes
Ralph the first licensed nickname to our knowledge anywhere in the world,” said
Jay Emment, who was the chairman of LCA at the time. The unusual agreement also
made it illegal for any other athlete to use the nickname. (That agreement was
probably unenforceable in reality, but Clines’ “Roadrunner” appellation did
seem to fade into disuse.) Curiously, Garr’s officially certified nickname was
never once included in any of his entries in the Baseball Register from 1969 to 1981.

 

The
Baseball Register might not have recognized it, but just about everybody else
remembers Ralph Garr as the “Road
Runner.”

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

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.

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