It’s too easy to get lost in the maze of outdoor barbecues, start-of-summer celebrations, and the benefits of paid holidays. The day should mean much more than that. So let’s take a moment to consider what Memorial Day really represents–a chance to pay homage to those who lost their lives in battle.
Like all walks of life, baseball has not been immune to the casualties of war. Here are some of the baseball figures who persished while serving in the military at wartime:
*On October 5, 1918, former major leaguer Eddie Grant was killed while serving in World War I. The 35-year-old Grant had batted .249 over a 10-year major league career. He would be the only major leaguer killed in action during the first world war.
*On February 12, 1942, minor league outfielder Gordon Houston became the first player in Organized Baseball to die during active duty in World War II. Houston had played with Texarkana in 1940.
*On April 20, 1944, Elmer John Gedeon became the first major league player to lose his life serving in World War II. The 26-year-old Gedeon, who had played briefly as an outfielder for the Washington Senators in 1939, died when his plane was shot down over St. Pol, France. Gedeon served in the Army Air Corps.
*On March 6, 1945, former major league catcher Harry O’Neill was killed in combat during World War II. The 27-year-old O’Neill became the second major leaguer to lose his life in the second world war.
The impressive play of Melky Cabrera has eased some of the pressure on the Yankees to make a deal for a starting outfielder, but it hasn’t stopped Brian Cashman from talking to Nationals GM Jim Bowden about making a lower-scale trade for Ryan Church. Although blessed with power, above-average speed, and the versatility to play all three outfield positions, Church has failed to gain the favor of Washington manager Frank Robinson. That explains in part why the Nationals recently demoted Church to the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, bypassing the usual stop with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. There’s been some talk of Church coming to the Yankees for Colter Bean, but it will require more than the hefty soft-tossing right-hander to get a deal done…
If Jorge Posada’s hamstring tear becomes a long-term problem, the Yankees will look into the possibility of acquiring a backup catcher. They’ve already grown disenchanted with the hitting and throwing of Kelly Stinnett, who appears to be washed up at the age of 36. One player that will draw the Yankees’ interest is Cincinnati’s Javier Valentin, one of the game’s best backup catchers. The 30-year-old Valentin can be a free agent at season’s end; that status, along with the presence of Jason LaRue and David Ross, may convince the Reds to cut bait with Valentin. If so, they’ll want young pitching (either lefty Sean Henn or righty Matt DeSalvo) in return for the switch-hitting receiver…
While most publicized rumors focused on bigger names like Livan Hernandez, Dontrelle Willis, and Barry Zito, Mets general manager Omar Minaya did some flying below the radar by picking up Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez from the Diamondbacks for Jorge Julio. The addition of the elder statesman right-hander, whose age ranges from 36 to 45 depending on your source, will enable the Mets to part company with both Jose Lima and Jeremi Gonzalez while ensuring Aaron Heilman’s presence in the bullpen through the All-Star break. Minaya made a quick follow-up move by trading for Cincinnati’s Dave "Tiger" Williams, who was surprisingly designated for assignment despite being the wintertime compensation for the popular Sean Casey. Williams will probably start his Mets tenure in the rotation and then move to the bullpen when Brian Bannister returns from the disabled list. Even with El Duque and Williams in tow, the Mets will continue to look at constructing a more major trade that won’t include giving up Lastings Milledge for either Willis, Zito, or Jason Schmidt.
As former Yankee broadcaster Tony Kubek used to say, having a bullpen and the bench are critical to a team if it hopes to contend for a pennant and make the playoffs. The 2006 Yankees have a bullpen, but it is the other part of the equation that has become so troubling to this team in the middle of May.
For too long now, the Yankees have treated their bench as an afterthought. They’ve put so much time and money into having an everyday lineup filled with All-Stars, while giving little attention to the details of having a good supply of reserve players. And up until now, the Yankees have gotten away with that strategy. After all, they’ve made the playoffs every year since 1995, and every year since 2001, which was probably the last time they had a really good bench.
Well, all of that has begun to change over the past two weeks, as a wave of injuries has hit the Yankees, in particular damaging their starting lineup. Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield are on the disabled list. Jorge Posada had to miss most of the weekend Subway Series against the Mets, leaving an overmatched Kelly Stinnett to take most of the at-bats at catcher. And now Shawn Chacon has hit the disabled list, leaving the Yankees with a back-end of the rotation featuring Jaret Wright and Aaron Small. At this writing, the Yankees are two and a half games back of the first-place Red Sox, with the very real possibility of being four and a half games back by Wednesday night.
Some might defend the Yankees by saying that few teams could withstand the loss of two starting outfielders. I say that’s bunk, that the Yankees should have seen the possibility coming given the age of their roster. If the Yankees had spent more time putting together a reasonable bench and backing up their core players with better depth, they would have been able to sustain the recent injury wave a bit more smoothly. Instead, they’ve had to resort to bringing back two players (Terrence Long and Scott Erickson) to the major leagues, players who have little business being on major league rosters at this stage of their careers. They’ve also brought up a third player (Kevin Reese) who’s generally regarded as a career minor leaguer and was hitting in the .250s at the time of his recall from Triple-A.
Fortunately for the Yankees, it’s very early in the season–and the divisional deficit in the American League is still small. Thankfully, the front office has started to address the problem by signing players like Erubiel Durazo and Carlos Pena to minor league contracts, while bringing in other players like Jason Romano and Richard Hidalgo to their minor league facility in Tampa for workouts.
If healthy, Durazo is capable of crushing right-handed pitching. Pena is a better-than-average defensive first baseman who can hit home runs. Romano is a scrappy and versatile player capable of playing second base, shortstop, and the outfield. And Hidalgo is a good defensive right fielder with a cannon for a right arm. One could make an argument that each of these players is better than his current counterpart on New York’s bench.
In the short term, these players will make the Columbus Clippers–the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate–stronger contenders for the International League championship. Yankee fans will just have to hope that some of these players don’t spend the entire summer trying to help Columbus to a league title, not when they are badly needed in trying to restore the notion that a capable bench is a good thing for the major league team to have.
Here is this week’s trivia question from my new book, The Team That Changed Baseball:
Which member of the 1971 Pirates hailed from the same home town as Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente?
The first person to post the correct answer wins two Pirate cards from the 1972 Topps set.
Less than two months into the current season, several themes have already developed on the never-ending rumor mill. The Yankees need an outfielder. The Mets need starting pitching. The Braves need a closer. And yes, the Cubs need a power hitter, preferably one who can play first base.
The last theme is fast becoming the most popular one of the spring season. While GM Jim Hendry has already waited too long in finding a decent short-term replacement for Derrek Lee, the Cubs will still have to play another month without their 2005 MVP. That means Hendry will need to move swiftly before this season becomes a lost cause for the Cubbies. One name that has popped up is that of Rockies minor league slugger Ryan Shealy, who appears ready to try his hand against major league pitching but is stuck behind future Hall of Fame first baseman Todd Helton. The Rockies did experiment with Shealy as an outfielder, only to watch the young slugger hurt his elbow. Still, Shealy might be able to handle the outer confines of Wrigley Field, where there is far less outfield space to roam than at spacious Coors Field… The Cubs would appear to be a good fit for the Rockies; they can offer Colorado one of several extraneous pitching prospects currently at Triple-A. In the short haul, Shealy could play first base and give the Cubs a reasonable expectation of power production. He could then move to the outfield when Lee returns from his fractured wrist…
Unlike some members of the mass media, I’m not entirely convinced that the Yankees will make a trade for an outfielder. For now, Brian Cashman will continue to explore in-house options (such as Melky Cabrera and Mitch Jones). The Yankees will only make a trade if one of two things happens: Gary Sheffield’s hand injury persists long into the summer or Cabrera shows that he can’t hit. If Sheffield comes back within two weeks, which is the current projection, and Cabrera continues to hit line drives to all fields, the Yankees will stand pat in the outfield and pool their trade efforts into acquiring a starting pitcher… In the meantime, the number of outfielders linked to the Yhankees in potential trades continues to grow. In addition to the six left fielders mentioned last week, the Yankees have supposedly shown interest in center fielders Ken Griffey, Jr. and Torii Hunter, and All-Star right fielder Bobby Abreu. Of the three, only Hunter seems like a reasonable fit, given his defensive skills and the possibility that he will become a free agent at season’s end. As long as the Reds maintain contention in the NL Central, they’ll hold onto Griffey, who remains a fan favorite in Cincinnati. And the Phillies will want a lot for Abreu, which is understandable given his standing as one of the game’s top 20 everyday players. They’d probably demand Philip Hughes in any deal with New York, and that will be a dealbreaker from the Yankees’ perspective.
I’ll be appearing on ESPNews at 5:40 pm Eastern time tonight (Wednesday) with the host of "The Hot List," Brian Kenny. We’ll be talking about The Team That Changed Baseball, along with anything else that Brian deems worthy of discussion. This will mark my second appearance on the program.
Brian is a real student of the game and one of the few broadcasters today who shows an intense appreciation for the game’s history. A frequent visitor to Cooperstown, he usually comes up for Hall of Fame Weekend.
And, of course, he’s a particularly great guy for putting me on the air with him! Thanks, Brian.
I know it’s merely an exhibition, but I have to admit to some disappointment when Monday’s Hall of Fame Game was cancelled due to increasingly heavy rains in Cooperstown. I was enjoying my stint on MLB Radio’s coverage of the game, coming on the heels of an eventful and busy book signing earlier in the day. There’s something invigorating about the presence of two major league teams in Cooperstown; it’s our small town’s way of staying connected to the major leagues despite being four hours away from the nearest American or National League team.
I’d like to offer special thanks to MLB Radio producer Mike Siano for inviting me to do color on the game and to play-by-play partner Vinny Micucci, who proved extremely easy to work with in the broadcast booth. Although we only broadcast two and a half innings, I enjoyed talking baseball with “The Cooch” and working with game producer Robbie DeMarco…
Some of the pre-game buzz at Doubleday Field involved Reds center fielder Ken Griffey, Jr., who did not play in the rain-shortened game but did participate in pre-game ceremonies. There was a lot of on-the-field talk about Griffey possibly being traded to the Yankees in the aftermath of Hideki Matsui’s wrist injury. One on-field official speculated that Griffey didn’t play at all in the Hall of Fame Game because of ongoing talks between the Reds and Yankees, and concern over Griffey getting hurt on a rain-soaked field. Personally, I don’t see a Griffey trade happening—certainly not right now with the Reds only one game out of first place in the NL Central. And the fragile Griffey, given his age and recent history of annual injuries, isn’t a good fit for an older team like the Yankees who need younger and more durable players…
The Reds and the Pirates weren’t the only baseball celebrities who visited Cooperstown on Monday. Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Robin Roberts threw out ceremonial first pitches at Doubleday Field. Another Hall of Fame right-hander, Ferguson Jenkins, made an appearance on Cooperstown’s Main Street earlier in the day. And former Negro Leagues left-hander Willie Fordham signed books on Main Street, completing a marathon of three straight days of picture-taking and book-signing…
This year’s Hall of Fame Game may have been the only major league game I’ve ever seen—exhibition or otherwise—that started 20 minutes before the scheduled first pitch. Hall of Fame officials decided to move up the start time because of the ongoing rain and the forecast of harder showers throughout the afternoon.
Here is this week’s trivia question from my new book, The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Which 1971 Pirate had an 18-game hitting streak, the team’s longest that season?
The first person to post the correct answer wins a pair of 1972 Topps Pirate cards.
Outfielders and pitchers have moved to the head of the line on contending teams’ want lists, especially for two National League contenders…
Could Mays be coming back to the Mets? Before anyone gets too excited, it’s not Willie Mays I’m talking about, but right-hander Joe Mays, who’s never actually played in New York but could be a band-aid for the back end of the Mets’ weathered rotation. Recently designated for assignment by the Royals, Mays is the kind of sinkerballer who could be aided by New York’s rangy double-play combination of Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui. Mays wouldn’t cost much, probably no more than a C or D-level prospect in the Mets’ system. The Royals would likely pick up at least half of Mays’ salary for 2006, as well…
As they wait the return of Brian Bannister from the DL, the Mets will look at low-cost, short-term options for their rotation rather than giving up someone like Lastings Milledge for a higher profile starter. Xavier Nady’s hot start in right field could make the Mets more likely to use Victor Diaz as trade bait. If Omar Minaya can acquire a legitimate No. 4 starter for Diaz, he’ll likely make that deal, something he was unwilling to do over the winter…
The Cardinals are keeping one eye on potential left field targets in the trade market, but they plan to give Larry Bigbie, just off the disabled list, the first look in their continuing search for Reggie Sanders’ fulltime successor. If Bigbie hits well, the Cards might settle for a right-handed hitting platoon partner. If Bigbie doesn’t hit, they’ll step up efforts to acquire someone like Shannon Stewart of the Twins, or maybe even Sanders himself (who might be regretting his wintertime decision to sign with the Triple-A Royals)… Speaking of Stewart, he figures to be one of several left fielders the Yankees will consider in the aftermath of Hideki Matsui’s wrist fracture. But first they plan on giving an extended look to Melky Cabrera, whose minor league resume indicates he will hit in the major leagues…
The Cardinals might not be restricting their outfield search to left fielders. Jim Edmonds’ slow start and fragile condition has led general manager Walt Jocketty to talk to the Twins about Torii Hunter, who would become a free agent at season’s end if Minnesota chooses not to pick up his option. St. Louis might be willing to offer Triple-A right-hander Anthony Reyes, who is currently an insurance policy in case one of the Cardinals’ starters goes down with injury. The acquisition of Hunter would allow Edmonds to take some time off and rehab; once Edmonds returns, the Cardinals could re-insert him in center field and slide Hunter over to left, giving St. Louis (with Juan Encarnacion in right) arguably the best defensive outfield in the National League…
Since the Cardinals are looking for outfielders and the Mets remain needy for pitchers, why don’t the two teams hook up directly in trade talks? A deal of Anthony Reyes for Victor Diaz makes an awful lot of sense. At one time, the Mets and Cardinals were bitter rivals nestled in the same division. Now they’re in different divisions, which makes a trade between the two teams a logical possibility.
It figures to be a busy weekend for yours truly. On Saturday and Sunday, I’ll be signing copies of my new book, The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates. The signings will take place from noon to 2:00 pm each day at Augur’s Bookstore, located on the corner of Main and Pioneer streets in the village of Cooperstown.
And then on Monday, I’ll be sharing broadcast duties with MLB.com’s Vinny Micucci on this year’s Hall of Fame Game broadcast. In this year’s annual exhibition, the Pirates take on the Reds, in what amounts to a long-awaited rematch of the 1972 playoffs!
Forgive me for being so excited. I received my first copies of The Team That Changed Baseball late last week. It’s always a time of trepidation for an author—waiting to see what your latest book will look like and whether it will meet your demanding approval. While I’m hardly an unbiased participant, I have to commend publisher Bruce Franklin and his staff at Westholme Publishing for doing such a wonderful job in producing an attractive cover and a pleasing layout, making for a handsome finished product.
The book is now available for pre-order at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and will be available in bookstores in the coming days. In anticipation of next Monday’s Hall of Fame Game between the Pirates and Reds, I’ll also take part in my first book signings this Saturday and Sunday at Augur’s Bookstore in Cooperstown.
And now to this week’s trivia question, which is a tough one:
Which member of the 1971 Pirates was married during that regular season, prior to a game against the Atlanta Braves?
It looks like the Cubs, along with any other team looking to add a power-hitting first baseman to the mix, can forget about Kansas City’s Mike Sweeney as an option. Long plagued with ailments, Sweeney has another bulging cervical disk in his back that will sideline him for the next several weeks. As with most back problems, this appears to be a chronic situation, which explains why Sweeney has discussed the possibility of retiring at the end of this season, or possibly next. Among his many failures as the general manager of the Royals, Allard Baird’s unwillingness to trade Sweeney over the past three years may have to rank as the largest blunder. At the peak of his value, Sweeney could have brought back a package of two to three top prospects. Right now, his value on the trade market is less than zero, given the fragile condition of his 32-year-old body… The Royals don’t plan to replace Sweeney, their No. 1 DH, by making a trade. Instead, they’ve promoted first baseman Justin Huber from Triple-A Omaha and will do no more than platoon him with veteran lefty swinger Matt Stairs. Of course, the Royals should play Huber every day and trade Stairs while he still has some value, but that’s just the latest bone of contention the Kansas City media has had with Baird…
While we know that Sweeney won’t be going to the Cubs, the possibility of a trade with the Orioles seems to be growing by the day. The Orioles are willing to trade either Jeff Conine or Kevin Millar to the Cubs for a grade-B or grade-C prospect, but keep in mind that both players have the right to veto a trade until June 15. Conine is the better defensive first baseman and is also a more legitimate outfielder, while Millar has more power and offensive potential, and neither is the answer to what the Cubs really need. That would be a first baseman who can really hit, and preferably one that has the ability to play another position when Derrek Lee returns from his wrist injury. The Cubs have already ruled out a trade for Arizona’s Tony Clark—he’s certainly a better hitter than either Conine or Millar right now—on the premise that he can’t play another position in the field when Lee returns. Clark doesn’t run well enough to play the outfield, which is the only other spot the Cubs could even consider as a secondary option. As a result, Clark will continue to waste away on Arizona’s bench—at least until a team like the Angels comes calling…
Here’s a theory as to why Carlos Pena did not opt for free agency on Tuesday (when the Yankees failed to bring him to the Bronx) and then sign a contract with the Cubs. Pena might simply view the Yankees as a better long-term alternative. With Andy Phillips struggling at the plate and Jason Giambi incompetent at playing first base, the Yankees will need some help at the position for the rest of the season. If Pena were to go to Chicago, he could play every day for two months, but then find himself on the bench when Derrek Lee returns. That would put Pena in an unenviable position of trying to learn to play the outfield—or looking at another tango with unemployment…
It’s no secret the Phillies need starting pitching. They plan to fill one hole in the rotation by promoting Cole Hamels from Triple-A, but they’d like to fill another hole with a veteran starter through trade. They’ve talked to the Pirates about Oliver Perez, but the left-hander’s mysterious loss of velocity has the Phillies concerned… The Phillies might also have some interest in Minnesota’s Brad Radke, despite his horrid performance over the first month of the season. If the Twins don’t climb back into the race soon, don’t be surprised if both Radke and Kyle Lohse become prime trade bait…
Also, don’t be shocked if the Phillies make a late-season run for Dontrelle Willis, who will be the No. 1 pitching commodity on the trade market. The Phillies can offer Shane Victorino and Gavin Floyd to start, and that may give them a leg up on rivals New York and Atlanta, both of whom would love to bring in Willis for the stretch run…
I’m reluctant to do full-scale reviews of baseball books because I believe there is an inherent conflict of interest at work here. If I were to thoroughly pan a book, how could readers trust my opinion, given that I am essentially a rival author? Couldn’t a negative review be interpreted by some as a way to unfairly put down another writer while drawing more attention to myself as a supposedly more accomplished author?
Having said that, I feel that no such conflict exists in giving positive recommendations on books. That’s what I’d like to do in the case of the new tome, Stepping Up, which details the life and times of Curt Flood and his late-career battle against baseball’s reserve clause. First-time author Alex Belth, who’s best known as the lead writer for the internet’s Bronx Banter, has done a commendable job of recounting Flood’s life, while placing some of his struggles in the proper racial perspective of the 1950s, sixties, and seventies. Belth tells stories well, mixing in just enough baseball with readable anecdotes from Flood’s tumultuous life, which included bouts with alcohol and recurring financial problems. The book also sheds some clarifying light on what can be complicated issues—baseball’s reserve clause and the sport’s anti-trust exemption. In both cases, Alex explains the legalese in layman’s term, making the reading relatively quick and easy.
As with any good biography, the book sheds light on some of the lesser known aspects of Flood’s career, including his early major league days with the Reds and his final days with the Senators. Other than some occasionally faulty copy editing, my only real criticism of the book is that I wish it were longer, which is often a function of the editor and not the writer himself. And that can actually be a good tendency from editors and writers; after all, you always want to leave the audience wanting more.
I’d particularly recommend Stepping Up to younger fans who want to learn more about the economic and social climate involving players and owners in the 1960s. It was much different than today, with owners holding a stiff upper hand and most players left scraping for financial leftovers, as they were led to believe management’s cries of poverty. Readers will also glean some valuable information about the early years of Marvin Miller’s reign as head of the Players’ Association, and how he tried to provide guidance to Flood—without knowing exactly how his fight against baseball’s establishment would turn out.