April 2008

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Timid Tigers, Animal Bannister, and Showboat Gomes

You can’t win a pennant (or a division title) in April, but you can come awfully close to losing one if you’re not careful. That’s the predicament the Tigers find themselves in, having lost their first six games of the season despite being cast as pre-season co-favorites in the American League Central.

What has been Detroit’s undoing? Well, just about everything. We knew the bullpen would be questionable because of first-half injuries to Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, but the Tigers’ problems extend well beyond the identity of the set-up corps to Todd Jones. With arguably the most talented lineup from top to bottom in the league, the Tigers were supposed to make a run at 1,000 runs this summer. Well, that’s not going to happen. Injuries to Curtis Granderson and Gary Sheffield have shackled the offense, which has shown a disturbing tendency to ground into double plays (ten in the first six games, including five on Sunday night). Without Granderson, most of the Tigers’ speed is gone, making them more susceptible to rally-ending twin killings. The team’s defense, particularly in center field (where Brandon Inge is no Granderson) and the left side of the infield (where the offensive-minded Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria reside), is shaky. And even the top of the rotation, in the form of Cy Young contender Justin Verlander, has bombed, with Verlander looking more like Jose Lima and Felipe Lira, vintage 1996, in the Sunday night game against the White Sox.

No matter how talented a team might be, no one wants to open the first week of the season without a win. Certainly not the Tigers, who reside in the same division as the equally regarded Indians and two improved teams in Chicago and Kansas City. None of this is meant to indicate that the Tigers are done–they’re only four games out in the Central–but the depth of the division and the difficulty of the schedule will not give the Tigers much of a buffer. If the Tigers do not turn their situation around within the next two weeks, they will find themselves having to play catch-up in a deep division, while having to overcome a shaky bullpen, a thin starting rotation, and constant reminders of high pre-season expectations.

It’s hard to believe, but the Tigers are already facing a critical watershed to their season. The 162-game schedule may be a long one, but it’s not long enough for a team to simply sleepwalk through the first month of the season…

 

Observers continue to be surprised by the success of Kansas City’s Brian “The Animal” Bannister, largely because of his lack of velocity and a general paucity of strikeouts. But should we really be surprised by Bannister’s continuing mastery of American League hitters, especially after his dismantling of the Tigers in his 2008 debut? Bannister owns a terrific curveball, throws strikes with regularity, and mixes his pitches with the kind of artistry that one would expect from the son of a former major league pitcher (his father is former Mariners and White Sox lefty Floyd Bannister). Those three strengths put the younger Bannister three steps ahead of many major league pitchers who throw 95 miles per hour but have no other discernible weapon in retiring opposing hitters…

 

Jonny Gomes is fast gaining a reputation as a hothead who talks too much and thinks too little. He only added to that reputation on Saturday afternoon, when he twice failed to run hard on long drives to the outfield. (Who does he think he is, Manny Ramirez?) In the first incident, Gomes assumed that a drive to right field would result in a home run, so he lollygagged his way to first base. And then, halfway between first and second base, Gomes realized that the ball was in play; Bobby Abreu nailed him at second base on what should have been an easy double for Gomes. One would have thought Gomes would learn from the experience, but later in the game, he once again went into a home run trot, this time on a deep drive to left field. Luckily for Gomes, the ball cleared the fence for a home run. I can only hope that Rays manager Joe Maddon said something to Gomes after one–if not both–of those at-bats… Of course, now I’ll have to hear criticism from some Internet hotshot for being an old-fashioned curmudgeon, fuddy-duddy, or worse. (Is there anything worse than being called a fuddy duddy?) God forbid that we get upset when players lazily run into outs on the basepaths because they’re too busy posing for alleged home runs.

The Weekend Rumor Mill

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” That is a philosophy that would serve some out-of-work players who seem to have an overinflated sense of entitlement. For example, the Mets would love to add Claudio Vargas to their pitching equation, but they have not been able to convince him to make a few starts at Triple-A New Orleans before moving up to Queens. Given the Mets’ current pitching shortage (caused by the amazing fragility of Pedro Martinez), Vargas likely would have needed to make only one or two tuneup starts with the Zephyrs before earning a promotion to New York. But that apparently wasn’t good enough for Vargas, who feels that he deserves to pitch in the major leagues right away. Now Vargas will surely be able to find another suitor, but it’s debatable whether he’ll find work with a team that is as good as the Mets are…

The Dodgers thought they had a deal with Marcus Giles, only to have the journeyman second baseman reject the idea of starting a comeback at Triple-A. Like Vargas, Giles may have passed on a good situation. With the Dodgers running through third baseman the way that Joan Rivers runs through plastic surgeries, Giles would have been in line for a quick promotion. He has the skills to play third base, and could have received some playing time at second base behind the aging Jeff Kent. Giles apparently feels that Triple-A baseball is beneath him, but let’s not forget how brutally he played for the Padres last season. A week or two of minor league ball would have been well worth the tradeoff for an eventual job, with a contending team, in the major leagues…

Not only have the Nationals played well during the first week of the season, but they have seen the trade value of Nick “The Stick” Johnson rise appreciably. Johnson’s loss of weight, coupled with his surprising mobility, have convinced some scouts that he’s fully recovered from his broken leg. The Giants, who are desperate for help at just about every position, have made inquiries into Johnson’s availability. They’d love to make Johnson their starting first baseman and cleanup man, return Rich Aurilia to a utility role, and move Bengi Molina out of the cleanup spot. The latter situation has been a source of embarrassment for the Giants, who look to be headed toward 110-plus losses in the first season after Barry Bonds…

In the meantime, the Giants continue to shop every available veteran on their roster, with the exception of Aaron Rowand. One of their best trading chips, Randy Winn, has already endured injury by hitting himself in the ankle while swinging a bat, putting a crimp into Brian Sabean’s immediate plans of a makeover…

Finally, I’m not sure why the Marlins decided to reacquire Wes “Dark Helmet” Helms from the Phillies–while also taking on the balance of his $2.5 million salary. After all, a journeyman like Helms is not going to make one bit of difference in the Marlins’ ability to make the playoffs. Given how cheap the Marlins have become in regard to their payroll, it’s surprising that they would spend so much on a fringe player who doesn’t play third base well enough to handle the position everyday, and doesn’t hit well enough to play first base everyday. Helms might have made sense as a role player for a contending team, but not a rebuilding ballclub in south Florida.

Death of an Actor

I just became aware of a sad development the other day. A young actor named Angelo Spizzirri passed away last October at the age of 32. Though not a household name, Spizzirri did a wonderful job in portraying a high school catcher in the 2002 hit film, The Rookie.

I met Angelo in 2003, when he came to the Hall of Fame for a special program about The Rookie. As part of the event, I interviewed Angelo and Jim Morris (the real-life basis of the film) in the Hall’s Bullpen Theater. In conversing with Angelo both on and off microphone, he struck me as being modest and considerate. Combining his down-to-earth manner with his considerable acting talent, I thought he would become a star within the matter of a few years.

On Thursday night, as I was surfing the web, I came across a reference to The Rookie, and decided to look for an update on Angelo’s career. As I looked at his page on the IMDB site, I was shocked to see a date of death under his entry.

As it turned out, Angelo’s acting career hadn’t taken off the way that it should have. After appearing in a handful of small films, Angelo gave up acting in 2006 in order to become the tour manager for several rock bands. And then, last October 20, he died unexpectedly at his home in Los Angeles. I’ve been trying to research exactly what happened to him, but still haven’t been able to pin down a cause of death.

Even in the Internet age, we can quickly lose track of what happens with those people we meet along the way. I’m sorry to say that’s what happened for me with Angelo. Surprisingly little information about Angelo exists on the web, at least in the places I’ve looked. I can only hope that Angelo’s change in careers brought him some level of happiness before he was taken away from us all too soon.

The Best Story of the Early Season?

One of my favorite players of all-time is Rico Carty, a phenomenal hitter when he was healthy (which wasn’t often enough). Another player named Rico has a chance to join Carty on my list of favorites. He’s already emerged as one of the best stories of the early season.

He’s Rico Washington, who finally made his major league debut this week after 11 seasons in the minor leagues. Never considered a top prospect, Washington had played at least part of each of his last eight seasons at the Double-A level, with only a smattering of Triple-A ball included for good measure. By now, most players would have sought richer pastures in the Japanese Leagues–or given up the dream completely.

Coming out of oblivion to make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster, the 29-year-old Washington came off the bench in St. Louis’ second game, delivering a pinch-hit RBI double in the Cardinals’ 8-3 win. And that may not be the best news of all. Washington has a chance to last for more than the proverbial cup of coffee. He happens to be playing for a bad ballclub, which may provide him with more of an opportunity than a deeper, more talented team. He’s a versatile player, playing most frequently at third base, but with plenty of experience at both second and first base. He’s also caught a few games in the minor leagues, which could make him an emergency third-string catcher. Plus, he happens to bat left-handed, always an advantage for a player who hopes to receive additional pinch-hitting opportunities.

So there you have it. Rico Washington, a great story. He also happens to have a great name, like a character out of “Hill Street Blues.” I hope he hangs around for awhile.

The Hall of Fame’s Presidential Campaign

No matter where I go in the Cooperstown area, I’m asked the inevitable question of the month: who will be the next Hall of Fame president? To be perfectly honest, I really have no idea–but that could change in the coming days. Several sources tell me that interim Hall president Jeff Idelson has the inside track, assuming that he is interested in the position. But at least one reliable source believes that the Hall of Fame will select someone from outside of the organization, as it has with its last two presidential selections, Dale Petroskey and Don Marr. Either way, the Hall of Fame will officially begin its search next Monday, with the goal of having someone in place well before the July 27th Induction Ceremony.

Who are some of the possible successors to Petroskey? Two names come to mind. One is Ted Sizemore, the former major league second baseman who has become a successful executive with Rawlings and was very interested in the Hall’s presidency in 1999, when Marr was let go at the end of his five-year contract. The other name is Andy Strasberg, a former major league executive with the Padres who has been active as a Hall of Fame consultant and confidante over the years.

I’m sure that at some point we’ll hear the names of Bob Costas and Joe Morgan, but that isn’t likely to happen. As mainstays at NBC and ESPN, respectively, they would have to give up lucrative broadcasting positions in order to take the job and avoid any potential conflicts of interest–and that just isn’t likely to happen.

When It’s Time To Change

Change is certainly in the air around these parts. With the coming of a new season, MLB.com has unveiled a new and improved look to MLBlogs, along with a blogging system that is certainly easier from my–the writer’s–point of view. I hope that you like our selection of the MLB retro design to the blog; it gives the blog the kind of 1960s or seventies look that I prefer.

Along the lines of change, I’d like to propose a few others. You might have noticed that I’ve changed the baseball card image from Roberto Clemente (my favorite player) to Thurman Munson (my favorite Yankee). In order to keep things fresh here, I’d like to change the card image once every two weeks, based on your preferences. If you have a particular card image that you’d like me to post, let me know and tell me why I should put it up. Those who propose the best and most interesting card images will get their wishes.

I’d also like to encourage more reader feedback in terms of leaving comments. If you drop by to read an entry, leave us a comment from time to time. I sometimes receive e-mails from people who say they read this blog constantly, but they never leave any comments. Let’s change that habit. Tell me that you agree, or disagree, with something I’ve written; it doesn’t matter which way you fall. Let me know about the kinds of content you’d like to see here. Tell me what it is that you would like me to write about, whether it’s more about the game’s history, or today’s game, or more about the Hall of Fame and Cooperstown.

And, as always, feel free to send feedback via e-mail. I can be reached at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

In the meantime, enjoy the start to the 2008 championship season.

 

Opening Day 2008–Observations From Cooperstown

The traditional Opening Day finally arrived on Monday–though it would have been difficult to tell based on the cold, damp air of Cooperstown. (Basically, we experienced the same weather that wiped out Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.) In spite of my usual complaints about the climate, games did take place throughout the country, including a smattering of matchups that made their way onto my television. So away we go…

Johan Santana, David Wright, and Jose Reyes all played the way the Mets expect them to, resulting in a 7-2 thrashing of the skinflint Marlins. After Santana left with seven innings of two-run, eight-strikeout ball, Willie Randolph did some mixing and matching with his bullpen, turning not to Aaron Heilman but giving Matt Wise and Jorge Sosa a taste of the eighth inning. Wise looked so-so, but Sosa pitched well, as Randolph searches for some bullpen answers during Duaner Sanchez’ latest stint on the disabled list…

As for the Marlins, they continue to look shaky defensively, as they did most of 2007. More importantly, they gave the Opening Day ball to Mark Hendrickson, a Lee Guetterman throwalike who should be pitching in middle relief, not anchoring the rotation. Without much established pitching and without the booming bat of Miguel Cabrera, it looks to be a long season in south Florida…

The Cubs and Brewers played one of the most entertaining games of Opening Day, with each team’s supposed relief ace blowing up in the ninth inning. We’re only one game into the season–and the Cubs already have a closer controversy. Kerry Wood gave up three runs in the top of the ninth, which will fuel fan desires to see Carlos Marmol in the ninth-inning role. The Brewers’ new relief ace, Eric Gagne, looked even worse than Wood. He couldn’t throw strikes, walking his first two batters before grooving a fastball to Japanese sensation Fukudome (who looks like a thicker, more powerful version of Ichiro).For Red Sox fans, Gagne’s performance was all too reminiscent of his second-half horror show in Boston. And to think that the Brewers spent $10 million on Gagne, who was far more concerned with the muddy mound and his own steamed-up glasses than he was with opposing Cubs batters. (An aside on Gagne: Could he make a semblance of an effort to wear his uniform properly? I’m all for players having a distinctive look on the field, but does Gagne need to wear pants that are three sizes too large? I mean, he had enough material with those trousers to make a couch! He also made no effort to tuck in his shirt, until the home plate umpire finally ordered him to do so several batters into his frightful inning of work. Looking distinctive and personal is one thing; looking like a complete slob is quite another. End of rant.)…

In between my usual Monday night fare of Medium (a terrific show, I might add), I watched bits and pieces of the opener between the Padres and Astros. Jake Peavy looked Cy Young unhittable over the first five innings, while Roy Oswalt struggled against what appears–at least on the surface–to be a popgun Padre offense. While the Padres have question marks in left, center, and at third base, they do have a legitimate star in Adrian Gonzalez. While the ESPN broadcasters compared him to Rafael Palmeiro, he reminds me more of a widebody version of Will “The Thrill” Clark. With that sweet swing, ability to hit to all fields, and raw straightaway power, Gonzalez could emerge as a serious MVP cancidate within the next two seasons…

Finally, I received a care package coinciding with Opening Day. Friend and fellow author Matt Silverman sent me copies of his three most recent projects–Mets By the Numbers, 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, and Meet the Mets 2008. If you’re a Mets diehard and are not yet familiar with Matt’s work, you need to change that quickly. A talented writer, Matt has emerged as a print version of Howie Rose–an absolute Mets expert and historian. Thanks, Matt.

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