It’s amazing how a team with nearly unlimited financial resources can annually put together one of the worst benches in all of baseball. Yet, somehow the Yankees manage to do it, which leads me to believe that Brian Cashman does not know how to construct a bench. How else to explain a current bench that includes Jose Molina, Chad Moeller, and Alberto Gonzalez, three offensive nonentities that basically cripple Joe Girardi’s ability to pinch-hit in the late innings? Then there’s backup outfielder Justin Christian, a non-prospect who wasn’t even on the team’s 40-man roster at the start of the season.
The Yankees really haven’t had a productive bench since 2000, when Cashman smartly pulled off mid-season deals for useful veterans like Jose Vizcaino, Luis Sojo, Glenallen Hill, and Luis Polonia. With those four players, the Yankees had backups capable of covering three infield positions, two outfield slots, and capable pinch-hitters from the left (Polonia) and the right sides (Hill). In 2008, the Yankees have exactly one bench player capable of providing a dose of offense, and that’s Wilson Betemit. And with Hideki Matsui now on the disabled list, the Yankees will probably play Betemit every day, further depleting their paper-thin bench. In the meantime, the Yankees continue the ridiculous practice of carrying three catchers (who does that anymore?), with two of them being identical good-field/no-hit types in Molina and Moeller.
If the Yankees end up missing the playoffs by a game or two, a lot of critics will point to the depleted starting rotation and the inconsistent offense. We could just as easily point fingers at the bench, which looks more and more like a frightening by-product of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory…
When the Twins lost Torii Hunter to free agency, finally traded Johan Santana, and then handed their center field reins to the seemingly overmatched Carlos “GoGo” Gomez, most fans (including this one) penciled them in to finish no better than third in the stacked American League Central. For the moment, at least, we can forget about such preseason predictions. As we approach the halfway point of the season, the Twins are solidly entrenched in second behind the surprising White Sox, having won ten of their last 11 games. They are scoring runs in bushels, even though they lack power throughout their order. So how are the Twins doing it? They score runs primarily because of a remarkable ability to hit with runners in scoring position (RISP), with a batting average of nearly .315 in such situations. As Tim Kurkjian of ESPN pointed out over the weekend, the Twins are the only major league team that actually simulates situations with runners on base during their batting practice sessions. This is unheard of in the major leagues, which makes me wonder why? So many hitters waste batting practice by trying to hit tape measure home runs, instead of working on situations that are more likely to come up in that evening’s game. Additionally, hitters should be encouraged to take BP pitches that are not strikes, as opposed to swinging at anything that is close. As with hitting with RISP, this would foster better habits from hitters, who might be more patient at the plate during the games. Batting practice might not be as fun to watch that way, but it would seemingly be more productive for those teams willing to take a thinking-man’s approach to this longstanding pre-game routine…
Unlike some Internet pundits, I find nothing amusing or endearing in the two off-field incidents that have grabbed headlines over the last week. The first involved Shawn Chacon’s despicable attack against GM Ed Wade. The second, for those who may have missed it, involved Manny Ramirez, who shoved the team’s traveling secretary after being told that he could not have any additional complimentary tickets for an upcoming game. Chacon has already been dumped by the Astros–and let’s hope the Players’ Association displays a shred of decency here by not filing a grievance against Houston–while Ramirez faces no sanctions after delivering an apology. What Ramirez did was bullying, plain and simple, as he tried to exert some power over a lesser-paid employee. (Like most decent-minded folks, I can’t stand a bully.) Let’s face it, if this involved someone in anything but the entertainment or sports industry, he or she would have been fined or suspended, or possibly fired. Now I’m not calling for the Red Sox to “fire” Ramirez, or even suspend him, but I do think there should be some sort of discipline enforced. The Red Sox should require Ramirez to make an appearance for charity, or perform some other act of community service. Otherwise athletes will get the idea that they can bully anyone–and will only to have to apologize for it after the fact.
One of the many benefits to living in Cooperstown involves the arrival of former major leaguers, who often visit the village to participate in Hall of Fame legends events or local autograph shows. Earlier on Friday, I had the privilege of meeting former big league slugger Nate Colbert, who talked to a small but attentive crowd of fans in the Hall’s Bullpen Theater. Casual but colorful in his presentation, Colbert spun stories from his days in baseball, beginning with his travels on Negro Leagues barnstorming trips and continuing during his major league days with the Astros, Padres, Tigers, Expos, and A’s.
During an entertaining and wide-ranging talk, Colbert touched upon a variety of topics, from his early days as a fan to his current work as a minister and advisor to young amateur athletes:
*Colbert became exposed to baseball early in life, primarily through his father, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Leagues. The elder Colbert played with the likes of Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige, and against such legends as Josh Gibson. During the summer, young Nate often accompanied his father on barnstorming trips, giving him some insight to the struggles of some players. “A lot of the players were illiterate,” says Colbert, revealing something I had never previously heard. “I was one of the few guys who traveled with them who could read menus, sign my name, that sort of thing. I taught Satchel how to write.”
*Colbert’s father didn’t know how to read–but he understood how to play the game properly. “One time, I ran 87 feet down the line, I knew I was gonna be out, and then I just drifted into the bag. After the game, my father asked me, ‘Are you injured? You can’t run 90 feet. What’s wrong with you?’ He taught me a real lesson.”
*As Colbert grew into his powerful 200-pound body, he began to draw the attention of major league scouts. The Yankees offered to double any offers he received. Colbert preferred playing for his hometown Cardinals, so he took less money to sign with St. Louis in 1964.
*Buried behind talented first basemen and outfielders in the Redbirds’ system, Colbert was left available in the Rule Five draft. The Astros swooped in and picked Colbert, bringing him to the major leagues in 1966. Prior to the start of the season, the Astros hosted the Yankees in an exhibition game at the Astrodome, giving Colbert his first glimpse at a Yankee legend. “Mickey Mantle was taking batting practice,” Colbert says. “I said to my teammates, ‘Oh my gosh! Hey guys, that’s Mickey Mantle.’ The other guys on the team just said calmly, ‘I know.’”
*Colbert’s big break came in 1968, when the Padres selected him in the expansion draft. As the Pods prepared to play their inaugural season in 1969, they planned a platoon role for the ex-Astro. “I was going to platoon at first base with Bill Davis. And then, I got hot and hit home runs in five straight games. Preston Gomez, the manager, then came up to me and told me that I had earned the right to play every day.” Davis was soon traded, cementing Colbert’s newfound status. From 1969 to 1972, he put up huge power numbers, twice hitting 38 home runs in a season and twice posting slugging percentages of better than .500. In 1972, his best year, he collected 111 RBIs, accounting for an incredible 23 per cent of the pathetic Padres’ run total for the season. That 23 per cent figure remains a major league record.
*On August 1, 1972, Colbert tied Stan Musial’s record with five home runs in a doubleheader. There was something cosmic about that accomplishment, considering that Musial had been Colbert’s idol while growing up in St. Louis. In fact, Colbert was at Sportsman’s Park the day that Musial set the record in 1954. ”My father said, ‘You’ll never see that again.’ ” In hitting his fifth home run against the Braves and thereby tying Musial’s mark, Colbert victimized Atlanta closer Cecil Upshaw. “Upshaw always gave me trouble. He threw underhanded. For some reason, he threw me an overhand fastball that day. I asked him about that later on and he said that he thought he could surprise me. Surprise!”
*Continuing back problems began to derail Colbert’s career in the mid-1970s. He spent time with the Tigers and Expos before landing in Oakland with Charlie Finley’s A’s for a final cup of coffee in 1976. While with the A’s, his back acted up, resulting in a minor league rehab stint. There he met his wife–and became involved in a bench-clearing brawl. ”I was in Salt Lake City on rehab, when a big right-hander named Mike Barlow threw a pitch at me. Then he threw a second one at me. So I tackled him, flipped him over, and started pounding him. Mike ended up with a bruised face and blood all over him, and I had scratches all over me. Well, I felt bad. After the game, I went into the parking lot. I was hanging out with six or seven of my teammates, all of the black players on the team. And then Barlow walked out into the parking lot. He must have thought we were a gang! I went up to him and said, ‘Mike, I’m sorry. I feel bad about what I did.’ ” Later on, I found out that Mike Barlow was my wife’s cousin!”
*Now a minister, Colbert and his wife run a business called “Amateur to Professional Sports Services.” The organization provides advice to amateur athletes considering careers in professional athletics. “About 160 of our players have gone on to sign pro contracts,” says Colbert. “We’ve been around long enough that some of them are now coaches and managers.” He also finds his work as a minister fulfilling. “I love to pray. And I love to teach. I love the involvement with other people.”
Most of the people that listened to him speak in the Bullpen Theater seemed to enjoy their involvement with the personable, down-home Colbert. After his talk, I accompanied Nate, his family and his representative as they made their way to Sal’s Pizzeria for a quick bite to eat. By the end of the day, Colbert’s appearance in Cooperstown had made an unbearably hot and humid day on Main Street that much more tolerable.
Len Randle–Topps Company–1978 (No. 544)
Shawn Chacon will never throw another pitch for the Houston Astros’ franchise. It simply won’t happen, not after Chacon foolishly put a chokehold onto the neck of Astros general manager Ed Wade before throwing him to the ground. Yet, we shouldn’t be misled into thinking that Chacon’s career has necessarily come to a complete and sudden end. Baseball precedent indicates Chacon could find work pitching for someone, even though he has already been suspended–and then released without pay–by the Astros.
I can’t ever recall a player physically attacking his own general manager, but I remember very well a frightful incident that involved a player and his manager. And while I don’t mean to minimize what Chacon did (he deserves a ban from baseball for at least a month), his actions pale in comparison to what took place 31 years ago.
In March of 1977, Texas Rangers infielder Lenny Randle reported to spring training in Pompano Beach, Florida–rather unhappily. As the Rangers’ starting second baseman the previous season, Randle was upset by off-season speculation that had rookie Bump Wills taking his job. Manager Frank Lucchesi assured Randle that no decision had been made; he and Wills would both be allowed to compete for the second base position.
During the early weeks of spring training, Lucchesi played Wills about twice as often as the veteran Randle. The handwriting appeared clear to Randle, who thought Wills was receiving preferential treatment in the battle for playing time. Although Lucchesi praised Randle as the “hardest worker we have in camp,” he soon announced that Wills had won the job. On March 24, as the Rangers prepared to play a spring training game, Randle rushed into the Texas clubhouse and packed up two duffel bags worth of clothes. Randle told reporters that he was leaving the team.
Randle thought better of his threat to leave–after talking to two of his more levelheaded teammates. Mike Hargrove and Gaylord Perry both advised Randle to stay in camp and try to work out the problem. When Lucchesi learned that Randle had come close to leaving the Rangers, he expressed regret (rather surprisingly) that Hargrove and Perry had talked him out of it.
“I wish they’d have let him go,” said Lucchesi. “If he thinks I’m going to beg him to stay on this team, he’s wrong. I’m sick of punks [who are] making $80,000 a year moaning and groaning about their situation.”
In the context of 21st century baseball, a salary of $80,000 for a professional athlete might sound like a mere pittance. In 1977, however, it was good money, especially for a player coming off a .224 season at the plate. Yet, it really wasn’t the reference to Randle’s salary that created a problem. It was Lucchesi’s choice of the word “punks.”
The Texas media made big play out of Lucchesi’s characterization of Randle as a “punk.” A few writers believed the word “punks” carried certain racial implications, especially when coming from a white manager (or supervisor) in describing a black player (or underling). Although Lucchesi offered no apology to Randle, he reportedly confided to coaches and team officials that he regretted using the word “punks.” Randle, however, showed little immediate anger over the remark. In fact, he repeatedly joked with teammates about being a punk.
Three days later, Randle found himself chatting calmly with his manager on the field prior to an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in Orlando, Florida. Most of the players went about their usual pre-game business, their backs turned away from Randle and Lucchesi. Without warning, the 28-year-old Randle suddenly cocked his first and struck the 50-year-old Lucchesi in the side of the face. Lucchesi fell to the ground, landing on his backside. Randle hit him two more times, putting Lucchesi on his back. Randle then continued to throw punches at Lucchesi, who was left bleeding on the stadium grass.
By now, a number of Rangers players had noticed the altercation. Several Rangers ran toward Lucchesi and Randle, with veteran infielders Campy Campaneris and Jim Fregosi leading the charge. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive in time to prevent Randle from inflicting considerable damage to Lucchesi’s face, chest, and back.
Lucchesi suffered three fractures to his cheekbone, a concussion, two broken ribs, and an injured back. As plastic surgeons prepared to repair the bones in Lucchesi’s face, Rangers management dealt swiftly with Randle. General manager Dan O’Brien suspended the switch-hitting infielder for 30 days without pay.
Unlike some troublemaking athletes who repeatedly find themselves buried in controversy, Randle had accumulated a spotless record during his major league career with the Rangers and Washington Senators. Well-educated and well liked, Randle had always played hard for his managers and enjoyed solid relationships with his teammates. In particular, he had become a favorite of former Rangers skipper Billy Martin, not always the most rational man in the dugout and a manager who was often difficult to please. So why had a good citizen like Randle suddenly turned bad, assaulting Lucchesi during a conversation that had seemed so amicable at the beginning?
There were other questions, too. Was Randle’s action premeditated? Randle said no, claiming that when he heard the word “punks,” it prompted a “spontaneous” response. The next day, the comments of teammate and pitcher Bert Blyleven called the matter into further question. Blyleven informed a reporter that Randle had asked him what the consequences might be if he physically hit someone. Blyleven claimed that Randle had asked him the question before his assault on Lucchesi.
After initially asking for a grievance hearing before an arbitration board, Randle called off the hearing, saying that he would accept the 30-day suspension–and the accompanying $23,000 loss in salary and fines. As a result, the Players’ Association did not become involved in the matter. Perhaps Marvin Miller realized that Randle had received a relatively light sentence.
Randle then tried to apologize to Lucchesi, who had spent five days in the hospital because of his injuries, but the manager would have none of it. “Randle is on the hot seat,” Lucchesi said. “I’m not going to let him off. He could stand on the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog rolling in and I wouldn’t accept his apology.”
Clearly, Randle’s violent attack against Lucchesi had sealed the infielder’s fate in Texas. On April 27, only days before Randle’s suspension was scheduled to end, the Rangers announced that they had traded the switch-hitter to the New York Mets, who were desperate for a third baseman.
The incident didn’t end there. Lucchesi claimed that the attack left him with pain that recurred for several months. Lucchesi filed a civil law suit against Randle.
Fortunately, the story came to a peaceful ending. Over a year later, the two men shook hands, having reached what they called an amicable out-of-court settlement. Randle later played in a celebrity softball game that Lucchesi attended. “I hit a triple, slid, and got up and gave Frank a hug,” said Randle.
In the years after his major league career came to an end, Randle has lived a seemingly exemplary life that contradicts his violent actions of the spring of 1977. He often conducts baseball clinics for children and serves as a motivational speaker. He seems to bear little resemblance to the man who was once considered a pariah to baseball.
Given Randle’s success in putting the 1977 incident behind him, perhaps Chacon can do the same. Randle, a mediocre player, found work again. Chacon, a mediocre pitcher, can probably find work again, especially in light of the atrocious pitching market that currently exists. Still, there are problems. Unlike Randle, who had a clean reputation prior to his assault on Lucchesi, Chacon has a history of troublesome behavior, lowlighted by two positive tests for marijuana use and repeated displays of his temper. If (and only if) a contrite Chacon can perform a makeover to his image, he might earn that second chance that Randle once received.
Felix Hernandez’ history-making grand slam on Monday night put him in exclusive company, as he became the first American League pitcher in 37 years to hit a bases-loaded home run. The last man to perform the feat was Steve Dunning, a name with which many of you are not familiar, or have already forgotten. For me, Dunning’s name always brings a smile to my face, mostly because of his nickname, “Stunning Steve.” Baseball people called him Stunning Steve Dunning not only because it rhymed, but because he had a dazzling fastball that at one time made him one of the top pitching prospects in the game. In fact, he was just about as highly touted as Hernandez was when “King Felix” first joined the Mariners. And just like Hernandez, Dunning had to settle for a no-decision in his grand slam game. Dunning couldn’t hold a 5-1 lead for the Indians, giving up five runs on ten hits through four rocky innings against the American League West champion A’s.
After Dunning won The Sporting News‘ 1970 College Player of the Year award, the Indians made him their No. 1 choice in the June draft that spring. Foolishly, the Indians rushed the Stanford product to the major leagues right away, completely bypassing the usual minor league apprenticeship, thereby making the same mistake the Rangers would commit three years later with left-hander David Clyde. On June 14, Dunning made his big league debut. He pitched reasonably well, lasting five innings while giving up two runs to the light-hitting Brewers. Dunning picked up the win, supported capably by Bob Miller’s four innings of shutout relief.
The highlight reel didn’t end there; unfortunately, the highlights just came too few and far between for Stunning Steve. He would win only three of his remaining 12 decisions in 1970, flatlining with an era near 5.00. He pitched a bit better in 1971, striking out 132 in 184 innings, but also walking over 100 men along the way. (Throughout his career, a lack of control would remain Dunning’s biggest pratfall.) The highpoint to his season, other than his grand slam against Diego Segui, came on April 18, when he one-hit Ted Williams’ Washington Senators. After the game, Williams held little back in proclaiming that Dunning’s “going to be some pitcher some day.”
Dunning became only a journeyman pitcher. In the spring of 1973, the Indians gave up on the wild right-hander, trading him to the Rangers, where he became part of Mike Shropshire’s infamous “Seasons in Hell” teams. A subsequent trade sent him to the White Sox, though he never actually appeared in a game for Chicago. Then came trades to the Angels, Expos, Cardinals (another team he never played for), and finally Charlie Finley’s A’s, with whom he ended his seven-year vagrancy in 1977.
Even though Dunning’s career ended in obscurity and disappointment, he’ll always have that grand slam–and Ted Williams’ endorsement–to fall back on…
I have no idea what Carlos Beltran said to home plate umpire Brian Runge during Tuesday night’s game between the Mets and Mariners, but it sure does seem like Runge baited the player, prolonging an argument that likely would have ended quickly. There’s absolutely no doubt that Runge later bumped manager Jerry Manuel (I saw the replay twice, and there’s no question that Runge initiated contact), an incident that should bring swift discipline from the Commissioner’s Office. If MLB officials are going to punish managers for pushing or shoving umpires (and they absolutely should), then umpires should be disciplined for making similar contact with managers, as Runge clearly did. A fine would appear to be the minimum appropriate punishment; a suspension of a game or two would more suitably fit the crime…
Former major league slugger Nate Colbert will visit Cooperstown this weekend, headlined by an appearance at the Hall of Fame on Friday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. The featured guest in a Hall of Fame “Legends Event,” Colbert will discuss his ten-year career with the Astros, Padres, Tigers, Expos, and A’s, most notably his five home runs in a 1972 doubleheader against the Braves. With his powerful but compact swing, Colbert emerged as very good player for some dreadful Padres teams. For example, during that same 1972 season, he drove in 111 runs, representing a stunning (there’s that word again) 23 per cent of San Diego’s runs scored that summer. That still ranks as the highest single-season percentage for any player, relative to his team, in major league history. And to think that Nate accomplished that while wearing those horrific yellow-and-brown double-knits that made the Padres the bane of the early 1970s fashion industry.
Willie Horton–Topps Company–1978 (No. 290)
Willie Horton was a favorite player of mine, despite the fact that he never played for two of “my” teams (the New York Yankees or the Pittsburgh Pirates). One of the most popular Detroit Tigers of the sixties and seventies, Horton made news in 2004 when the Michigan legislature honored him with “Willie Horton Day” throughout the state. It was certainly a deserving recognition for the longtime outfielder-DH, who not only made seven American League All-Star teams during his career, but has also continually involved himself in numerous charitable and humanitarian acts throughout the Detroit area. A longtime member of the Tigers’ front office, Horton has worked with such organizations as the United Way, Meals On Wheels, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Horton’s community activism stretches all the way back to his playing days–specifically to 1967. That season, Horton achieved legitimate hero status when he left Tiger Stadium immediately after a game and traversed directly into the streets of Detroit during the city’s brutal racial riots in an effort to quell some of the violence. Still in full Tiger uniform, Horton climbed aboard a truck to speak to a gathering crowd of insurgents. Horton couldn’t stop the riots by himself, but he drew plenty of legitimately earned praise for his efforts. It was the kind of brave, civic-minded action that I can’t imagine coming from many of today’s major leaguers, given their general reluctance to “mingle” with the common folks even under more pleasant circumstances, both at the games and in other public locales.
Horton’s bravery under fire in 1967 probably didn’t surprise too many of his Tiger teammates, who had come to respect the quiet, rock-solid left fielder for his understated leadership abilities and unwavering professional approach to his work. Horton was one of just a few black players on the Tigers of ’67 and ’68 (along with backup outfielders Gates Brown and Lenny Green, utility infielder Jake Wood, starting pitcher Earl Wilson, and relievers Les Cain and John Wyatt) and the team’s only full-fledged African-American star. His status as the team’s most prominent minority made him extremely popular with black fans throughout Detroit, helping to attract a number of African-American visitors in creating a diverse crowd at Tiger Stadium. Curiously, white and black fans intermingled without incident at the old ballpark, in contrast to the anger and violence that bubbled between the races in the city streets.
On the field, Horton’s presence loomed just as large as his civic and social involvement. He was one of the most feared hitters of his era, in part because of a sturdy five-foot, 11-inch, 225-pound frame of compact muscle, achieved at a time when few players lifted weights and perhaps none used steroids or other performance-enhancing, bodybuilding supplements. Pound for pound, no one appeared stronger than the robust Horton, whose thick wrists and forearms made him a Bunyanesque figure. A seven-time All-Star during his career, Horton typically hit 25 to 35 home runs a year and put up slugging percentages bordering the .500 neighborhood in an era when pitchers enjoyed most of the “enhancements” that the game provided (an expanding strike zone along with the addition of larger, full-figured stadiums in Anaheim, Oakland, and Kansas City). Horton’s performance during the famed “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 remains one of his landmarks; he hit 36 home runs and slugged .543 in a year where most hitters flailed away at far below their normal levels of production. He then hit .304 and scored six runs in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, but it was one of his defensive plays that really turned the Tiger tide during the Series. Never known as a particularly nimble fielder, Horton aggressively charged a ground single to left and then air-launched a one-hop throw to catcher Bill Freehan, who tagged out Lou Brock to stymie a Cardinal rally in the fifth inning of Game Five. The Tigers went on to win the potential elimination game, then claimed the next two matchups to take the Series.
Horton remained the Tigers’ everyday left fielder until 1972, when injuries and a slumping bat restricted Horton to 108 games and led to a time-sharing arrangement with the lefty-swinging Gates Brown. Tigers manager Billy Martin lost so much confidence in Horton that he began to play a catcher, the awkward and immobile Duke Sims, in the outfield during the American League Championship Series, squeezing Willie out of starts in the fourth and fifth games. (Horton, by the way, says that Martin’s insistence on using Sims in the outfield during the playoffs cost the Tigers the pennant that year. Sims went only 1-for-6 in the final two games and committed an error in the decisive fifth game, which the Tigers lost to the A’s, 2-1. In the meantime, Horton appeared only as a pinch-hitter in those two games, delivering one hit in two at-bats. Man, when will managers realize that catchers in the outfield do not work, as seen in the failed examples of Sims, Manny Sanguillen, and Todd Hundley?)
Plagued by a series of injuries, Horton lost the left-field job completely within three years, as the organization decided to capitalize on the relatively new designated hitter rule, which had been put into place in 1973. Horton made a smooth transition to the DH role in 1975, but slumped considerably the following summer. He remained in the role until the early days of the 1977 season, when the over-the-hill Tigers decided to expedite a youth movement by trading Horton to the Texas Rangers for pitcher Steve Foucault, a hefty right-hander who had enjoyed a mixed bag of success but would last only two more seasons in the major leagues.
Legendary for his superstitions, Horton then bounced from team to team, enjoying varying levels of prosperity as a DH with the Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Oakland A’s, Toronto Blue Jays, and Seattle Mariners, while also earning the Comeback Player of the Year Award after his career had been given up for dead. His newfound status as a journeyman prompted a new superstition to be added to his repertoire of rituals, this one involving his equipment. According to the Horton legend, whenever he changed teams he allegedly refused a newly issued helmet from his acquiring team, instead painting the colors and logo of the new team onto his existing headwear. For those who collected cards in the 1970s, Horton’s 1978 Topps card with the Texas Rangers provides an example of the alleged artwork on his helmet.
During an interview I did with Horton several years ago on MLB Radio, I asked Horton if this was true; he confirmed it during our chat while displaying the pride of a skilled painter. True to form, Horton still owns the battered helmet, which appropriately features the old logo and colors of the Mariners–his last major league team.
Having just returned from Philadelphia, I saw members of the Philly media begin to sow small seeds of panic over the Phillies’ recent struggles. The Phillies didn’t win a single game during my recent visit there–covering Wednesday through Sunday–thereby stretching their losing streak to five games. Much of the media and fan focus has centered on Chase Utley, who was enduring a career-worst 0-for-24 slump before finally breaking out with a base hit on Sunday.
Utley’s woes have certainly posed a problem, but they’re just one of several deficiencies that have sprung leaks at Citizens Bank Park. The high-octane offense as a whole has struggled of late, particularly with runners in scoring position. Ryan Howard’s season-long swandive has drained the middle of his order; his .220 batting average, .318 on-base percentage, and 107 strikeouts (putting him well on pace for over 200 K’s) have short-circuited far too many rallies. If neither he nor Jimmy Rollins play like an MVP candidate, the Phillies will struggle to win the NL East. They also need much more from journeyman Geoff Jenkins, who has played too much like Milt Thompson and too little like Bobby Abreu.
Then there’s the starting pitching, which remains questionable beyond lefty ace Cole Hamels. Brett Myers has been borderline awful. If he pitches up to his potential, the Phillies can boast a 1-2 pitching punch as good as any team in the East. If Myers’ ERA continues to hover near five and a half, the Phillies will have a dogfight trying to fend off the Mets and the Braves. They simply don’t get enough innings from Jamie Moyer, or enough quality from backenders Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton.
Still, the Phillies have plenty of weapons that make them one of the teams to beat in the East. Their offense is capable of cutting a huge swath, especially if Utley, Howard, and Rollins find their strokes the way that Pat “The Bat” Burrell has. They also have a surprisingly good bullpen (where Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Chad Durbin all have ERAs below 1.50) and a terrific bench, headlined by the versatile righty/lefty duo of Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs, and a superb backup catcher in Chris Coste…
Over the weekend, Ken Griffey, Jr. created a stir when he was asked to name his favorite memory of Yankee Stadium, now in its final season. Griffey’s response? “Leaving Yankee Stadium.” It seems that Griffey is still angry with the Yankees because of an incident that happened in the mid-1980s, when Yankee skipper Billy Martin threw “Junior,” the son of then Yankee outfielder Ken Griffey, Sr., out of the clubhouse.
When I worked in radio, I made a small cottage industry out of criticizing the younger Griffey. He gave me plenty of material to work with during his early days with Seattle, from his proclaimed ignorance of Jackie Robinson, to his unwillingness to promote the Mariners at a time when the franchise was in danger of being moved, to his refusal to accept an invitation to Bill Clinton’s White House. And then, slowly but surely, Griffey began to show maturity. He played hard and didn’t complain, becoming an upbeat, positive force for baseball. Heck, I had actually jumped onto the Griffey bandwagon.
Just when Griffey had made me a believer, he stirred up this old grudge. As a former president once said, “There you go again.” This ridiculous, never-ending grudge against the Yankees is just so silly and petulant on so many counts. Here are a few:
*Billy Martin didn’t like kids in the clubhouse, whether they be players’ kids or the general manager’s kids. Griffey wasn’t the first child to be given the heave-ho by Billy the Kid, and he almost certainly wasn’t the last.
*Martin is now deceased. In fact, he’s been gone for 19 years. Therefore, he no longer works for the Yankees. Joe Girardi and the current Yankee players have little or no connection to Billy Martin.
*How many years ago did this incident occur? It had to have been more than 20 years ago since the elder Griffey last played for the Yankees in 1986. Is this the worst thing that has ever happened to Junior in his life? If so, he has led a charmed existence.
Enough already. It’s time to move on. Find something new to complain about…
Finally, we’ll be taking your baseball card suggestions for our home page for the rest of Monday and Tuesday. Just post your suggestion and give us a short reason (a paragraph or two) explaining why you’d like that card to be featured here at “Cooperstown Confidential.” Thanks in advance for your recommendations.
Fresh off a revitalizing visit to Philadelphia, I’m back to blogging. My wife, daughter, and I spent the last four days in the “City of Brotherly Love,” principally to attend a symposium celebrating the connection between athletes and the military. On Friday morning, I served as the keynote speaker of the event, wrapping up a two-day program that included an informative round table discussion and an entertaining ballgame in an oldtime setting.
On Thursday night, we attended an exhibition game between the Delco League (Delaware County) All-Stars and a team known as the Military All-Stars. Officially formed in 1990, the Military All-Stars have reintroduced the practice of traveling all stars teams who journey through the United States and throughout the world as a way of rewarding their best military ballplayers and boosting morale for those soldiers serving in combat abroad. In many ways, the Military All-Stars are continuing the custom that was carried on in World War II and the Korean War, when professional major league players played at military bases and as part of traveling tours, but became a lost art during the Vietnam years.
The 2008 Military All-Stars, under the capable guidance of head coach and CEO Terry Allvord, put on an impressive seven-inning display against the Delco League stars. Utilizing an aggressive style of taking extra bases, the Military Stars played fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game (and who would have expected anything less from a military team). Running out every ball and putting pressure on Delco defenders at every turn, the military Stars turned in a rousing 6-3 win. Given the lack of stability on the military roster–they run through about 130 players in a given year because many of their players are called back into active duty–their ability to play a smooth, team-like game while making few mistakes struck me as particularly impressive.
The exhibition game took place at the quaint setting of Widener University’s baseball park, a charming little facility tucked away in the corner of the campus. With no lights at the ballpark, the two teams played part of the game in the glow of twilight, which gave the game a throwback feel to a 1940s game at Wrigley Field. The ballpark also features a short porch in left field, topped off by a high-rising fence that some call the “blue monster” because of its similarity in size to “The Wall” at Fenway Park. All in all, Widener provided a relaxed pastoral setting for an entertaining game.
The Thursday night game also featured several VIP appearances. Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas threw out the first pitch and World War II veteran (not to mention major league alumnus) Mickey Vernon presented an award for the best defensive play of the game. We’ll have more on Mickey later in the story. The night was capped off by an appearance by Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a native of the Philadelphia area who happened to be in town to play an interleague series with the Phillies. After presenting the game’s MVP Award, Scioscia graciously took photographs with all who asked (including yours truly and family).
The second day of the event featured a symposium called “Athletes in the Military,” a program that was highlighted by the appearance of five war veterans, including two from the NFL and three from baseball. Vernon, along with retired Philadelphia A’s ace Bobby Shantz and former Negro Leagues catching standout Stanley Glenn, all participated. Based on the conversations I had with each of these World War II veterans, it would be difficult to find three more gentlemanly fellows than Glenn, Shantz, and Vernon.
Glenn played for the Philadelphia Stars from 1944 to 1950, establishing a reputation as a good defensive catcher with above-average power. He caught Satchel Paige for two seasons, while getting to know most of the Negro League stars from the era of the 1940s. When I went to shake hands with Stanley, I immediately noticed the mammoth size of his hands, which looked like small pitchforks. They were catcher’s hands indeed, with large palms and thick, long fingers that must have been particularly helpful in handling the deliveries of Paige and other flamethrowers. Speaking in a hoarse but intelligible voice, Stanley fondly recalled his days playing in black baseball. And while proud of his military service, he stressed that he had been drafted and would not have otherwise volunteered for the Army in 1945. It was a sincere answer from a man who had already sacrificed much during his career.
Though well spoken and fully capable of handling himself in one-on-one conversation, Shantz does not like to speak in public and chose not to partake in the round table discussion with Glenn, Vernon, and the others. Luckily, I had the privilege of sitting next to Shantz during the symposium, and as I remembered from an encounter with him in Cooperstown a decade ago, found him to be just as approachable, upbeat, and enjoyable in casual conversation. Bobby remains a standout athlete, having shot a 76 on the golf course earlier this week. He appears to have put on very few pounds from his playing days, when he was listed at 140 pounds. And yes, he’s still five-foot-nine, which didn’t prevent him from winning 24 games for the A’s in 1954. Because of scouts’ current obsession with pitchers’ heights, Shantz might never have received an opportunity in today’s game, but he was good enough to claim the MVP Award in ’54 on his way to winning 119 major league games.
And then there’s the beloved Mickey Vernon. I can see now why Mickey was regarded as one of the most charismatic and popular players of the 1940s and fifties. A two-time batting champion, Vernon never brags about his vast abilities as a hitter; he just fondly remembers teammates and stories from his playing days. He patiently signs autographs and answers questions, even silly ones that might come from the mouth of this reporter.
As impressive as his personality, Mickey’s health and conditioning are just as striking. He just turned 90, but he looks more like 60, with a full shock of hair that might make some middle-aged men jealous. He remains extremely sharp, with an excellent recall of detail and little tendency to exaggerate accomplishments. Given Mickey’s character and his ability on the ballfield–in many ways, he was an early version of Keith Hernandez–it’s understandable why so many people in the Philadelphia region would like to see Vernon enshrined in Cooperstown. His next chance comes in December, when the Veterans Committee meets again.
I also asked Vernon about his feelings toward the Yankees, who employed him as a scout and coach during his final job in baseball. Half expecting to hear some grumbles about the ownership of George Steinbrenner, I was surprised to hear Mickey say that he loved working for the Yankees. As proof, he showed me the Yankee watch that he still wears, given to him by the organization for his years of service in coaching and scouting.
Finally, a recap of the weekend would not be complete without a tip of the hat to event organizer Jim Vankoski. This is now the third time that Jim has invited me to speak in Philadelphia; without fail, he has treated my family with genuine consideration and respect. As an event organizer–something that he doesn’t do professionally but simply does because of his passion for the game and its history–he exhibits boundless energy, prepares diligently, and makes all of his guests feel welcome.
Thanks, Jim, for another fine time in Philadelphia.
Jerry Reuss–Topps Company–1973 (No. 446)
Hair and mustaches became a cultural subplot during the 1972 major league season. Reggie Jackson of the Oakland A’s created a stir when he became the first player to take the field with a mustache in ’72, but he wasn’t the lone player sporting some facial growth above his lip at the beginning of the season. Jerry Reuss, a young left-handed pitcher with the Cardinals, had also reported to spring training with a newly grown mustache. Little did Reuss know that his grooming decision would result in the end of his Cardinals’ career.
No one in St. Louis’ front office said anything to Reuss about the mustache, which seemed to be a non-issue, in stark contract to the soap opera in Oakland. A 14-game winner in 1971, Reuss appeared set to take his place in the Cardinals’ rotation, right behind Hall of Famer Bob Gibson and the newly acquired Rick Wise (the compensation in the ill-fated Steve Carlton trade). Then, in the middle of spring training, the Cardinals announced another trade, this time with the Houston Astros. Much to his surprise, Reuss discovered that he was the principal figure headed to Houston. Reuss would never again appear in a Cardinal uniform.
For years, Reuss thought he had been traded because of his request for a salary increase in the spring of ’72. It wasn’t until after his retirement that Reuss found out the true motivation behind the trade. Cardinals owner August “Gussie” Busch so hated Reuss’ mustache that he ordered general manager Bing Devine to trade him. Unlike Oakland owner Charlie Finley’s handling of the Jackson escapade, Gussie didn’t bother to deliver a second-hand message to Reuss, informing him that he had to shave the mustache or else. Deeming Reuss’ mustache some kind of baseball sin, Busch banished him to Texas without warning–or a second chance.
Not knowing that the mustache had ignited Busch’ temper, Reuss kept his facial hair intact in Houston, as evidenced by his 1973 Topps card, which is shown here. (The mustache is a little bit hard to spot because of Reuss’ blonde hair, but it’s there.) Reuss made his debut for the Astros on April 19, just four days after Jackson had unveiled his mustache on Opening Day against the Twins.
One other interesting tidbit about Reuss’ 1973 card: take note of the zippered jersey the Astros used in the early 1970s. (The zippered jersey worn by the White Sox is evident on Walt Williams’ 1973 Topps card. We’ll take a look at that card later this season.) Several teams had tried the zippered look in the 1940s, only to discover that the zipper could inflict major damage on a player diving or sliding headfirst. The Astros, along with the White Sox and Phillies in the seventies, apparently didn’t learn from the experiment and gave the zipper a second chance in the seventies, only to abandon it quickly. Sometimes it takes several failures to learn a lesson.
And oh by the way, we’re still taking suggestions on the next card to adorn the home page of “Cooperstown Confidential.” Post your suggestions now.
It is with decidedly mixed feelings that I view the end of the Hall of Fame Game. The tradition, which started one year before the onset of World War II, ended with Monday afternoon’s rainout of the scheduled exhibition game between the Cubs and Padres.
On the one hand, the game had deteriorated over the last 20 years, with players becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to the game, and managers increasingly unwilling to give their star players more than a token at-bat–if that much. More often than not, the Hall of Fame Game had become a glorified exhibition of minor leaguers, many of whom were not even top prospects within their organization.
Yet, there was something to the game that made it a spectacle, a special event that brought Cooperstown (and the surrounding towns) together for a day-long celebration. For many central New York residents who live far from major league cities or struggle with their incomes, it was their only opportunity to see major league players in a live ballpark setting. The game was also a terrific vehicle for the Hall of Fame, giving it a tangible link to Major League Baseball and providing an opportunity to promote the upcoming induction ceremony. And on a lesser scale, the game provided good public relations for MLB–an opportunity to give back to upstate New York fans with more reasonable ticket pricess and an up-close look at real major leaguers. Sadly, all of that is gone now.
Is there any realistic chance the Hall of Fame Game can be revived? Probably not, given how current-day players absolutely detest the notion of playing in-season exhibitions and being inconvenienced in any way, shape, or form. For lack of better phrasing, the players really have acted like spoiled children here, so much so that they have gotten their way–and have no intention of changing their mind. But I do applaud the efforts of people like Kristian Connolly, who has headed up the “Save the Fame Game” campaign. Critics have derided Connolly for failing to recognize a lost cause, but I give him plenty of credit for doing more than just complaining. At least he’s trying to influence change, something that more of us need to do in our own lives. He’s also a thoughtful guy and talented writer who has impressed me with the quality of his letters, editorials, and web site.
Perhaps a future generation of players will see the light–and start to think as reasonably and passionately as Connolly has. Although the current players clearly don’t get it, maybe the next wave of major leaguers will be more thoughtful and caring toward the fans who care about the tradition and celebration that encompass the Hall of Fame Game. Perhaps that is the best hope for Connolly and the rest of us who care about baseball and care about Cooperstown…
And now, a few thoughts on this year’s Hall of Fame Game proceedings, which began with the annual parade down Main Street.
*As it turned out, the Hall of Fame Game Day parade emerged as the highlight of the day. Shortly before the rains hit Cooperstown, the 40-minute parade featured a good mix of local celebrities, Scottish bagpipe performers, some outlandishly dressed dancers, and the current day members of the Cubs and Padres. Diverse and well paced, the parade provided good entertainment for the 3,000-plus fans who lined Main Street…
*The one downer to the parade may have been Lou Piniella, who rode in the Cubs’ trolley at the end of the parade. According to my spies, a number of fans screamed “Lou! Lou,” hoping that Piniella would wave–or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown, maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place. Perhaps someone needs to remind “Sweet Lou” that this is baseball–and that everyone loves a parade. Cheer up, Lou, your Cubs are in first place. Heck, they have the best record of anyone in baseball..
*The Hall of Fame properly staged a moment of silence for Tim Russert during its pregame ceremony. In addition to being an avid baseball fan, Russert was a member of the Hall’s board of directors. Clearly, Russert will be missed, not just by the news and political worlds, but by the smaller baseball community, too..
*Clubhouse managers don’t receive much acclaim, but the Cubs’ Yosh Kawano took his momentary turn in the spotlight when he officially donated his trademark fishing hat to Hall of Fame officials. Congratulations, Yosh, for leaving a bit of your legacy with the Hall of Fame and Museum.
*Finally, it was good to hear and see Ferguson Jenkins, who participated in a Sunday night Hall program before throwing out the first pitch at Doubleday Field. Jenkins is one of the most thoughtful and well-spoken Hall of Famers, right up there with the likes of Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, and Don Sutton. Fergie is always a welcome addition to the proceedings here in Cooperstown.
Well, it’s that time again–time to change the baseball card image that we display here at “Cooperstown Confidential.” (My thanks again to noted author and Latino baseball expert Peter Bjarkman for suggesting our last card, which depicts Cuban pitching star Pedro Luis Lazo.)
Readers can submit suggestions, along with a brief reason behind the suggestion, by posting here or by sending me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Baseball card images can represent current players (either major or minor leaguers) or retired players. Suggestions can come from any of the major card companies, like Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Score and the like.
Thanks in advance for participating.