What a wonderful surprise to turn on the TV at about 7:30 on Wednesday evening and find a live baseball game being played between the Red Sox and Twins! Not only does the spring training broadcast signify the start of the exhibition season, but also the coming of age of the new MLB Network. The 24-hour baseball channel has picked up a large volume of steam since last Friday, when it unveiled its “30 Teams in 30 Days” series, consisting of comprehensive hour-long previews of each major league club. Then the MLB Network rolled out a fresh set of old-time games over the weekend, including Tom Seaver’s 300th win from 1985, Carlton Fisk’s triumphant 1981 return to Fenway Park, and Gaylord Perry’s 300th victory from 1982.
With the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons kicking off on Wednesday, the MLB Network now has a real opportunity to shine. By providing local broadcasts of a variety of spring games, beginning with the Boston feed of the Red Sox-Twins matchup from Ft. Myers, the network has brought back terrific memories from the early 1980s. That’s when our local cable outfit in Yonkers used to air local broadcasts of the Braves (on SuperStation WTBS), the Red Sox (on Boston’s WSBK), the Cubs and White Sox (WGN), and the Pirates. By airing an array of exhibition games this spring, the MLB Network will not only show us a similarly wide range of teams, but also give us the local flavor of the hometown cable broadcasts. And that’s going to make this one of the more enjoyable spring trainings, even if I’m stranded in 20-degree Cooperstown…
The decline and fall of onetime premier prospect Andy Marte has reached stunning proportions. After being designated for assignment by the Indians earlier this spring, Marte cleared waivers on Wednesday, passed over by the 29 other clubs. Not even teams in need of an upgrade at third base–the A’s, Astros, and Giants come to mind–decided to put in a claim for Marte. That’s a shocking development, given that Marte is still only 25 and has ample talent. Only four years ago, Marte was generally regarded as one of the top ten prospects in the game, a complete package of power and fielding prowess at the hot corner. So what happened? Some scouts believe that Marte’s swing is too long, making him susceptible to any pitcher with an above-average fastball. Unless Marte can undergo a major overhaul of his hitting mechanics, he may be destined for a long career in Triple-A…
It will only be a matter of days before the Nationals officially fire general manager Jim Bowden, who has been implicated in a scandal involving the skimming of bonus money that was intended for a number of Dominican prospects. The developing scandal has already resulted in the dismissal of Jose Rijo, the former Reds’ ace who had become one of Bowden’s advisors. Even prior to the scandal, Bowden’s record as a GM has been mediocre to poor; his resume received another blow this spring when the Nats discovered that prospect Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez had lied about his name, identity, and age (he’s four years older than what he told the Nats). In his 15 years as the prime decision maker for the Nationals and Reds, Bowden has overseen 11 losing seasons. Even with the off-season signing of Adam Dunn and recent trades that brought in multi-tiered talents like Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, the Nats look like the “favorites” to finish last in the National League East. They have virtually no starting pitching, a paper-thin bullpen, a middle infield of journeymen, and a full supply of questionable attitudes in Dukes, Milledge, and Wily Mo Pena. What a mess.
As kids growing up in Westchester County, we found it both foolishly fun and humorously cruel to repeat the quirky names of certain ballplayers over and over. One of those players was Paul Schaal (pronounced PAWL SHAWL), one of the few big leaguers whose last name rhymed with his first. Along with Don Hahn and Greg Legg, Schaal must have taken his share of verbal abuse about that as a child. A couple of other intriguing facts come to mind when thinking about Paul Schaal. He was the Kansas City Royals’ last regular third baseman before a fellow named George Brett burst onto the major league scene. A certified Hall of Famer and the owner of the most attractive batting swing of the late 20th century–I’ll put him just ahead of Ken Griffey, Jr. in that regard–Brett made most Royals fans forget all about Schaal. Still, Schaal was not a bad ballplayer. Beginning with the California Angels in the mid-1960s, he established a reputation as one of the game’s finest fielding third baseman. One member of the Angels even called Schaal the equal of Brooks Robinson, generally regarded as baseball’s most divine defensive third baseman of all-time. Offensively, Schaal showed promise as a youngster, until he was hit in the head by a pitched ball during the 1968 season. The injury left the Angels understandably worried about his future, so they left him exposed in the expansion draft that winter. As one of four new teams entering the major leagues, the Royals snapped up Schaal, hoping that he could recover fully from the beanball incident. After initially clashing with Royals skipper Charlie Metro, Schaal settled in nicely as KC’s cornerman. In 1971, he used remarkable patience at the plate, walking 103 times to formulate a .387 on-base percentage, while playing in every Royals game that season. He slumped to a .228 average in 1972 before rebounding to hit .288 with eight home runs the following season. Unfortunately, Schaal’s game fall off badly in 1974, prompting a trade back to California, where he finished out his career with the Halos. In the meantime, Mr. Brett staked permanent claim to Kansas City’s “hot corner.” While Schaal never achieved much more than temporary stardom with the Royals and Angels, he has managed to become one of the most successful of ex-ballplayers in his post-playing days. Schaal is now Dr. Schaal, which sounds an awful lot like Dr. Scholl, the foot doctor. But it’s Dr. Schaal, practicing back specialist. More specifically, the good doctor runs the Schaal Health & Wellness Center in Overland Park, Kansas, and is considered an expert in network spinal analysis. As the doctor’s website points out, “At Schaal Health Center, we use Young Living Essential Oils daily to diffuse the air with their therapeutic aromas.” And that sounds pretty good to me.
A couple of other intriguing facts come to mind when thinking about Paul Schaal. He was the Kansas City Royals’ last regular third baseman before a fellow named George Brett burst onto the major league scene. A certified Hall of Famer and the owner of the most attractive batting swing of the late 20th century–I’ll put him just ahead of Ken Griffey, Jr. in that regard–Brett made most Royals fans forget all about Schaal. Still, Schaal was not a bad ballplayer. Beginning with the California Angels in the mid-1960s, he established a reputation as one of the game’s finest fielding third baseman. One member of the Angels even called Schaal the equal of Brooks Robinson, generally regarded as baseball’s most divine defensive third baseman of all-time.
Offensively, Schaal showed promise as a youngster, until he was hit in the head by a pitched ball during the 1968 season. The injury left the Angels understandably worried about his future, so they left him exposed in the expansion draft that winter. As one of four new teams entering the major leagues, the Royals snapped up Schaal, hoping that he could recover fully from the beanball incident. After initially clashing with Royals skipper Charlie Metro, Schaal settled in nicely as KC’s cornerman. In 1971, he used remarkable patience at the plate, walking 103 times to formulate a .387 on-base percentage, while playing in every Royals game that season. He slumped to a .228 average in 1972 before rebounding to hit .288 with eight home runs the following season. Unfortunately, Schaal’s game fall off badly in 1974, prompting a trade back to California, where he finished out his career with the Halos. In the meantime, Mr. Brett staked permanent claim to Kansas City’s “hot corner.”
While Schaal never achieved much more than temporary stardom with the Royals and Angels, he has managed to become one of the most successful of ex-ballplayers in his post-playing days. Schaal is now Dr. Schaal, which sounds an awful lot like Dr. Scholl, the foot doctor. But it’s Dr. Schaal, practicing back specialist. More specifically, the good doctor runs the Schaal Health & Wellness Center in Overland Park, Kansas, and is considered an expert in network spinal analysis. As the doctor’s website points out, “At Schaal Health Center, we use Young Living Essential Oils daily to diffuse the air with their therapeutic aromas.” And that sounds pretty good to me.
Jerry Manuel is not afraid to shake up things up when it comes to the construction of his lineup. Less than two weeks into spring training, the Mets manager has already made two major pronouncements. He created a few headlines early during the first week when he said he would like to experiment with the embattled Luis Castillo as his leadoff man. And now in week No. 2 of the spring, he has declared that Daniel Murphy will be his everyday left fielder–and not a platoon partner of Fernando Tatis, as most of us had expected. I have my doubts about Castillo’s ability to handle the leadoff role at this stage of his career, but I like the move with Murphy, who appears to have the offensive skills to fill a role as the Mets’ No. 6 hitter, batting behind some combination of Carlos Delgado and David Wright. This move might also free up Tatis to assume more of a utility role, taking Delgado’s place at first base against selected left-handers and backing up Wright at third base. The Mets need to take advantage of Tatis’ versatility; he can play four positions (both the infield and outfield corners), an ability that will come in handy now that Damion Easley is an ex-Met…
There are a few certainties in life: death, taxes, and Sean Penn making a jackass out of himself at the Oscars. Here’s another–injuries in spring training. The Blue Jays have suffered the first major setback of the spring, as Vernon Wells strained his hamstring during workouts on Monday. Wells is expected to miss a full month, which could be cutting it close in terms of his availability for Opening Day. This is exactly the kind of news the Jays don’t need after a winter that saw them lose A.J. Burnett to free agency while failing to make any major acquisitions of their own. With a few bad breaks, the Jays could be looking at last place in the stacked AL East, behind even the perennially disfunctional Orioles…
While most of the free agent focus remains centered on Manny Ramirez, another future Hall of Famer (at least in my mind) finds himself at home, waiting for the right offer. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is still available, a rather shocking development considering the lack of catching depth around the major leagues. I-Rod has received at least one offer–coming from the Astros–but is believed to be holding out hope for a contract offer from the Mets. Unfortunately for Pudge, the Mets have two healthy and capable catchers in Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro. At some point, Rodriguez will have to accept the Astros’ offer or swallow hard on a non-roster invite to some other spring locale. Whichever team ends up with Rodriguez will be getting a bargain, though. I’m convinced that his poor hitting with the Yankees late last season was caused, at least in part, by the difficult task of having to learn an entirely new pitching staff in mid-season. Given such defensive distractions, it’s understandable that Rodriguez hit so poorly as a stand-in for the injured Jorge Posada.
Ken Griffey Jr.’s decision to return to Seattle has been portrayed as the feel-good story of the early spring, but I’m not convinced it’s in the best interests of either side. From the Mariners’ perspective, they are acquiring a veteran player in a season in which they have virtually no prayer of contending. In other words, they will be giving playing time to an aging player near the end of the line, playing time that could go to a young, developing player instead. The Mariners are also banking on Griffey helping at the box office, but few players in baseball history have served as one-man drawing cards. Teams have to win to draw fans–and the M’s won’t be doing that in 2009. As for Griffey, he will be playing what could be his final season for an also-ran, when he could have opted for a more optimal situation with the Braves, who at least have a chance to make a run at the National League wild card. He will also have to endure a return to Safeco Field, hardly a hitter’s haven. Griffey didn’t like hitting at Safeco in his prime; will he feel any better about it in 2009, with a 39-year-old swing that has slowed considerably? This feel-good story could turn very ugly by August…
Griffey’s last second change-of-mind caps off what has been a winter of frustration for Atlanta GM Frank Wren. At one point or another, Wren thought he had free agent deals with both Junior and Rafael Furcal, only to be rebuffed at the last instant. He also believed he was close to completing a major trade for Jake Peavy, but the Padres’ asking price grew too large for Wren’s liking. Still, in spite of all the disappointments, the Braves look like an improved team. They added Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez to a rotation that already included Jair Jurrjens and can now look forward to a full season from lefty closer Mike Gonzalez. And on Monday, they will officially announce the signing of Garret Anderson, their Plan B option to Griffey. Anderson has become a defensive liability in left field, but he is three years younger than Griffey and has just about as much left in the tank offensively. Anderson will platoon with Matt Diaz, another Brave poised for a comeback in 2009…
Very quietly, Mets GM Omar Minaya made a shrewd move in bringing veteran outfielder Bobby Kielty to spring training as a non-roster invitee. Kielty didn’t play in the majors at all in 2008, in part because of two different injuries, but he’s healthy now and has a history of hammering left-handed pitching. Kielty’s splits for his career are borderline terrific; he has a .379 on-base percentage and a .503 slugging percentage against portsiders. Capable of playing all three outfield spots, the switch-hitting Kielty would make perfect sense as a platoon partner for Ryan Church in right field. There is an obstacle, however, to the Kielty comeback. The Mets’ fifth outfielder is currently scheduled to be Marlon Anderson, who was dreadful in 2008 but has a guaranteed contract. The Mets will have to show some courage in waiving Anderson and swallowing his salary. Otherwise, Kielty’s best hope might be for an injury to one of New York’s other outfielders.
The Hall of Fame usually avoids controversy like the Bubonic plague, but the ongoing steroids mess has prompted a formal response from the institution’s president. In an e-mail to the Chicago Tribune, Jeff Idelson announced that the Hall has no plans to change its election rules as a way of specifically addressing the issue of steroids. “Election rules are straightforward and include instructing voters to look beyond the statistics and examine a player’s character, integrity and sportsmanship … their overall contribution to the game. To what percentage each quality is weighed is up to each individual voter.” In other words, steroids count in this discussion, but it’s up to each individual writer to decide how much they count. From where I’m standing, especially given the Hall’s longstanding philosophy of including off-the-field behavior as part of its election criteria, that seems like a reasonable and rational approach.
I might, however, be tempted to take Idelson’s pronouncement and push it a step further. The Hall should make it clear to the voters that there must be some evidence of steroid use on the part of a candidate. For example, there needs to be a failed steroids test, formal charges brought against a player, a listing in the Mitchell Report, or some other clear-cut reason (like blatantly stonewalling Congress) for a candidate to be considered a user of performance enhancing drugs. I’m not talking about the level of evidence needed to convict in a court of law, but clearly, rumor and innuendo are not enough.
Some writers, like Joe Posnanski, have been clamoring for the Hall to drop the “character and integrity” clause, especially in response to the steroids issue. Posnanski’s suggestion is designed to clear a Hall of Fame path for people like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez, while reducing the repeated chatter and debate about steroids. Unfortunately, steroids create a complexity of issues that cannot be resolved with one fell swoop. More directly, Posnanski’s suggestion falls short on two counts. First, it’s likely that many of the writers, especially veteran scribes, would disregard the new edict and continue to consider off-the-field considerations like “character,” while continuing to exclude suspected steroid users like Mark McGwire. So at least in the short term, the effect of such a rules change would be nominal. Second, let’s consider a larger issue. Even if some of us do not consider steroid use a moral offense, what about more serious crimes, such as spousal abuse, physical assault, and even murder? To use an extreme example, do we really want someone like O.J. Simpson slithering around the Baseball Hall of Fame during Induction Weekend? I don’t. I want character to count for something.
To this argument, I know that some will counter by saying that the Hall already includes men of questionable “character,” like notorious racist Ty Cobb and confessed spitballer Gaylord Perry. My response? Well, perhaps the writers made a mistake by electing them to the Hall of Fame in the first place. Perhaps there should be a mechanism to remove them (though such a mechanism would be highly problematic and would create a public relations nightmare). But in the meantime, until someone comes up with a better idea than Posnanski’s suggestion, the Hall should continue to include a “character and integrity” clause, emphasizing to the writers that such qualities must be factors in considering a player’s worthiness of induction. They don’t have to be overriding factors, but they should be part of the equation. That seems reasonable to me because the Hall, after all, is about more than just numbers and statistics. Or at least it should be.
Tired of the talk of steroids and A-Rod? Let’s take a look back at some history.
Thirty five years ago, baseball fans bided much of their time by obsessing over Hank Aaron’s pursuit of a record once deemed unbreakable–the all-time home run mark owned by Babe Ruth. Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth’s record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others implied or dictated threats on his life.
When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. In 1974, Aaron noted that he had received over 900,000 the previous year; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.
The FBI began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. The Braves, gravely concerned about Aaron’s safety, hired two off-duty Atlanta police offers to serve as personal bodyguards. Lamar Harris and Calvin Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, observing the stands and the playing field area for potential perpetrators. Wardlaw equipped himself with a .38 Smith-Wesson detective special in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.
In addition, Aaron faced other obstacles and controversies as the 1974 season approached. In February, Atlanta president Bill Bartholomay had announced that the Braves would bench Aaron for their season-opening series against the Cincinnati Reds, which would be played on the road. Under that scenario, Aaron would have a better chance of both tying and breaking the record at home. The Braves’ announcement drew rounds of criticism from members of the baseball media. A number of writers contended that the Braves were assaulting the game’s integrity by playing a lineup that was clearly not their best. After all, Aaron had batted .301 with 44 home runs and 96 RBIs in 1973. He was still their best player, even as he turned 40 years of age. Longtime baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News summarized the feelings of some naysayers when he wrote, “Baseball has gone crooked.”
After several weeks of heated debate, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped into the fracas. In a carefully worded statement, Kuhn announced his disapproval of the Braves’ decision to sit Aaron. “Barring disability,” the commissioner went on to say, “I will expect the Braves to use Henry Aaron in the opening series in Cincinnati, in accordance with the pattern of his use in 1973, when he started approximately two of every three Braves games.” Kuhn stopped short of “ordering” the Braves to use Aaron, only because he had no such power to tell a manager whom to play. Yet, the message was clear to the Braves, who eventually reinstated Aaron to the starting lineup on Opening Day.
Facing Reds right-hander Jack Billingham in the Thursday afternoon sun of Riverfront Stadium, Aaron patiently watched the first four pitches thrown to him. With the count now three-and-one, he unleashed his first swing of the new season. A few seconds later, Billingham’s fifth delivery landed beyond the left-center field wall at Riverfront Stadium. In an instant, Aaron had tied Ruth as the all-time home run champion.
Although the Braves obviously didn’t want him to break the record on the road, Aaron remained in the game. He grounded out, walked, and flied out in his final three plate appearances. Not wanting to take any more chances with fate, Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews (a longtime teammate of Aaron) removed him from the game in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with journeyman Rowland Office, who then gave way to pinch-hitters Ivan Murrell and Frank Tepedino. Without Aaron, the Braves went on to lose in extra innings, 7-6.
After the traditional off day following the opener, the Reds and Braves resumed their series on Saturday afternoon. Given the commissioner’s spring training “recommendation” that Aaron play “two out of every three Braves games,” Mathews decided to sit his venerable superstar. Mathews moved Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr from right field to Aaron’s spot in left, with Murrell taking Garr’s place in right. Murrell went 1-for-2 in Aaron’s absence, but the Braves lost to the Reds, 7-5.
Mathews’ decision prompted an angry reaction from the Commissioner’s Office. Concerned that the Braves were reading his declaration a bit too literally, Kuhn “requested” that Mathews return Aaron to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Mathews asked the commissioner if he was giving him a direct order. According to Mathews, Kuhn responded that it was indeed an “order” and that “severe” consequences would result if Aaron did not play.
So Aaron returned to the lineup for the series finale, but failed to play one of his vintage games. He struck out twice–each time on three pitches–and bounced weakly to third base before being lifted for “defensive reasons.” Aaron remained one short of breaking the record.
As a tribute to Aaron’s impending achievement, the Topps Company had issued a unique set of “Hank Aaron Special” cards as part of its 1974 set, including miniature reprints of all of his previous Topps cards. Issued as the No. 1 card in the set of 660, Aaron’s primary card was unlike most of the 1974s, which featured a vertical design with colored banners at the top and bottom of the card. The Aaron card featured a horizontal arrangement, with a gold interior border running along the edges of the card. Rather than fill most of the card with a full-sized photographic image, Topps used a smaller portrait photo of the Hall of Famer, creating an image that filled two-thirds of the card. That allowed Topps to create a special segment with the other third of the card, which featured a blue and gold crown, the name “hank aaron” in a lower-case gold font, and the words “NEW ALL-TIME HOME RUN KING” emblazoned in upper-case purple letters toward the bottom of the card.
In producing the card, Topps did something that it rarely did in creating cards to commemorate special occasions. Rather than highlighting a record-surpassing feat after it had happened, Topps actually anticipated Aaron’s breaking of the record. Keep in mind that the card was issued in March, when Topps traditionally used to release its first cards of the new year, or about a month before Aaron had even broken, much less tied the record. In a sense, Topps took a gamble in issuing the card, albeit a small one, so early in the season. What if Aaron had suffered a season-ending injury during spring training, or had endured the calamity of a broken leg on Opening Day? That would have left Aaron waiting until 1975 to tie and break the record, leaving Topps with what would have been probably its most famous “error” card of all time. Thankfully, no physical adversities came to pass, spring training progressed without injury, and Aaron tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day before eventually breaking it days later–a happy ending for all.
George King sometimes makes strange observations in his role as a beat writer for the Yankees. In Sunday’s New York Post, King warned the Yankees not to commit Joba Chamberlain to the rotation because of the age of closer Mariano Rivera. “The Yankees… pray the end isn’t here [for Rivera],” King wrote on Sunday. “Because if they use Joba Chamberlain as a starter, there isn’t a closer candidate in the organization.” Really? Right off the top, I can think of three. Hard-throwing right-hander Mark Melancon is generally ranked among the top ten prospects in the Yankee system and is scheduled to begin the season as closer at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Then there’s the talented Humberto Sanchez, finally recovered from shoulder surgery two years ago and also a step away at Triple-A. The Yankees also have right-hander Anthony Claggett, who dominated hitters at Double-A Trenton and might start the season in Scranton, too.
Simply put, closers are easier to find than quality starters, especially in the current Yankee farm system. That’s not to say that the Yankees will find anyone the equal of Rivera, who might just be the best reliever in major league history. Heck, unless the Yankees can find the next Dennis Eckersley, chances are that ANYBODY they choose will fall short of the great Rivera. But the Yankees clearly have promising options outside of Chamberlain–options that aren’t light years away. So let’s not start this Joba-must-be-in-the-bullpen nonsense just yet…
For a team that has accomplished so little over the past two seasons–except for executing embarrassing late-season collapses–the Mets are sure exhibiting plenty of chutzpah early in spring training. Newly signed closer Francisco Rodriguez has already declared the Mets the team to beat in the National League East, in spite of the fact that he’s spent about three seconds with the team. And for some reason, the Mets’ brass decided to hang a rather presumptuous sign over the clubhouse door in Port St. Lucie. The sign reads, “Through these doors pass the best players in baseball.” That bit of news will surely makes its way to Clearwater, where the Phillies happen to have their spring training home–as the game’s defending world champions. Unlike the Mets, the Phillies don’t have major question marks in both left and right field, and at second base (at least once Chase Utley returns from injury). The Mets would be well advised to change the wording on the sign–or at least wait until October, when perhaps they’ve actually won something…
Former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender died last Thursday at the age of 68, the victim of a heart attack. Cruelly, his passing came only one day after he’d received some uplifting news in his ongoing battle against multiple myeloma. A fleet-footed outfielder who played a nifty center field in the late 1960s, Uhlaender saw his career fall off abruptly by 1972, but not before he made a cameo appearance in the World Series for Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.” A few years ago, I met Uhlaender in spring training, where he was working as a coach with the Indians. As I asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions about the ’72 World Series, I noticed his face; he had that stern, sandpaper look of a hardened baseball veteran. Though I was intimidated at first, Uhlaender answered all of my questions, calmly and without fanfare. He was a pro, a characterization that was confirmed for me when I read Tracy Ringolsby’s touching tribute to him last week. Like the late John Vukovich and Pat Dobson, Uhlaender was a baseball lifer whose hard-edged appearance only masked a deep love of the game. As with Vuke and Dobber, we’ll miss a solid guy like Uhlaender.
What a bargain! That was my initial (and subsequent) reaction to hearing that the Angels had signed Bobby Abreu to a one-year contract worth $5 million–quite a paycut from the $16 million that the Yankees paid him last season. Now Abreu does have his faults; he’ll never again hit with the power that he did during his Phillies prime and he’s become a horrendous defensive right fielder whose problems go well beyond his notorious fear of outfield walls. Still, at $5 million he’s a steal, a durable and consistent performer who will reach base 40 per cent of the time and hit the century marks in both runs and runs scored. Even at 35, he’ll be a good fit in the Angels’ lineup, hitting in front of Vlad Guerrero and behind Chone Figgins. One suggestion for the Angels: give Abreu a first baseman’s glove this spring and make him take hundreds of grounders as a hedge against Kendry Morales completely flopping at first base…
The Nationals paid more than the Angels did in signing Adam Dunn to a two-year deal worth $20 million, but it still ranks as another winter bargain on the freefalling free agent market. The “Big Donkey” has become a remarkably consistent player. He’s a lead pipe cinch to hit 40 home runs (he’s hit that exact mark four years running), drive in 100 runs, and walk 110 times. Dunn will also help balance a Washington lineup that leans precariously to the right, with nary a left-handed power bat to be found. I just hope that the Nats have the good sense to put Dunn at first base, where Nick “The Stick” Johnson has become unreliable because of a long injury history. The Nationals already have six major league outfielders–Elijah Dukes, starting center fielder Lastings Milledge, Austin Kearns, Josh Willingham, Wily Mo Pena, and Willie Harris–with at least four capable of playing every day. Given his immobility, Dunn will cause less damage defensively at first base, while allowing Manny Acta to better sort out the playing time in the outfield corners…
The Yankees open up spring training on Friday, which will result in Tampa turning into the Alex Rodriguez Question Show for the weekend. The mainstream media might be obsessed with the story regarding A-Rod’s failed steroids test and his pseudo-admission of guilt, but this issue will likely blow over by May. A far bigger question affecting the Yankees’ playoff chances will involve one of the catchers arriving in Tampa on Friday. That would be Jorge Posada, whose return from shoulder surgery ranks as New York’s No. 1 concern. The number of games that Posada can catch in 2009 will serve as a gauge to the Yankees’ success this season. If he can play 110 games behind the plate, the Yankees could be a 100-win team. If he can play only 90 to 100, the number of wins could fall off by two or three. If he plays fewer than 90, that could mean third place in a stacked division–and no postseason for the second straight summer.
Most readers of “Cooperstown Confidential” have heard of Ramon Hernandez the catcher, now the No. 1 receiver for the Reds. I suspect that only a few readers are familiar with Ramon Hernandez the left-handed reliever, who pitched for a variety of teams in the 1960s and seventies, including a prominent world championship club.
Ramon Hernandez, the pitcher, died last week at the age of 68, his cause of death still publicly unknown. Practically no one in the baseball community has noticed his passing; it has gone almost completely unreported on the Internet. Though his career was relatively obscure, he was important to me because of the small but vital role he played in helping the Pirates win the 1971 World Series. That team became the subject of my book, a labor of love called The Team That Changed Baseball. Hernandez was also a damned good pitcher for most of his career, far better than most historians remember. How good was he? In 1972, he was the best relief pitcher in the National League, that’s how good. In 1973 and ’74, he was the best left-handed reliever in the league. Beyond that, he was a memorably unusual character. Bottom line, Ramon Hernandez deserves to be remembered.
Originally signed by Pirates scout Howie Haak out of his native Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, the five-foot, nine-inch left-hander bounced around from franchise to franchise before eventually making his way back to Pittsburgh. During the way, Hernandez consumed cups of coffee with the Los Angeles Angels’ farm system, the Braves, the Cubs, and the Cardinals’ minor league system. By the end of the 1960s, he had developed a bad reputation around the baseball world. Most scouts frowned upon him because they believed him to be older than his listed age. Some of his managers considered him a disciplinary problem, especially Don Zimmer, who once managed him at San Juan in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Zimmer was scared of Hernandez, who rarely smiled, said little, and carried a gun with him. He also liked to break the manager’s rules. So infuriated by Hernandez’ flouting of team regulations, Zimmer vowed not to pitch the left-hander during the team’s late-season drive toward the Winter League playoffs.
Prior to the 1971 season, the Pirates acquired Hernandez from the Cardinals for a little-known minor league pitcher named Danny Rivas. After beginning the 1971 season in the minor leagues, Hernandez earned a mid-season call-up. The little left-hander immediately drew the attention of fans and media with his slinky sidearming delivery, roundhouse curve, and funky screwball. He also retired just about everyone he faced, at first left-handed batters, and then right-handers, too. Pirates fans took to him quickly, with younger ones imitating his unusual sidearm motion.
As Hernandez became an effective reliever with the Pirates, he also garnered a reputation as the silent man in the clubhouse. He rarely conversed with players and reporters. His fellow relievers good-naturedly kidded him in the Pirate bullpen, but Hernandez said little in response, perhaps in part because of his limitations with the English language. Or maybe he just wanted to be left in his own little corner of the world.
Although he remained quiet, Pirate players did not seem to resent Hernandez. According to his countryman Roberto Clemente–and fellow native of Carolina, a small town in Puerto Rico–Hernandez achieved a level of acceptance in the Pirate clubhouse. “The big thing about Hernandez is that he knows he is welcome here,” Clemente told Charley Feeney of The Sporting News. “He doesn’t speak English real good, but the players on this club let him know they like him, just by an occasional smile, or a jab in the ribs.”
Hernandez pitched in only 10 games for the Pirates in 1971, but had the impact of a player who had spent the entire season in Pittsburgh. After helping the Bucs clinch the NL East with several clutch performances against the rival Cardinals in September, he found himself left off the postseason roster–the victim of a numbers game. Undeterred, Hernandez went on to enjoy his best season in 1972. By the end of that summer, the stylish southpaw had emerged as the Bucs’ left-handed relief ace, with a 5-0 record, 14 saves, and an earned run average of 1.67, all accomplishments that helped the Pirates win their third straight Eastern Division title. With his impeccable control and variety of moving pitches, several scouts considered him the league’s best reliever that season. In 1973 and ’74, his level of pitching fell from brilliant to merely outstanding. Among National League left-handers, no one pitched better. He finally started to show some slippage in 1975 and ’76, convincing the Pirates to trade him to the Cubs. The unpopular move enraged several of his Pirates teammates, including John Candelaria, who wondered aloud whether the front office knew what it was doing.
Hernandez finished out the ’76 season at Wrigley Field, but he lasted less than two months into the ’77 season before the Cubs traded him to the Red Sox for outfielder Bobby Darwin. After initially balking at reporting to Beantown, Hernandez struggled in most of his 12 appearances with the Sox, thus ending his major league career.
And just as quietly as Hernandez emerged on the Pirates’ scene in 1971, he faded silently into baseball oblivion. He never went to work for a major league organization, didn’t become a pitching coach or a scout, remaining completely anonymous and out of the public spotlight for the past 32 years.
Somehow, I think that’s just the way that Ramon Hernandez would have wanted it.
During his three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Oscar Gamble’s big hair made for quite a sight at Municipal Stadium and other American League ballparks. According to former Hall of Fame senior researcher Russell Wolinsky, fans frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO!” in tribute to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and 1970s who featured a similarly large tuff of hair. Clearly, political correctness was far less in fashion than it is today.) By the end of each game, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” with his Afro suffering severe indentations from both cap and helmet.
Gamble’s oversized hair posed another problem. He could rarely complete a turn around the bases without his helmet falling to the ground, while long chases after fly balls in the outfield would similarly result in the unintended departure of his cap from his head. Caps and helmets simply didn’t fit over his Afro, the largest of any player in the major leagues and one that rivaled the hairstyles in the American Basketball Association. (For those who remember Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Gamble’s Afro was nearly as massive and majestic as the one grown by the former ABA standout.) The “problem” reached such extremes in 1975 that Gamble held a contest in which he asked Indians fans for recommendations on how to wear his hats. “We’re open to all suggestions, except a haircut,” Gamble informed Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk.
As much notoriety as Gamble accrued for his “head piece,” he acquired a colorful reputation for additional reasons during his journeyman career in the major leagues. Recognized as the flashiest dresser on the Indians, Gamble once wore a pair of red, white, and blue plaid slacks, accentuated by red elevator shoes. Gamble was also one of the few major leaguers who could claim ownership of a disco. He opened up the establishment in 1976, turning over the day-to-day operations of the disco to his brothers.
While with Cleveland, Gamble also developed a reputation for a questionable attitude. He chafed about a lack of playing time, sometimes complaining about being repeatedly benched against left-handed pitching. At least one critic considered Gamble disingenuous. “He talks about wanting to play,” an anonymous Indians player told the New York Daily News, “but when he gets the chance, he acts like he doesn’t want to play.”
For his part, Gamble regarded the criticism as off base and partly motivated by his appearance and his race. “Yeah, people always ask me about my hair. I liked it, but I guess it did cause me to get a bad reputation,” Gamble told The Sporting News in 1979. “People took one look at that hair and thought I was a bad guy. There were some sportswriters who wouldn’t even talk to me. They thought I was some kind of militant with my beard and my hair.”
In actuality, Gamble was anything but militant. He was fun loving, outgoing, and accessible. Yet, the Indians still traded him, sending him to the Yankees for Pat Dobson during the spring of 1976. The Yankees loved his left-handed swing and his ability to crush right-handed pitching, but they didn’t care for his Afro. Unlike the Indians, the Yankees didn’t permit large Afros, long hair, beards, or anything less than conservative grooming. Shortly after the trade, George Steinbrenner instructed public relations director Marty Appel to order an immediate haircut for Gamble. Appel made all of the arrangements for a “private” cutting, thus avoiding the spectacle of a public barbershop setting. Just imagine the amount of hair that ended up on the cutting room floor. The haircut cost over $30 to trim eight inches off his Afro, a barbershop fee that was nearly unheard of at 1970s prices.
With his hair safely off his head, Gamble soon found an ally in the form of the New York media machine. He became one of the most quotable Yankees, often hamming up his responses in a larger-than-life manner. On the field, Gamble provided the Yankees with an expected level of power; he hit 17 home runs in 340 at-bats, while using his patented deep-crouch batting stance in which he actually seemed to face the right field stands at Yankee Stadium. On the flip side, his batting average and on-base percentage fell short of Yankee desires. The free agent signing of Reggie Jackson made Gamble available–and then expendable, when the need for a shortstop influenced the Gamble-for-Bucky Dent exchange during the spring of 1977.
After a whirlwind tour of both leagues that included stops with the White Sox, Padres, and Rangers, Oscar rejoined the Yankees for a second stint in 1979. He immediately reminded writers of his way with words. “I’m a man of character, a man of stature, a man of ability,” a half-serious Gamble informed the New York Times. Gamble also liked to give himself nicknames. He called himself “The Big O,” a humorous double entendre that played on his first name, Oscar. During his tenure with the Yankees, Gamble began referring to himself as the “Ratio Man” because of his tendency to hit lots of home runs in small numbers of at-bats. Some of his Yankee teammates joined in the refrain.
No longer questioned about his attitude, Gamble became especially well liked by fans and teammates during his second stint in the Bronx. He maintained that popularity until the spring of 1982, when he vetoed a trade that would have sent him, first baseman Bob “The Bull” Watson, and pitcher Mike Morgan to the Rangers for Al Oliver (another favorite of this columnist). Teammates understood, but Gamble’s veto infuriated Steinbrenner, who wanted Oliver badly. “The Boss” carried a grudge to the extent that some writers felt he ordered manager Billy Martin to limit Gamble’s playing time as a form of punishment. In spite of some rough treatment from his owner, Gamble retained his ever-present smile and remained a popular part of major league clubhouses until his retirement in 1985.
Gamble has not worked in Organized Baseball since retiring, but has spent some time as an agent and is now involved in the game at the youth level.
And, oh by the way, he’s completely bald these days.