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Observations From Cooperstown: Cervelli, Scranton, and Cactus Jack

Posted By Bruce Markusen On May 15, 2009 @ 12:22 pm In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Hall of Fame | Comments Disabled

Francisco Cervelli, who was struggling to maintain sea level against Double-A pitching, has looked competent as a major league hitter, but it is his catching skills that draw the majority of my praise. After watching Cervelli catch two games against the Orioles last weekend, I came away thoroughly convinced that he’s a keeper. From a defensive standpoint, Cervelli does everything you want a catcher to do. He squarely sets his target, and as he receives the pitch, he frames the ball skillfully, holding his glove in place in order to give the home plate umpire a longer look. (In contrast, some Yankee fans might remember the way that Matt Nokes jerked his glove back toward home plate, which is just about the worst way to frame pitches.) Cervelli moves smoothly and quickly behind the plate, allowing him to backhand wide pitches and block those thrown in the dirt. On stolen base attempts, Cervelli comes out of his squat quickly and follows through with strong and accurate throws to second base.

On the offensive side, Cervelli will probably never hit with much power, but he is patient at the plate and willing to take pitches to the opposite field. If Cervelli can mature enough offensively to become a .consistent 270 hitter who continues to draws walks, he will become a very good backup catcher. That might sound like an example of damning with faint praise, but solid No. 2 receivers have become like gold in today’s game. There are only a handful of standout backup catchers in either league: Chris Coste in Philadelphia, Henry Blanco in San Diego, Kelly Shoppach in Cleveland, and Mike Redmond in Minnesota. Cervelli has a chance to become the Yankees’ best backup catcher since a fellow named Joe Girardi, who last played a game in pinstripes in 1999. Yes, it’s been that long…

As uneven as the Yankees’ play has been through six weeks, they haven’t experienced the same kind of schizophrenia displayed by their Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton Yankees. The Scrantonians began the International League season by winning 23 of first 28 games, and they did so by clubbing the opposition with a powerhouse offense. Then came Scranton’s recent four-game stretch. Through Wednesday night, Scranton’s offense had failed to score a run in 44 consecutive innings—a simply remarkable run of futility. The Triple-A Yankees have suffered four consecutive shutouts, in addition to six scoreless innings left over during a previous loss last Saturday. Suddenly, Scranton’s record is a more earthly 23-10.

So what happened? As with the major league Yankees, injuries have hit Dave Miley’s team hard. Second baseman Kevin Russo and outfielders Shelley “Slam” Duncan and John Rodriguez, representing a third of Scranton’s starting nine, are all hurt. And the healthy players are slumping, none worse than third baseman and former No. 1 pick Eric Duncan. Duncan was wallowing in an oh-for-33 hammerlock before finally breaking out with a double on Wednesday. The slump, which dropped Duncan’s average from .309 to .206, probably cost Duncan what little chance he had of a promotion to the Bronx.

In spite of the recent offensive outage, three Scrantonians remain candidates for recall once the Yankees decide that Angel Berroa’s time has come to an end. Rodriguez, Shelley Duncan, and Juan Miranda could all help the Yankees in a reserve role, more specifically as late-inning pinch-hitters. (Personally, I’d vote for Slam Duncan.) With the Yankees giving so many at bats to Cervelli, Kevin Cash, and Brett Gardner, that’s a commodity that the Yankees could use in close games…

One never knows when a former big leaguer will be taking a stroll through the Hall of Fame. Earlier this week, retired right-hander Jack Billingham visited Cooperstown for several days as part of a cross-country trek. As Billingham explained to my friend, Hall of Fame senior researcher Bill Francis, he and his wife Jolene, along with his sister and brother-in-law, have been touring the nation in RVs. Along the way, they’ve visited some of Jack’s old stomping grounds, including Cincinnati, where he pitched most of his career with the Reds, and Detroit, where he played for three seasons late in his career). Cactus Jack, as he’s sometimes labeled, also pitched briefly for the dreaded Red Sox, but Boston is not part of the cross-country itinerary. Good for you, Jack.

This was not Billingham’s first visit to Cooperstown. Forty years ago, he came to town as part of a contingent with the Astros, who played Billy Martin’s Twins in the 1969 Hall of Fame Game. Billingham also has an indirect connection to the Hall of Fame. He is a distant cousin of the legendary Christy Mathewson, who was part of the Hall’s inaugural class in 1936.

“Cactus Jack,” as he’s sometimes called, remains one of the most underrated members of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.” Too often Billingham is remembered for giving up Hank Aaron’s record-tying 714th home run, an unfair legacy to say the least. While the Reds’ offensive stars, like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, have garnered most of the publicity, Billingham turned in workmanlike performances for a reliable rotation that also included Gary Nolan, Don Gullett, and Fredie Norman. Durable and consistent, Billingham used a sinkerball to post consecutive 19-win seasons in 1973 and ’74, before winning a total of 27 games during the Reds’ two world championship seasons of 1975 and ’76.

Billingham raised his level of pitching in World Series play, allowing only one earned run in just over 25 innings, and still holds the record for lowest ERA in World Series history. He pitched in a total of three World Series, including some high-quality competition: the 1972 A’s, the 1975 Red Sox, and the 1976 Yankees. Billingham’s performance against those teams gives him a much better and far more deserving legacy.

Bruce Markusen, a resident of Cooperstown, has written eight books on baseball.


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