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Observations From Cooperstown: AK, Albie, and the Amazing Mr. Brown

Posted By Bruce Markusen On August 28, 2010 @ 9:33 am In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Observations From Cooperstown | Comments Disabled

Of the three players the Yankees acquired just before the July 31st trading deadline, Austin Kearns was the least heralded. He hasn’t had the career of Lance “Big Puma” Berkman, nor the fame of Kerry Wood. He has never been an All-Star, and probably never will. So it is with some degree of astonishment that Kearns has paid just as much in dividends as the rejuvenated Wood and has had substantially more impact than the injured Berkman.

In 16 games with the Yankees, Kearns has reached base 38 per cent of the time, slugged close to .500, and played flawlessly in the outfield corners. He has become a Pat Tabler force with the bases loaded, showing a knack for coming up with timely hits in the late innings. In other words, he has been exactly the kind of player the Yankees needed in attempting to bolster their outfield depth.

In some ways, Kearns reminds me of Lou Piniella, just retired as manager of the Cubs. More specifically, it’s the way that Joe Girardi has used Kearns that is reminiscent of the role that Piniella once filled in the late 1970s. Like “Sweet Lou,” Kearns plays left field one day, right field the next, and DH’s against the odd left-hander.

That’s not to say that Kearns and Piniella are the same type of players; they’re not. Kearns is a much better defensive outfielder with a stronger arm and more power; Piniella was a better contact hitter who batted for a higher average. But they are similar in that they are the kinds of outfielders who could play every day for a bad team, but should play no more than four to five times a week for a playoff contender.

Not too much, not too little. Girardi has been using Kearns just right.

***

The Yankees met me halfway on my recent call for Eduardo Nunez and Jesus Montero to be brought up from Scranton/Wilkes Barre, though it did take an injury to Alex Rodriguez to force a roster move. Nunez is far from a great hitter, but he has substantially more offensive talent than Ramiro Pena, is much more athletic, and has the kind of speed that can help off the bench after A-Rod returns.

Barring an injury to Jorge Posada, Montero will probably remain stuck in Scranton through the end of the International League playoffs, but there is at least one other minor leaguer who deserves an immediate call-up. Jonathan Albaladejo, a thinner version of Tim “Big Foot” Stoddard, is putting up some of the greatest relief pitching numbers in minor league history. In 62 innings as Scranton’s closer, Albaladejo has walked only 18 batters and allowed a mere 37 hits. His ERA is down to 1.31, his saves total is up to 42 (a new record for International League relievers), and the blood pressure of opposing hitters has reached a precarious level.

How has Albaladejo, who was on the verge of pitching his way out of the organization this spring, made such a leap in performance? By relying on a four-seam fastball instead of his standby two-seamer, Albaladejo has improved both his velocity and his control. Not only can he throw the fastball where he wants to, but he has also upgraded one of his secondary pitches: the curveball.

So what more does Albaladejo have to do to get some quality time in the Yankee bullpen? I guess he has to wait for another pitching injury, or for the organization to come to its senses on Chad Gaudin, who has become the Ken Holtzman of the Yankee bullpen. Either way, the Yankees need to find some room for Albaladejo on their potential postseason roster.

***

Last week, an important but overlooked baseball figure, general manager Joe L. Brown, passed away at the age of 91. Brown never worked for the Yankees, but that shouldn’t matter. His accomplishments as a baseball progressive need to be recognized by fans of all teams.

Brown was a highly skilled and visionary general manager who assembled the rosters of two world championship teams with the Pirates. As the architect of the 1960 Bucs, he had the foresight to hire Danny Murtaugh as manager and shrewdly acquired key players like Smoky Burgess, Don Hoak, Bill Virdon, and Harvey Haddix in a series of smart trades. Even more significantly, Brown followed a progressive plan in putting together his later world championship club, the 1971 Pirates. Unlike most general managers of his day, Brown took a color blind approach to finding the best available players. He aggressively pursued African-American and Latino talent, both through the free market and the amateur draft.

Under Brown’s leadership, the Pirates signed black players like Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis and Bob Veale, all as amateur free agents. He later drafted Dave Cash, who succeeded Bill Mazeroski at second base. Brown also directed scouts like Howie Haak and Herb Raybourn to venture into the Caribbean, where they signed young players like Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett, and Ramon Hernandez. And then there were the trades that Brown engineered, deals that netted minority talents like Vic Davalillo and Mudcat Grant. All of the above players contributed to the Pirates winning the World Series in 1971, with that championship coming only six weeks after the Bucs debuted the major league baseball’s first all-black lineup in a September 1st game against the Phillies.

If Joe Brown had been operating the Yankees in the late fifties and early sixties, the franchise might not have gone through the doldrums that plagued the pinstripes from 1965 to 1975. Brown was the anti-George Weiss. While Weiss shunned signing black and Latino talent, Brown embraced the idea of finding quality players in the inner city and the Caribbean. With Brown calling the shots, the Yankees might have kept Vic Power, just one example of how Brown might have helped.

The racial mix of the Pirates occurred as a product of the organization’s aggressive approach to seeking winning talent of any color, a philosophy first instilled by Branch Rickey and then underscored by Brown. “Obviously, we were looking for talent,” Brown once told Baseball Digest. “We didn’t care where they came from or what color they were. If they happened to be black, so be it.” In so doing, the Pirates did away with the quota system first installed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s: no more than four black men in the starting lineup.

The Pirates’ philosophy not only helped the team win the World Championship in 1971, but also sent a subtle message to other organizations: expand the available talent pool to include black and Latin American players, select the best players at each position regardless of color, and you will increase your chances of winning.

That sounds like an overly simplistic approach, especially in the context of today’s baseball, where teams have become color blind with regard to the acquisition of talent. Yet, it was not an approach that teams universally followed in the late fifties and throughout the sixties. Joe Brown, along with a few others, broke free from the trends of stereotyping and quotas. Because of his wisdom, the Pirates achieved a level of glory that they have rarely reached since then.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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