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Observations From Cooperstown: Reviewing Hall of Fame Weekend

We all find ourselves so caught up with the Yankees and the races for both the American League East and the wild card that we sometimes lose sight of some of the most enjoyable and nostalgic events on the baseball calendar. One of those is Hall of Fame Weekend, just completed on Monday here in Cooperstown. Here’s a simple bit of advice: if you live anywhere near Cooperstown and have never experienced Hall of Fame Weekend, make sure you attend this celebration at least once in your lifetime.

As a Cooperstown resident, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to soak in Hall of Fame Weekend each year. There are so many different events going on—from autograph signings to clinics to the actual induction ceremony—that the weekend becomes a non-stop whirlwind of baseball activity that has something to fit fans of just about any sort, from casual to diehard.

One of the best and most underrated events of Hall of Fame Weekend took place last Friday. Sponsored by the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association, the Hall of Fame’s annual youth clinic gave children ages five to 12 the rare opportunity to learn the game from some of its masters. Ten former major league players led approximately 150 children in a variety of instructional drills, including baserunning, pitching, outfield play, and catching fundamentals. Four headline names participated, including perennial Hall of Fame candidate Lee Smith, former Big Red Machine component George Foster, longtime Montreal Expos ace Steve Rogers, and old favorite Jim “Mudcat” Grant. (My nephew Brandon, who took part in the clinic, particularly enjoyed listening to Foster, who has become his new favorite player. After the clinic, we went to a local baseball shop, where Brandon soon asked me if the store had a section containing cards of Foster. Sadly, the store didn’t, but that didn’t quell Brandon’s passion.)

As I watched from the third base dugout at venerable Doubleday Field, I took note of how well organized the clinic seemed to be. Each group of youngsters spent 15 minutes at each station, as former players offered hands-on instruction, before moving on to the next post. The kids completed seven of eight stations, as some late afternoon thunder and lightning forced organizers to cut the event short by about ten minutes. The early termination didn’t matter; by then, the kids had received nearly two hours of instruction at the cost of exactly nothing. Yes, the event was completely free of charge.

Frankly, I’m surprised that more parents don’t sign their kids up for the experience. In addition to being free, it features outgoing instructors who all have a desire to teach youngsters about the game. There are few scenes more uplifting than watching a 75-year-old Mudcat Grant telling five to 12-year-olds stories about his playing days while emphasizing the important of getting an education. Grant did this despite his continued recovery from recent knee and hip surgeries. Mudcat walked with the assistance of a cane, but aside from the effects on his gait, he still looks good some 36 years after last throwing a pitch in a major league game. Mudcat is truly a modern day marvel—and a phenomenal ambassador for the game.


Observations From Cooperstown: A Conversation With Jim Kaat

The first Hall of Fame Classic, played Sunday at Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field, gave me the opportunity to talk to former Yankee pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat. During our on-field conversation, I asked Kitty about his decision to return to the broadcast booth, his thoughts on the ’09 Yankees, his new marriage, and his continuing connection to the village of Cooperstown.

Markusen: Jim, first off, I know that I speak for a lot of Yankee fans who are glad that you’re back broadcasting, not on the YES Network [as before], but on the MLB Network. What went into your decision to come back after essentially retiring for three years?

Kaat: Well, my wife, who had been battling cancer for a couple of years, passed away last year. I retired because we wanted to get a little more time together. She was doing pretty well, but her cancer came back. She couldn’t survive that, so a lot of my friends and family said to me, maybe you ought to go back to work. So that’s what I did, starting this year just on a part-time basis. I just reached out to some people, and if they wanted me to do it, I said fine. So MLB hired me to do ten games, I did the World Baseball Classic, and I’ll do a little stuff for XM Radio. So that sort of motivated me to do it.

Markusen: Did it take a lot of convincing?

Kaat: Not a lot. There was a period of time there where I didn’t know if I wanted to do that [come back], but toward the end of the year in December, I thought, yeah, it might be a good idea for me to do that.

Markusen: Jim, do you still keep close tabs on the Yankees, a team that you followed so closely for so long? Do you still follow them on a regular basis?

Kaat: Oh, very much so. Two of the three games I’ve done so far have been the Yankees. I did the home opener, and I did the Yankee-Red Sox game on June 11. I keep up with all of the teams, and I’ll have another Yankee game—the Yankees and White Sox—at the end of July, so that gives me good reason to keep up with them. I have a Mets-Dodgers game coming up, too. I still follow the Yankees through the newspapers, the box scores, and of course, nowadays on television you can get about all the highlights you want.

Markusen: It’s been a very uneven year for the Yankees. A very poor April, a lot of injuries early, then they had that nine-game winning streak, and now they seem to be struggling a little bit. As you look at the team, what do you think has been the problem?

Kaat: Well, I still think, and I think that with any team, you really need to have quality guys in the seventh and eighth innings to set up whoever your closer is, in this case Mariano. And I always think that’s a determining factor. I mean, hitting comes and goes, guys will go into slumps. The Yankees have played well in the field, in the infield—I don’t know about their range—but they aren’t making any errors. But I’ve always liked teams, as Tampa Bay did last year and the Red Sox this year, that have good guys down in the pen at the end of the game. You know, when Bruney’s been healthy, Aceves has been in and out of the [late-inning] role, Coke, the lefty, has done pretty well, but they haven’t been able to find that solid seventh and eighth-inning guy.

Of course, Brian Cashman knows, and I always chide him about it, I think Chamberlain should be in the bullpen. I think he’d be a perfect eighth-inning guy, but that’s not my decision. But I think that [the bullpen] will determine how well they do.

Markusen: When you look at the intangibles and more subtle areas with this team, you sometimes hear criticism that they play a little too tense, maybe they don’t have a killer instinct, and they continue to struggle with runners in scoring position. Do you give a lot of merit to any of that?

Kaat: Well, the runners in scoring position I do, because the more years go by, the more we’re aware of how great the 1998 team was and the teams in that era, the team that had Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill, Knoblauch, Jeter was a younger player, Bernie Williams, Girardi was still playing, guys that made contact, advanced runners, manufactured runs. And they had a great bullpen. I think their offense this year is the kind of explosive offense—they’re like a team of really DHs—they can crush mediocre pitching, but until they do those kinds of things against good pitching like the teams in the late nineties, that’s probably where they’re lacking.


Observations From Cooperstown: Cervelli, Scranton, and Cactus Jack

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.


Observations From Cooperstown: Aaron, Tickets, and Pena

I guess we can call it one of the benefits of living in Cooperstown. The great Henry Aaron visited the Hall of Fame last weekend to commemorate a new exhibit detailing his life and career in baseball. Aaron becomes just the second man to have an entire room dedicated to him at the Hall, joining Babe Ruth in that exclusive club. When a Milwaukee reporter asked Aaron how he felt about being put on the same level as Ruth, he did not opt for a modest answer based on political correctness. “It means I’m supposed to be on the same platform [as Ruth],” Aaron told the reporter. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

I can’t disagree with Aaron, who overcame a childhood filled with poverty to become one of the game’s legends. While “Hammerin’ Hank” was not the equal of The Babe—no one is—he is unquestionably one of the all-time greats. Still the major league career leader in RBIs and total bases, Aaron was a phenomenal five-tool talent who excelled in every important area. He also deserves extra credit for breaking Ruth’s home run record under the extraordinary duress of racial hatred. Aaron and his family received horrific threats, both in the form of venomous phone calls and vicious hate mail. His sustained excellence in 1973 and 1974, when he was chasing the record and ultimately breaking it, is impressive enough on the surface; it becomes even more pronounced in view of the emotional distress and genuine concerns for his safety.

Unfortunately, Aaron was subjected to racial torment at various times in his career, especially at the beginning and the end. As a minor leaguer developing in the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system, Aaron received an assignment to report to Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. He and two of his teammates made history, integrating the previously all-white league while dodging the race baiters. “We had three black players on that team,” Aaron told a capacity crowd in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. “I had a very good year. I led the league in everything but hotel accommodations.”

Not only did Aaron and his two black teammates have to endure the embarrassment of staying in separate hotels and eating in different restaurants; they had to endure uncivil behavior at the games. “The problem we had was with spectators. We had a rough time in the South. It got ridiculous. At some ballparks, we could not dress in the clubhouse. If you went 0-for-4, the fans would throw bananas at us.

“We used to talk about how silly people can really be when all we wanted to do was play ball. The thing that made me succeed more was how hateful they were.”

The hatred certainly did not stop Aaron. It did not prevent him from breaking a wide-ranging set of records. Some would say he is the greatest living player. Is he at the top of the list? Maybe, maybe not. Willie Mays has his supporters, as does Barry Bonds. But at the very least, Aaron deserves to be in the argument. For someone who overcame so much racism and poverty, that’s a pretty good legacy to have…

Not only did the Yankees do the right thing in reducing the prices of some of their high-end box seats, they did the smart thing. In this case, let’s refer to the “Empty Seat Syndrome.” Empty seats are the worst thing that can happen to a professional sports team. Empty seats don’t buy concession items. Empty seats don’t buy souvenirs or memorabilia. Empty seats don’t tell their friends about their wonderful experiences at the ballpark. On top of all that, empty seats just look bad, especially when they are located so close to the playing field. When a team is coming off back-to-back seasons of four million fans in paid attendance, there is no excuse for not filling the ballpark—especially a new one that has so many improvements over the old house—on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Yankees have learned their lesson…

As long as Joe Girardi keeps using Jorge Posada as a DH on days when he does not catch, the Yankees will continue to need a third catcher. (Anything would be more useful than a 13th pitcher.) Otherwise, Girardi will find himself strapped in the late innings, unable to pinch-hit or pinch-run for Jose Molina. One potential pickup is Brayan Pena, a switch-hitting catcher who was designated for assignment by the Royals last weekend. The 27-year-old Pena is a rare breed in 2009: a backup catcher who can hit and who carries enough versatility to fill in at third base or first base. As a player who has been DFAed (designated for assignment), Pena will cost almost nothing in a trade, assuming that he is not waived or given his outright release.

Bruce Markusen, who writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com, can be reached via email at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

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