"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: History and Tributes
Older posts           

Hideki Matsui and the Loss of (My) Revenue

Hideki Matsui was my meal ticket.  This may smack of metaphor, but it’s almost literally true: every time Matsui homered, the curry shop/Matsui Shrine nearby my office handed me a coupon good for a $2 discount on a future meal. He helped put hundreds of dollars in my pockets over the years – in July 2007 I cleared over $20 bucks just by scheduling my curry fix to coincide exclusively with Godzilla’s crazy dinger binge. Other periods were not so lucrative.

His lengthy injury bouts took a toll on my bank account (pack a lunch? never!) but even a few months on the DL had not prepared me to contemplate a Matsui-less (ergo curry-for-more) future. Based on the resurgent 2009 campaign topped off with the two pillars of Yankee immortality, the World Series Championship and MVP, and the lack of superior options, I assumed Hideki Matsui would collect his ring in pinstripes.  And another $50 bucks or so would be in play for me in 2010.

Brian Cashman assumed no such thing. Matsui was either not in his plans for 2010 or he was such a low priority that the Angels could snap him up with some lip service about the outfield and a reasonable 1 year contract.  But whereas Matsui’s water logged knees may have been deemed too risky, Nick Johnson’s taffy tendons and balsa wood bones apparently pass muster. Matsui must have some grim future knee-cap disintegration scheduled to finish second to Nick “the wrist” Johnson in a reliability ranking.

All of this is to say I will miss Matsui. He was a terrific Yankee and, probably because he lacked a readily accessible English-speaking public persona, I created a very favorable one for him. I’ll miss his unorthodox bail-out hitting approach that seemed to preclude anything but a foul ball to the first base side and abandoned the outside corner as scorched earth, but remarkably produced a heckuva lot more variety than that.  And by opening up his front side so early, he got a good look at left-handed release points and smushed them accordingly.

His booming extra base hits in Game 6 of the latest World Series were fantastic representations of his pull-power skill, but it was the opposite field single that was the key hit of the game for me . That 2 out, 2 strike, “getting the job done” liner dulled the razor edge of the game to something less dangerous.  While in the stands for an interleague game versus the Cubs in 2005,  I watched him size up the loogy summoned to preserve a slim Chicago lead and I knew Matsui was taking him deep.

And yet after 7 years as a Yankee, my lasting visual memory of him is going to be from his very first year here.  In Game 7 of the ALCS, Matsui bested a tiring Pedro Martinez during the Yankees epic 8th inning comeback. While I can still picture his ringing double, the indelible image from that inning is not his sweet swing. It’s his celebratory jump and spin after scoring the tying run. Millions of eyes found the spot where Posada’s bloop was going to land and then swung in unison toward home plate to see Matsui tie the game. We all jumped up together.

Go Go Curry plans to follow Matsui to Anaheim with a new branch (the Manhattan location will stay open, phew, but will they continue to celebrate his Angel homers here in New York? It’s a little unseemly, no?)  So will some fans, advertisers and some ticket sales to be sure. Even still, the Yankees coffers figure to be full. But what of their stature in Japan? Matsui grew up dreaming of being a Yankee - an advantage in the initial courtship. Future generations of Japanese stars may dream of Boston and Seattle before the Bronx – especially if the emerging consesus of Matsui’s departure harbors the specter of Yankee disrespect. This is only temporary and in the evolution of Japanese player movement, possibly meaningless, but there’s no need to hasten the Yankees decline in prestige by treating a national hero shabbily.  I hope they treated him well right to the end and he gets the send-off he deserves.

(more…)

Card Corner: Willie Mays, A Yankee?

Mays

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article that claimed the Yankees bypassed several golden opportunities to sign a young Willie Mays in the months before he officially became a member of the New York Giants’ organization. Like the Red Sox and numerous other franchises that populated the Jim Crow landscape in 1950, the Yankees gave Mays less than lukewarm attention because they felt little motivation to fully integrate their organization. On their way to a 98-win season and a World Series sweep over the Phillies, the Yankees were content to leave Mays in the Negro Leagues—or let him sign with some other major league team, one that was needier and perhaps even a bit desperate.

So let’s speculate a bit how much Yankee history would have changed if they had taken a more aggressive approach with regard to the young Mays. Even without Mays, the Yankees did their fair share of winning throughout the 1950s and the early years of the 1960s. But could they have won more? Though never particularly outstanding in postseason play, Mays could have made a difference in the outcomes of the 1955, ’57, ’60, and ’64 World Series, when the Yankees fell short to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Milwaukee Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. The Yankees lost all four of those Series in the maximum seven games; perhaps Mays’ presence would have been sufficient to turn World Series defeat into the alternate reality of a world championship. Who knows?

Putting aside the harsh realities of the bottom line of world championships, I am certain that Mays would have made a huge difference in terms of baseball aesthetics. With Mays on board patrolling the monuments at the original Yankee Stadium, the Bombers, at least by 1960, would have been capable of boasting the greatest outfield in the history of the game. Let’s imagine the wonders of an outfield featuring Mays in center, flanked by the phenomenal Mickey Mantle in left field and the meteoric Roger Maris in right field, with all three men in the prime of their mid-to-late twenties. I mean, what more could you have wanted from three major league outfielders? High on base percentages, check. Gold Glove defensive ability, double check. Speed, check. And upper deck power, triple check.

The addition of Mays to the Yankee stable would have provided another lasting benefit to fans of the franchise, especially those who regularly attended games at the old Stadium. For fans of baseball in the 1960s, in particular, one of the most lasting images involved the sight of Mays rounding the bases. We can make all sorts of arguments about Mays being the greatest all-around player of all-time—I’m tempted to make that call, but know it will be met with rounds of debate and skepticism—but there should be little doubt that Mays was the most memorable baserunner of the television era. (And he just might have been the greatest baserunner of any era, with apologies to Ty Cobb.)

By the time this author began following baseball in the early 1970s, Mays was no longer in his overall prime, but remained a vibrant and dangerous baserunner. When Topps decided to include a series of “action” cards in its massive 1972 set, the company wisely chose to include a card depicting Mays in the act of completing one of his memorably dynamic and frantic runs around the bases. Specifically, his 1972 Topps card shows the “Say Hey Kid” sliding into home plate, his right arm extended, piling a cloud of dust onto the helpless catcher with his unseen but nonetheless powerful legs. And then there’s the Mays trademark on the basepaths—the cap. By the early 1970s, most major league baserunners wore helmets on the bases, but not Mays. He had always run the bases while wearing only his cap on his head, and he saw no reason to change in an era when player safety became more prevalent. There was just something right about Mays wearing that cap, which often flew out from underneath him because of the sheer force and torque with which he ran the basepaths. By the time that Mays reached home, his lonely cap was often sitting between third and home, or resting between second and third, waiting to be retrieved by a diligent coach or a batboy. I can see that picture on my old black-and-white Sony as if it were the day before yesterday.

As much as baseball statistics shed light on the quality of its players, they do little to convey the aesthetic landscape of the game, including the simple beauty of a runner making his way from first base to home plate. Thankfully, with its 1972 action card, Topps captured a small sample of what it was like to watch the artistic and comforting image of Willie Mays running the bases. And for those who love the visual dynamics of the game, there was nothing quite like it.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Call-ups, Helmets, and Lookalikes

Let’s file this in the category of “taking nothing for granted.” Even with a sizeable lead over the Red Sox, I’m happy to see that the Yankees haven’t waited for Scranton’s Triple-A playoff season to end before bringing some reinforcements to New York. Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Mark Melancon, Edwar Ramirez, Mike Dunn, and Jon Albaladejo represent the first wave of call-ups, giving Joe Girardi additional options for the final month of the regular season. As painful as it is for fans of the minor league affiliates to hear, the priorities and needs of the major league team should always come first. Given the frequent rest needed by Jorge Posada and the semi-ludicrous pitching limitations being placed on Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees can use some bolstering in the areas of pitching and catching depth.

Once Scranton’s postseason run is complete, the Yankees should then promote their two best everyday players at Triple-A: Austin “Ajax” Jackson and Shelley “Slam” Duncan. If nothing else, both players deserve to be rewarded for fine seasons in Triple-A; minor league players need to know that they will be promoted if they produce at lower levels. Jackson still has flaws in his game (including a surprising lack of power and too many strikeouts), but did well enough to be named the International League’s Rookie of the Year. Duncan has had nothing less than a terrific season for Scranton-Wilkes Barre, leading the league in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage. Hopefully, the Yankees will be able to put an early clinch on the AL East and give Duncan some at-bats in which to impress opposing scouts. He could help any one of a number of teams, including the Indians, A’s, Diamondbacks, and Pirates. Heck, he’d be a good fit for the cross-town Mets, who probably won’t be re-signing Carlos Delgado and desperately need an infusion of power and enthusiasm. If someone gives Duncan a chance, they might just get some Dave Kingman-type numbers in return, with slightly better defense and significantly better attitude…

In pioneering the oversized S100 helmet made by Rawlings, David Wright has started me thinking about the history of batting helmets. Former Yankee great Phil Rizzuto is generally acknowledged as the first major leaguer to wear a full batting helmet in a game. “The Scooter” made the move from cap to hard hat in 1951, one year before the Pirates outfitted all of their players with helmets and a full 20 years before helmets became mandatory throughout the major leagues. Rizzuto wasn’t just a great shortstop and a funny broadcaster; he was a smart guy who realized the value of protecting oneself in an era when most pitchers felt comfortable pitching high and tight.

As much of a pioneer as Rizzuto was, he was not the first professional ballplayer to don a helmet in a game. That honor belongs to another Hall of Fame shortstop—longtime Negro Leagues great Willie “El Diablo” Wells. After being beaned and knocked unconscious in a 1942 game, the Newark Eagles’ legend returned to action wearing a workman’s helmet, which he found at a New Jersey construction site. Deciding that the construction helmet would work at bat, Wells donned the hard hat in his next game. El Diablo might have looked a little odd, but who could have blamed him?

Speaking of Wright, his use of the S100 helmet has conjured images of two of Hollywood’s beloved characters: The Great Gazoo from “The Flintstones” and the laughable Dark Helmet from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. So whom do you think Wright more closely resembles? It’s a close call, but I’ll place my vote with Gazoo, as portrayed by the brilliant Harvey Korman. In the immortal words of Gazoo, “Goodbye dum-dums.”…

Finally, has anyone else noticed how much Alfredo Aceves looks like former Yankee Jim Leyritz? Every time I see Aceves take the mound, I have to remind myself that “The King” is no longer playing. I had similar flashbacks when Bobby Abreu played for the Yankees; he always reminded me of former Yankee outfielder Matty Alou, at least in terms of their facial resemblance. Then again, maybe I’ve just been looking at too many old Topps baseball cards.

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

Card Corner: Goofy Gomez

Gomez2

In defeating the Texas Rangers last week at the Stadium, Andy Pettitte reached a significant Yankee milestone: tying Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez on the franchise’s all-time wins list. There’s something odd about Pettitte and Gomez having identical totals of 189 wins in pinstripes. These two left-handers couldn’t be any different in terms of personality and persona. Pettitte, outside of his dalliance with HGH, has led a pretty straight-laced life in New York. Gomez was anything but straight-laced. In fact, he may have been the most offbeat Yankee of all-time.

As the southpaw pitching ace for the Yankees of the 1930s, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez stood in contrast to several of his reserved and businesslike teammates. Unlike Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, the native Californian had an outgoing nature, with a priceless comic touch. Gomez even did the unthinkable in needling Joe D., who was usually spared from the normal clubhouse ribbing. Somewhat surprisingly, DiMaggio allowed Gomez to include him in the razzing, in part because he considered the eccentric left-hander to be genuinely funny.

Outside of baseball, the entertainment world took notice of Gomez’ personality. After the 1931 World Series, he was invited to join vaudeville for a three-week run. Unfortunately, his act didn’t pass muster, but Gomez didn’t allow failure to dampen his sense of humor. “I lasted three weeks,” Gomez told a reporter, “but the audiences didn’t.”

Throughout his career, Gomez produced a litany of classical quotations for both his teammates and the media. Gomez once proclaimed that he had come up with a new invention. “It’s a revolving bowl for tired goldfish.” Much like Mark “the Bird” Fidrych of a later generation, Gomez claimed that he often conversed with the baseball. “I talked to the ball a lot of times in my career,” Gomez contended. “‘I yelled, ‘Go foul, Go foul!’” And then there was his philosophy with regard to relief pitching. “A lot of things run through your head when you’re going in to relieve in a tight spot. One of them was, ‘Should I spike myself?’”

Tall and gangly, Gomez could be as clumsy as he was zany, especially when in the uncomfortable territory of the batter’s box. Always a poor hitter, Gomez at least tried to act the part of an accomplished slugger. During one at-bat, he adjusted his cap, tugged at his uniform, and then attempted to knock the mud from his spikes with his bat. Instead, he whacked his ankle with the bat, putting himself in the hospital for three days.

Gomez’ behavior could be as bizarre as his words. Pitching in the second game of the 1936 World Series, Gomez held up play because of his preoccupation in watching a plane fly overhead. Seething Yankee manager Joe McCarthy, who demanded professionalism from his players at all times, could only watch in stunned amazement from the dugout. When Gomez returned to the dugout after retiring the side, McCarthy berated his star pitcher. Gomez quickly defended himself. “Listen, Joe, I’ve never seen a pitcher lose a game by not throwing the ball.”

On at least one other occasion, Gomez felt that holding onto the ball was clearly the best strategy. Throughout his career, Gomez struggled in matchups against Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx. During one at-bat against Foxx, Gomez shook off every sign called by catcher Bill Dickey. Visiting the mound, Dickey asked Gomez what pitch he wanted to throw to Foxx. “Nothing,” Gomez said to his batterymate. “Let’s just stall around and maybe he’ll get mad and go away.” Gomez eventually did make a pitch to Foxx, who promptly swatted the Gomez offering over the outfield fence.

Unlike some star pitchers who act as prima donnas, Gomez displayed little ego. He liked to poke fun at himself, all part of his effort to pick up some laughs. He also understood his limitations—and when it was time to leave the game. Shortly after his retirement from pitching, Gomez applied for a job with the Wilson sporting goods company. The employment application included a space that asked why he had left his previous job. Gomez answered the question with brutal honesty. “I couldn’t get the side out.”

For most of his career, though, Gomez did well in getting the side out. His major league accomplishments, almost all of them coming with the Yankees, earned him election to the Hall of Fame in 1972. That honor will probably escape Andy Pettitte, but at the very least he’ll be able to say he matched Gomez in the win column.

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

Card Corner: Time To Hire Spencer

Spencer

Four prominent members of the 1979 Yankees have passed away over the years. I’ve written extensively about three of them—Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter— in this space. All three were beloved players, though for very different reasons. I have hardly written anything about the fourth player. It’s about time to end that practice.

Jim Spencer has become a forgotten link to the late 1970s. When he died in 2002 from a heart attack, there was barely a mention in the New York newspapers, like the Daily News and the Post. There might even be a few longtime Yankee fans who are surprised to hear that Spencer is deceased. His passing created little fanfare, even for those who grew up with the Yankees during the Bronx Zoo years.

No one ever remembers Spencer fondly as part of the late seventies run of pennants and world championships, just like no one remembers Jay Johnstone or Gary Thomasson. I guess that’s the fate that befalls old platoon players or bench guys; the more time that goes by, the less and less they seem to become pertinent. That natural human tendency to forget overshadows the fact that Spencer could provide decent production in a part-time role. Did you know that he led the 1979 Yankees in OPS with a mark of .970? I certainly didn’t. In just 295 at-bats, Spencer clubbed a career-high 23 home runs. It’s too bad that Spencer couldn’t have timed that performance to occur in 1978, when it would have felt far more relevant as part of a world championship contribution. Limited by injuries in 1978, Spencer came to bat only 166 times, rendering him a footnote during that memorable summer and fall.

(more…)

Card Corner: Jim “Catfish” Hunter

hunter-jim-1979As we all know, 1979 marked the final season of Thurman Munson’s career as a Yankee—the end result of one of the game’s worst tragedies. A number of other Yankee also played their final games in pinstripes that summer, though for far less heartbreaking reasons. Dick Tidrow left in May, traded to the Cubs in an ill-fated deal for Ray Burris. Mickey Rivers left in August, traded to the Rangers for Oscar Gamble and prospects. After the season, longtime Yankee mainstay Roy White moved on, opting to continue his career by playing in the Japanese Leagues.

A future Hall of Famer also left the team that winter. Jim “Catfish” Hunter decided to call it quits, his right arm having buckled under the stress of so many innings and far too many sliders.

Like most great pitchers, the 33-year-old Hunter owned great inner pride. He had no interest in hanging on as a mop-up man wallowing in long relief. The refusal to accept life as a fringe pitcher probably came as no surprise to people who had followed Hunter since his early days with the Oakland A’s. Prior to the 1971 season, A’s owner Charlie Finley had angered the pitcher when he offered him a mere $5,000 raise, which Hunter considered inadequate after winning a career-high 18 games in 1970. Finley preferred emphasizing Hunter’s 14 losses and his extreme reliance on closer Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who had rescued eight of Catfish’s wins with late-inning relief work. (Yes, it was a different baseball world back then.) Hunter didn’t appreciate the suggestion that he had depended so heavily on Grant to enjoy a successful season. “Mudcat was a good relief pitcher last year,” Catfish told The Sporting News, “one of the best I’ve ever seen. But I didn’t like it when some sportswriters suggested that he get half my salary this year. He did his job and I did mine.” Without minimizing the efforts of one of his teammates, Hunter had provided a thoughtful defense of his own contributions to the team.

Yet, Hunter didn’t take himself too seriously. He enjoyed playing practical jokes, which served to loosen up a clubhouse that was sometimes sidetracked by tension and mistrust. He never really liked being the center of attention, which was exactly where he found himself in 1964, when a horde of scouts had initiated an all-out raid on his home in Hertford, North Carolina, and its population of 2,012 residents. Scouts considered the young Jim Hunter one of the best high school pitchers in the country. Finley, at the time the owner of the Kansas City A’s, succeeded in signing Hunter to his first professional contract. The following spring, the A’s wanted to send the 19-year-old Hunter to the minor leagues, but his surprising maturity convinced management that he should remain with Kansas City.

(more…)

Observations from Cooperstown: Cody, Jerry, Chad, and Thurman

The great Yankee mystery of the month finally came to an end this week. I must confess that I’m as clueless as everyone else as to why Cody Ransom occupied space on the 25-man roster for as long as he did before finally being thrown into the baseball limbo known as being “designated-for-assignment.” Ransom has never hit curve balls, now struggles to hit waist-high fastballs, and has shaky hands on the infield. So what else is there? Even the explanation that the Yankees simply wanted a second utility infielder (to go along with the newly acquired Jerry Hairston, Jr.) fell short of justifying Ransom’s presence on the roster. If the Yankee high command believed that another utility guy was required, Ransom should have given way to rookie Ramiro Pena, currently playing a jack-of-all-trades role at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Pena is a better defender than Ransom, has a touch more speed, and now has the same level of versatility, considering that he’s been learning to play the outfield at Scranton. When a team is involved in a dogfight for a division title, every roster spot counts; it’s about time the Yankees either sent Ransom back to Triple-A or perhaps let him loose to try his wares with one of the weak sisters in the National League…

Speaking of Hairston, the reaction to his acquisition from Cincinnati has drawn a tepid reaction in these parts, but I’m slightly more enthusiastic. At the very least, he’s a major upgrade on Ransom, who had become the 2009 version of Mike Fischlin. Looking deeper, Hairston provides six-position versatility, can steal a base in the pinch, and has a modicum of power. He’s also highly regarded as one of the game’s most intelligent players, which is not so surprising considering his family’s baseball heritage. With grandfather Sam Hairston (a former Negro Leagues catcher and longtime coach and scout) and father Jerry, Sr. (a longtime backup outfielder and accomplished pinch-hitter with the White Sox), Hairston has received a good baseball education. And on a team that doesn’t always play the game smart (see Jorge Posada tagging a baserunner with an empty glove or failing to slide into home plate), that’s a nice attribute to have coming off the bench…

(more…)

Card Corner: Lindy McDaniel

McDaniel

In many ways, Lindy McDaniel is one of the most overlooked Yankee of the last 40 years. On the few occasions that his name is remembered, it’s usually in reference to the fact that he was the player the Yankees traded to the Royals for Sweet Lou Piniella. McDaniel is one of the forgotten Yankee closers (or firemen, as they used to be called), along with Jack “The Chief” Aker, Steve “The Burglar” Farr, and John Wetteland.

This Saturday, McDaniel will be attending his first Old-Timers’ Day, albeit at the new Yankee Stadium. I’m not sure if it’s a case of McDaniel never being invited to the old-timers’ conclave, or that he has simply rejected prior invites, but it’s rather remarkable that he has never returned to the Yankees in any official way since last donning the pinstripes in 1973. For whatever the reason, the drought will end this Saturday. And for a quality and class Yankee, it’s about time.

Acquired for another old favorite in Bill Monbouquette, McDaniel served the Yankees superbly as a durable and effective reliever from 1968 to 1973. Except for his performance in 1971, when his ERA ballooned to 5.04 (the second-worst mark of his career), he consistently turned back opposition hitters in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. The long, lean right-hander became a familiar site at the old Stadium, with his old-fashioned, baggy-uniformed look and an easy-going, over-the-top delivery. McDaniel did not overpower hitters, not in the manner of Sparky Lyle with his backbiting slider, Goose Gossage with his chest-high powerball, or Mariano Rivera with his chainsaw cutter. Employing a softer and more subtle forkball as his out-pitch, McDaniel complemented that offering with a pedestrian fastball, an effective slider, and pinpoint control.

Where McDaniel lacked power and dominance, he made up for those shortcomings with endurance and longevity. In 1970, he pitched 111 innings to the tune of a 2.01 ERA and a career-high 29 saves. In 1973, He once pitched 13 innings of relief in a marathon Yankee victory. (You can file that in the category of milestones that today’s relief pitchers will never achieve.) In his final season with the Yankees, McDaniel logged 160 innings at the not-so-tender age of 37. By the time that he retired after two encore seasons with the Royals, McDaniel had amassed 21 years in the major leagues—a rather remarkable total for a nearly fulltime relief pitcher who regularly pitched more than 100 innings a summer.

So why has McDaniel remained so underrated, both as a Yankee and otherwise? From the Yankee perspective, he conceded the fireman role to Lyle in 1972 and ’73, McDaniel’s final two seasons in New York. Then there is the issue of the postseason. Though he played for some competitive Cardinals and Giants teams, the two-time All-Star never sniffed the World Series in either the fifties or the sixties. With the Yankees, he was stuck with some mediocre-to-decent teams that never quite had enough to keep pace with Earl Weaver’s world class Orioles. So there were no Championship Series appearances for McDaniel, either.

Beyond the lack of team support, McDaniel never did much, on an individual level, to promote his own accomplishments. A gentlemanly and reserved man, McDaniel instead preferred promoting the word of God. As an ordained minister for the Church of Christ, McDaniel spent much of his off-the-field time teaching and interpreting the Bible. McDaniel did not preach within the clubhouse or the bullpen, but instead mailed each active major leaguer (at his own cost) a copy of his monthly religious newsletter, entitled “Pitching for the Master.” In looking through McDaniel’s file at the Hall of Fame Library, I could not find any examples of resentment from other players who did not appreciate the religious message. Given the recent backlash against Baseball Chapel, I wonder how Murray Chass would have reacted to McDaniel’s practice in today’s climate.

Nearly 35 years after he last threw a pitch, McDaniel continues to preach his religious beliefs. As with his pitching style, he does it without fanfare or fire-and-brimstone. Now 73, McDaniel-the-minister will wear the pinstripes for the first time in several decades come this Saturday. Though he never had the flare of Mo or Sparky, I hope at least a few Yankee fans remember just how good Lindy was during those five-and-a-half lean years in the Bronx.

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

Card Corner: Deron Johnson

DJohnson

When Deron Johnson died in 1992, the notion of baseball mortality really started to hit me. Oh, I had already been assaulted with the tragic mid-career losses of Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but their deaths had occurred while I was still a child, when I still didn’t fully appreciate life and death. By the time that Johnson died, I was 27 years old and working fulltime. Here was a guy I remembered well from my earliest days watching baseball. Deron was strong, sizeable, and seemingly unconquerable.

A burly right-handed slugger who won the National League’s RBI title in 1965 with the Cincinnati Reds, Johnson died in the spring of ‘92 while still employed as the batting coach of the California Angels. Johnson, only 53, had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous June. After the diagnosis, Johnson asked the Angels’ beat writers not to mention his illness in print. He continued to coach while carrying an oxygen task with him. For those player and coaches who knew him, such toughness was typical of Johnson. Even after he became too ill to coach, he continued to refuse hospitalization and treatment because he wanted to live out his remaining days at home. Once again, for those who knew him, such a decision typified a family man like Johnson.

Throughout his career, Johnson struck a gruff, intimidating pose. (Like Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, he once punched a horse, which had kicked him.) In reality, Johnson was a soft touch, a likeable man who developed a close rapport with teammates, and later as a coach, with his hitting pupils. Johnson was so well liked, by both players and front office types, that the Philadelphia Phillies once dealt him to the Oakland A’s as a way of helping him earn a World Series ring. Phillies president Paul Owens received only minor league utilityman Jack Bastable, a non-prospect who would never make the majors, in return from the A’s. Owens could have held out for more, but he wanted to send Johnson to Oakland, where he would have a better chance to play in his first World Series.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

Card Corner: Phil Niekro

niekrop

Nearly 30 retired major leaguers will congregate at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown on Sunday for the first Hall of Fame Classic. The list of ex-Yankees who will participate includes Mike Pagliarulo, Kevin Maas, Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat, and Lee Smith. In the latest installment of “Card Corner,” we take a closer look at the man known as “Knucksie.”

Like fellow Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and Billy Williams, Phil Niekro exudes gentlemanly class. Frankly, Leo “The Lip” Durocher was wrong when he said, “Nice guys finish last.” Some guys, like Niekro, might have played for a lot of last-place teams, but 318 career wins and a permanent residence in Cooperstown hardly qualify as “finishing last.”

During my tenure as a full-time employee at the Hall of Fame, I had the privilege of engaging Phil Niekro in several casual conversations and a few formal interviews. Whether Phil was in front of a microphone or not, he always behaved the same way. He didn’t like talking about himself—I never heard him brag about anything—but preferred steering credit in other directions.

On a Saturday night in Cooperstown in 2006, I watched Niekro behave in his typically dignified fashion. Along with several other retired ballplayers, Niekro was taking part in a roundtable discussion about the game in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. As he sat next to his beloved brother Joe, who would pass away unexpectedly only three weeks later, Phil expressed only words of fond praise for his two-time teammate with the Braves and Yankees. “To get to play with your best friend, that’s an experience,” Phil said that evening. “I wish all brothers would get a chance to have that experience.”

(more…)

Card Corner: The Tall Man

rasmussen

In just over a week, nearly 30 retired major leaguers will come to Cooperstown to participate in the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic. The group will feature several former Yankees, including a fairly prominent and well-traveled pitcher from the mid-1980s.

One of my favorite old ballplayers, the late Pat Dobson, liked to invent new baseball jargon and give out quirky nicknames. He labeled former Yankee Dennis Rasmussen as “Count Full Count,” a reference to the tall left-hander’s tendency to throw too many pitches to each batter. The words “three and two” often accompanied Rasmussen’s struggles with opposing hitters.

Like many of those full counts, Rasmussen took a twisted career path to the Bronx. At one time a top prospect in the California Angels’ organization, Rasmussen came to the Yankees as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Tommy John to the West Coast. The deal, which took place after a dismal 1982 season, made good sense for the Yankees. Firmly in rebuilding mode, the Yankees had unloaded an aging John in exchange for a young left-hander of considerable promise. In the 1980s, however, the Yankees often turned their back on rebuilding at a moment’s notice, reverting back to a win-now philosophy whenever possible. So less than a year later, the Yankees sent Rasmussen to the Padres as the player to be named later for veteran right-hander John “The Count” Montefusco. In other words, they acquired “The Count” for “Count Full Count.”

Wait, there’s more. In the spring of 1984, the Yankees once again reversed course on Rasmussen. Graig Nettles infuriated George Steinbrenner with revelations in his new book, Balls, which angered The Boss so much that he traded his veteran third baseman during spring training. Steinbrenner sent Nettles to the Padres for a package of two prospects: the infamous player to be named later and, you guessed it, Dennis Rasmussen.

Now firmly ensconced in New York, Rasmussen finally made his Yankee debut later that season. Rasmussen brought an amply supply of natural talent to the Bronx, including an above-average fastball, a full repertoire of four pitches, and a dandy pickoff move that foreshadowed Andy Pettitte. He showed some of that promise as a rookie, despite an elevated ERA, by striking out 110 batters in 147 innings and winning nine of 16 decisions. After an up-and-down sophomore season, Rasmussen broke through the fence completely in 1986. Emerging as the ace on a mediocre Yankee staff, Rasmussen went 18-6, logged 202 innings, and kept his ERA a respectable 3.88. At 27, he appeared to be solidifying himself as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.

Rasmussen also made people take notice because of his height. At six-feet, seven inches, Rasmussen was one of the game’s tallest pitchers in the years before Randy Johnson’s arrival. He looked even taller to me, like he was about six-foot-nine, perhaps because he had a bit of awkwardness in his delivery to the plate. His height was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. Scouts love tall pitchers, especially southpaws. Yet, some scouts believe that pitchers taller than six feet, five inches can have inherent problems. With long limbs and multiple moving parts, tall pitchers sometimes have difficulty keeping their mechanics in order. Rasmussen was not immune to that concern.

Perhaps the Yankees factored his height into the equation the following season, when they decided to trade him. Rasmussen pitched poorly throughout the summer, with an ERA approaching five, causing the Yankees to wonder whether his awkward mechanics and lack of an overpowering fastball would doom him to mediocrity. Whatever the reason, the Yankees traded Rasmussen to the Reds for Bill Gullickson in late August, losing four inches of height in the transaction.

In spite of my seeming obsession with his height, that’s not necessarily the first thing to come to mind when I recall the onetime Yankee. Instead, I’ll always remember an incident from the 1980s, when Rasmussen hit Jorge Bell of the Blue Jays with a pitch. Bell was furious with Rasmussen over what he considered an intentional infraction. After the game, Bell unleashed a tirade against Rasmussen, repeatedly referring to him as “she.” Bell’s intent was clear; he was questioning Rasmussen’s manhood. Whether Rasmussen had meant to hit Bell or not, it was a stupid and chauvinistic reference to make, especially when he made it over and over. Then again, those were the kind of comments that Bell made during a career of mouthing off with the Jays and the White Sox.

With Rasmussen scheduled to come to Cooperstown in just over a week, I’m debating whether to bring up the incident with Bell and find out Rasmussen’s reaction to it. Rasmussen might look at the episode nostalgically, emphasizing the comedic nature of the often volatile Bell. Then again, Rasmussen might think I’m as big a jerk as Bell often was during his career. Perhaps I should stick to the safe side on this one.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be reached at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Card Corner: Jim Kaat

kaat

Throughout the new month, I’ll profile some of the former Yankees who will be coming to Cooperstown on June 21 to participate in the first-ever Hall of Fame Classic. The list of Yankee old-timers scheduled to play at Doubleday Field includes Phil Niekro, Lee Smith, Dennis Rasmussen and Kevin Maas. In the first installment, we take a fond look at the career of the man affectionately known as “Kitty.”

Jim Kaat has not thrown a meaningful pitch in more than a quarter of a century, but I can still see that pitching motion in my mind today. The photograph from his 1980 Topps card brings it all back: a delivery featuring virtually no windup and the smallest of leg kicks, accompanied by a mechanical precision. It’s no wonder that Kaat’s career lasted a marathon of 25 seasons with hardly a stay on the disabled list.

Like Bert Blyleven and Tommy John, “Kitty” is part of a contingent of longtime starters who fell just short of the 300-win club but remain on the cusp of election to the Hall of Fame. Unlike Blyleven, I’ve never given Kaat a vote in any of my mythical Hall of Fame elections, but I would not exactly shed a tear if he somehow joined the elite in Cooperstown. Though never really dominant and hardly an overwhelming collector of strikeouts, Kaat achieved a high level of successful longevity, fulfilling at least one of the requirements of Hall of Fame enshrinement.

As a pitcher, Kaat enjoyed two careers. The first spanned from 1962 to 1975, when he carved out a niche as a durable and effective starter for the Twins and White Sox. Over the course of his long tenure as a starter, I came to know Kaat for three attributes. First, he loved to throw the quick pitch, often catching hitters off guard by throwing without a windup. Second, he was a skilled and highly conditioned athlete who could run and hit better than most pitchers. (In 1973, Topps issued a card for Kaat showing him batting—not pitching—in a game for the Twins.) And third, Kaat could field his position like no other moundsman. With catlike reflexes that reinforced his nickname of Kitty, Kaat snared a record 15 Gold Gloves.

(more…)

Card Corner: Will The Real John Mayberry Please Stand Up?

mayberry

FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver provided some of the funniest unintended humor of the season when they mistook a Panamanian gentlemman for former Yankee and Royal slugger John Mayberry during Saturday’s nationally televised broadcast. Thankfully, Ken Rosenthal caught up with the real Mayberry—the one who actually happens to be the father of Phillies rookie John Mayberry, Jr. Sadly, Mayberry’s legacy remains as obscure as the ability to identify him at Yankee Stadium over the weekend. Twenty seven years after he last suited up as a major leaguer—in pinstripes, no less—he remains a relatively forgotten player, despite being one of the top left-handed power hitters of the mid-1970s.

Emerging as a top prospect in the Houston Astros’ organization during the late 1960s, John Claiborne Mayberry found his path to the major leagues impeded by first basemen like Bob “The Bull” Watson and Lee “The Big Bopper” May, one of the main pieces acquired in the ill-fated Joe Morgan trade. With no place to play their young power protégé, the Astros decided to include “Big John” in a trade that brought pitching prospects Jim York and Lance Clemons from the Kansas City Royals. The Astros would end up regretting that transaction almost as much as the Morgan mega-disaster.

Beginning in 1972, Mayberry and Amos Otis teamed up to provide the main sources of power for the Royals. When the Royals added the Hall of Fame bat of George Brett and the speed and defense of Willie Wilson and Frank White to the Mayberry-Otis core, the expansion franchise came together to win the first of three consecutive AL West titles in 1976.

During his halcyon days in Kansas City from 1972 to 1975, Mayberry put up power numbers that equaled the best of any left-handed American League slugger, with the possible exception of a fellow named Reggie Jackson. In those four seasons, Mayberry crunched 107 home runs, despite having to play half of his games in cavernous Royals Stadium, a boneyard for home runs. Big John twice compiled slugging percentages of .500 or better, and twice surpassed the .400 mark in on-base percentage. He drew 122 walks in 1973, and another 119 free passes in 1975. He also reached 100 RBIs in three of four seasons. Now let’s look at Jackson. During that four-year window, Reggie hit 122 home runs, while playing in a slightly easier park for home runs in Oakland. He achieved slugging percentages of .500 or better in each of the four seasons, but never topped the .391 mark in on-base percentage. He never came close to drawing 100 walks, reaching a high of 86 in 1974. He reached 100 RBIs in only two seasons, though he did come close the other two times.

Was Reggie better than Big John during that four-year arc? Yes, especially if we consider Jackson’s ability to steal bases and his cannonlike throwing arm in right field. Yet, Mayberry was close, closer than most fans might think at first glance. In spite of the similarity in numbers, Mayberry remained painfully underrated, mostly because of Jackson’s postseason heroics and a larger-than-life personality.

Mayberry also lacked the staying power of “Mr. October.” Beginning in 1976, Big John’s game started to fall off badly. He appeared to sleepwalk through parts of the 1977 Championship Series, which the Royals lost to the Yankees. Suspecting that the play of Mayberry was being affected by cocaine and alcohol abuse, a furious Whitey Herzog convinced the front office to rid the team of its cleanup hitter in the spring of 1978, when the Royals sold him to the Blue Jays in a cash deal. The media never publicly reported Mayberry’s alleged problems with drugs, but his level of abuse became common knowledge among the game’s insiders. That’s why so few baseball people expressed shock or outrage when the Royals acquired only a small sum of cash for their No. 1 power hitter, who was still only 29 years old. To the best of my knowledge, Mayberry has never publicly acknowledged problems with drugs, but the stigma remains in baseball circles.

Mayberry revived his career partially north of the border, compiling OPS numbers of better than .800 in three consecutive seasons for the Jays. A poor start for Mayberry at the beginning of the 1982 season, coupled with the Yankees’ struggling fortunes, would bring the two parties together. With the Yankees thankfully abandoning their disappointing run-and-stun offense headlined by Dave Collins and Ken Griffey, George Steinbrenner decided to remake the team in midseason—a common occurrence in the 1980s. The Boss began to target potential trade candidates. At the same time, the Blue Jays furiously shopped Mayberry, whom they believed was cooked at the age of 33. Much to the delight of the Jays, the Yankees put together a fairly hefty package for Mayberry: prospects Jeff Reynolds and Tom Dodd and veteran first baseman Dave Revering.

Suffering from a severe case of wishful thinking, I was thrilled with the trade. First, it marked the end of the “Bronx Burners,” an experiment that manager Gene “Stick” Michael never seemed to embrace. And more importantly, it brought the Yankees the kind of player I’ve always loved in the Bronx—the left-handed slugger. I loved watching the super-sized Mayberry stand at the plate, striking the kind of intimidating pose that only Willie Stargell could do better. If the Yankees could no longer have Reggie Jackson, they could at least have Big John Mayberry.

Unfortunately, the trade occurred about a decade too late to benefit the Yankees. Weighed down by a slowing bat and growing flab in his midsection, Mayberry couldn’t crank up the power anywhere near his levels in Kansas City, or even in Toronto. (I really have no idea whether Mayberry was using drugs while with the Yankees, partly because I never heard the drug rumors until five or six years ago.) In 215 Yankee at-bats, Mayberry lofted only eight home runs, leaving him with a slugging percentage of .353, his worst in six years. The power-deprived Yankees, who needed a lot more help than Big John could provide, finished four games under .500 and ions behind the division-winning Brewers of Harvey Kuenn. About the only consolation that came from the Mayberry trade was the failure of any of the three ex-Yankees to do anything in Toronto. Revering, Reynolds, and Dodd all flopped for the Jays’ organization, either at the major league or minor league level.

In the spring of 1983, my father bought me a complete set of the newest Topps cards, which included a nifty action shot of Mayberry wearing Yankee pinstripes. I liked the card, but it would soon become a novelty item. During the latter days of spring training, the Yankees came to the same conclusion the Jays had determined the previous summer. With a growing supply of first basemen and designated hitters, the Yankees gave Mayberry his unconditional release.

Shortly thereafter, when no teams came calling, Mayberry decided to retire. As far as I know, he had never returned to the Stadium since, certainly not for any Old-Timers’ Games or to throw out any ceremonial first pitches. That all changed on Saturday, when Mayberry made it back the Stadium, not to watch the home team, but to watch his talented son begin his own major league climb. As a bonus, he saw junior hit his first major league home run.

So the next time that Big John makes it back to the Bronx, we’ll know it’s him. That’s a promise from Buck, McCarver, and the rest of us.

Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball and can be reached via e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Card Corner: Stick Michael

michael1

Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969 Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without hesitation: Michael’s move to New York, which coincided with the start of the 1968 season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term and quite significantly over the long haul.

At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.

It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.

The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a college basketball player at Kent State, where his lean look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet, and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael, Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael in a slightly lower class of fielders.

Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.

With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach. From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his new boss, Dallas Green.

After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner, Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In 1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did. He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.

Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.

When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash. In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s other center fielder. He also sensed that the fiery O’Neill could blossom as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was right on both counts.

With those vital pieces in place—including a catcher, a shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer—Michael left a championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as Yankee GM in 1995.

Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to be a pretty smart guy.

Bruce Markusen can be reached at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

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.

(more…)

Card Corner: The Left-Handed Catcher

haney

No, this man will not be the next catcher signed by the Yankees. As much as the Yankees’ catching corps has been overwhelmed by injuries, they’re not that desperate. Close, but not quite.

Contrary to appearances, Larry Haney was not a left-handed throwing catcher. It only looks that way in this 1969 Topps card. In contrast to the way that Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy achieved baseball card glory by being featured in reversed negative photographs, Haney earned only a momentary glimpse of trading card fame. In 1957, Topps released an Aaron card that showed the eventual home run king in a left-handed batting pose. And then in 1989, Upper Deck issued its Murphy card with a similarly wrong-handed pose, again the result of the photo negative being accidentally reversed.

Haney never received as much attention as either of these more celebrated cases, in large part because of his mediocre status as a good-field, no-hit backup catcher. There might have been another factor at play here, as well. Some collectors might have thought that Haney was trying to gain some notoriety by intentionally wearing a left-handed catcher’s mitt and pretending to play the position with the wrong hand. Yet, a conversation with former Topps president Sy Berger, who visited the Hall of Fame several years ago, revealed otherwise. Topps simply made a mistake in its photo processing; Mr. Haney had nothing to do with the “error.” In fact, the 1969 card features the same photo that was used by Topps in the 1968 set. Only that time Topps had the image right.

In many ways, Haney was the Jose Molina of his era. A lifetime .215 hitter with no power, Haney excelled at the defensive side of the game. For his career, he threw out 39 per cent of opposing basestealers. The Oakland A’s thought so much of Haney’s catching skills that they acquired him three different times, including twice during their world championship run from 1972 to 1974.

Originally signed by the Orioles in 1961, Haney played sparingly in three seasons for the Birds. After being taken in the 32nd round of the 1968 expansion draft by the Pilots, Haney appeared in only 22 games for Seattle, but did stake two claims to fame in the Great Northwest. He hit a game-winning home run in his first major league game. Later on, he set a Pilots team record for catchers by committing two errors in one game. Such uncharacteristic defensive pratfalls probably played little influence in the Pilots’ decision to trade him on June 14, 1969 (just before the old trading deadline), as they shipped the veteran receiver to the A’s for second baseman John Donaldson. From there, Haney went to the Padres’ organization (but never actually donned the lovely brown and yellow of the Pods), then came back to the A’s, spent a brief time with the Cardinals, came back to the A’s yet again, and finished his career with the Brewers in 1977 and ’78. Long since retired as a player, Haney worked for years as a scout for the Brewers—who used to be the Pilots, the same team featured on that 1969 Topps card.

Coincidentally, Haney was involved in another card error, albeit of a different kind. His 1975 Topps card displays an in-action photograph of an Oakland catcher awaiting a throw at home plate, but it’s not Haney in the picture. It’s actually former A’s catcher Dave Duncan, who had long since been traded away to the Indians as part of the George Hendrick-Ray Fosse swap.

So for a guy who had a mostly unremarkable career as a backup catcher, that’s two significant error cards. At least the card collectors will never forget Mr. Haney.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com. He can be reached via e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Card Corner: The Friday Night Massacre

chambliss

This was the other “Massacre.” Most Yankee fans remember the celebrated “Boston Massacre,” that remarkable four-game sweep of the Red Sox during the heat of the 1978 AL East pennant race. The other massacre took place 35 years ago, had nothing to do with the rival Red Sox, and involved nearly half of the Yankees’ pitching staff in 1974. And it remains a matter of debate to this day.

During the late hours of Friday night, April 26, Yankees president and general manager Gabe Paul agreed to a massive seven-player trade with the Indians. Paul sent four of his pitchers—right-handers Fred Beene, Tom Buskey and Steve Kline, and flaky left-hander Fritz Peterson—to Cleveland for first baseman Chris Chambliss and right-handers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw.

Considering that the Yankees used a ten-man pitching staff in April of 1974, the idea of giving up four hurlers and receiving back only two did not go over well in the Yankee clubhouse. “I can’t believe this trade,” said outfielder Bobby Murcer, who normally did rock the boat so noisily but was visibly upset with Paul for losing confidence in a team that was a mere half-game out of first place. Other veteran Yankees joined in the chorus of disapproval. “You don’t trade four pitchers,” said senior staff member Mel Stottlemyre. “You just don’t.” The most outspoken of the Yankees, Thurman Munson, offered one of his typically blunt pronouncements in assessing the deal. “They’ve got to be kidding,” said Munson, who now had more work to do in familiarizing himself with two new pitchers.

A majority of Yankee fans seemed to agree with the public opinions expressed by the team’s leaders. Hundreds of angry fans flooded the team’s switchboard with calls of complaint. When Chambliss, Tidrow, and Upshaw made their first appearances at Shea Stadium (the Yankees’ temporary home), they received a barrage of boos from a group of not-so-adoring fans. Clearly, Chambliss’ great mutton chops did not appease the Yankee faithful.

Members of the New York media also joined in the refrain. Why did the Yankees surrender so many pitchers in one trade? Why would they give up Buskey, who had been named the team’s outstanding rookie during spring training? And why did they trade for a first baseman when they really needed a second baseman? The 1974 edition of the Yankees struggled to find a middleman. They had started the season with an aging Horace Clarke but would eventually purchase mediocrities Sandy Alomar and Fernando Gonzalez. Neither would provide an answer at second base; that would have to wait until Willie Randolph’s arrival in 1976.

The all-encompassing criticism of the Chambliss trade did not bother the Yankees’ president and GM. Paul had already achieved a comfort level in making trades with the Indians, the organization that he had previously run. Over the past two seasons, Paul had made direct deals with Cleveland for Graig Nettles and Walt “No-Neck” Williams, while also adding ex-Indians Duke Sims and Sam McDowell. “I think we got an outstanding first baseman in Chambliss,” Paul said proudly. “[He’s] a fellow who could be our first baseman for ten years.”

Chambliss would eventually solidify the Yankees at first base—and clinch the American League pennant with a Championship Series-ending home run in 1976—but he flopped badly in 1974. In 400 at-bats, Chambliss batted only .243 with a mere six home runs. He reached base less than 29 per cent of the time and slugged .343. If anything, Chambliss’ poor performance might have cost the Yankees the AL East title, as they fell just two games short of Earl Weaver’s Orioles.

Chambliss was the headliner acquired in the “Friday Night Massacre,” but it was another player who would bring more immediate dividends to New York in 1974. Right-hander Dick Tidrow, one of the most versatile pitchers of the seventies, made 33 appearances for the Yankees that summer, including 25 starts. His ERA of 3.87 was not particularly good for that era, but he did log 190 innings, pitched five complete games, and represented an improvement over the fading Fritz Peterson. For what it’s worth, Peterson, Kline, and Beene all flopped for the Indians that summer, leaving Buskey’s good work in relief as the sole salvation of the deal from Cleveland’s standpoint.

While the long-term benefits of adding Chambliss and Tidrow are undeniable—both became important complementary pieces to the Bronx Zoo dynasty—the questions about 1974 lead to a much murkier answer. Would the Yankees have won the AL East in ’74 if they had not executed the “massacre?” Without Chambliss, the Yankees might have given a longer look to top prospect Otto Velez, a power-hitting first baseman-outfielder who was buried at Triple-A Syracuse. As Steven Goldman and other historians have pointed out, Velez may have been more productive than Chambliss in the short term. And with Buskey in the bullpen, the Yankees would have had a set-up reliever just as capable as the sidearming Cecil Upshaw, who helped out Sparky Lyle in the late innings.

It’s a tough call. Maybe Munson, Murcer, and Stottlemyre were right about the Friday Night Massacre. But, then again, they were only right for 1974.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.

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.

Card Corner: Paul Schaal and the No. 9

schaal2

This week’s “Card Corner” has no connection to the Yankees. In fact, this man may be the most obscure player ever profiled in this feature. But he was important to us as kids in 1974, if only because he had such a weird name. And he has become a record-breaker among major league players.

As young fans 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 Lu Blue, Mark Clark, 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. Schaal was certainly a better player than most of the third sackers the Yankees were trotting out at the time, an illustrious group that included Bobby Cox and Jerry Kenney. While with the LA and California Angels in the mid-1960s, Schaal 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 would 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, he has managed to become one of the most successful of ex-ballplayers in his post-playing days. After owning a chain of pizza shops, Schaal went into the unrelated field of chiropractics. (From pizza to ‘practics.) Schaal became Dr. Schaal, which sounds an awful lot like Dr. Scholl, the foot doctor. But it’s Dr. Schaal, practicing back specialist. The good doctor now 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.” As a child of the seventies, that sounds pretty good to me.

Here’s something else that you might find interesting about Paul Schaal. He has been married nine times. (That’s got to be a record for a major leaguer. Nine times!) It would be most appropriate for Paul Schaal to be interviewed on CNN by Larry King. How great would that be?

Older posts           
feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver