Archive for June, 2008

Belliard’s Blast … and This Week’s “PG”

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

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Ronnie Belliard’s walk off home run in the bottom of the 12th won the “Battle of the Beltways” for the Nats. The ten-year MLB veteran took a 1-2 pitch deep after Orioles’ reliever George Sherrill pitched around Dmitri Young, putting him on first base to pitch to Belliard. Belliard’s blast shocked those who had stayed at Nationals Park through extra innings — as it seemed the Orioles had the game all but wrapped-up.

The Belliard homer allowed the struggling Nats to take two of three from the O’s — but as impressive as the win was the interest generated by the three-game “Battle of the Beltways.” The three games drew over 115,000 fans. The bad news (that Lastings Milledge was being sent to the 15-day DL) was tempered somewhat by the promotion of AA-Harrisburg outfielder Roger Bernadina, who got his first major league hit in his first at bat. The Nats head south for a tussle with the Fish for three games before heading back to Cincinnati for a four game series against the Reds. (The Marlins are a game-and-a-half out of first, and dead last in attendance. And I don’t care what the standings say: these fish stink. Which means, of course, that they’ll probably win the series. Because that’s exactly what happened the last time they stank.)

Peripheral Greats: Tom noted that I am always talking about “PGs,” leaving it to me to explain that PGs are “peripheral greats” — a distinctive class of ballplayer who could have been, might have been, should have been, but never quite was . . . . great. Like all such categories a PG is hard to define, elegantly flying in the face of VORPs, OPS’s and the like. Even so, like pornography, you know a peripheral great when you see it — or him. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that many MLB PG’s are power-hitters-in-waiting. They are at about .260 or so (or slightly higher), and have middling career spans (but are rarely regulars), and when they leave the game a collective groan of disappointment can be heard. They are lovable good-guys: players you can never cheer against and that you keep hoping will somehow, someday . . . arrive. Here’s one now:

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Tom supposed that Willie Horton was probably a PG, but in looking at his numbers (325 career home runs) he was probably too good to be peripheral. But in studying Horton’s years with the mighty Tigers of the late ’60s and early ’70s, I noted that one of his teammates definitely fit the description. Gates Brown is definitely at PG: in his first major league at bat (as a pinch hitter) he hit a home run. Tiger fans were ecstatic — here, finally, was a great player who could hold down center field and compete with the likes of Yaz and Reggie and an emerging Charlie Finley A’s powerhouse.

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Alas, it was not to be. Gates was a good hitter, a fine hitter, but not a great hitter. And the promise of power of his first at bat was not realized: he hit 84 round-trippers in thirteen seasons. Then too, like most PGs, Gates was a tad on the heavy side. The official statistics put him at 5-11, 220 — but he looked a lot heavier than that. Brown admitted that he was once caught unprepared by his manager, who called on him to pinch hit. Because he was in the middle of eating two hotdogs (and was embarrassed), he decided to stuff them into his uniform. When he hit a double he was forced to slide into second base — and got up with buns and mustard splattered across his front. Mayo Smith, his manager, fined him $100.

Brown retired in 1975 after a good, but not great, career — all of it spent with the Detroit Tigers. He is, in my book, the very definition of a lovable near-great. A clear head-of-the-class, go-to-the-front-of-the-line PG.

The Washington Felipes: The Nats’ blogosphere is filled with talk of the impending trade of Felipe Lopez to the Baltimore Orioles, but we saw little evidence this weekend that Manny Acta was showcasing Felipe’s talents. Lopez was used as a pinch runner on Sunday, went 0 for 4 on Saturday, and got an inning’s worth of work in on Friday. Hardly a marquee performance. Felipe’s in Manny’s doghouse and my bet is that he’s there to stay. Elijah will tell him and probably already has told him: it is no fun, man, in that doghouse. In all of these Blog reports it is never exactly mentioned just who the Nats think they will get for Lopez. Oh yeah: “prospects.” Prospects? What prospects? Prospects we got — it’s a team we need. I think that Ian Koski over at National’s Pride has this exactly right: it sounds as if Manny has has made up his mind and that he’s given up on Felipe. That’s too bad, because sooner or later (like when the next guy shuttles off to the Mayo Clinic), Manny will need him.

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Cinderella Lives In Fresno

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

While this blog is ostensibly about the Nationals and the MLB in general, sometimes the definition of what’s worthy of inclusion has to be stretched.  Last night’s final game of the College World Series and, indeed, the entire post-season run of the Fresno State Bulldogs merits not only mention but kudos as well.  Never before have the phrases “CalState Fresno” and “National Baseball Champion” been uttered together. 

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Over the last several weeks Fresno State has flown completely under the radar of the national sports media while completing a triumphant out-of-nowhere run to the national championship.  Last night in Omaha, Nebraska Fresno beat Georgia in the Battle of the Bulldogs, 6 – 1.  

Fresno was a baseball backwater and needed to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament just to get into the nationals.  Like the better known NCAA basketball tournament, 64 teams compete for the baseball championship.  Unlike March Madness, there are 16 regions in the college baseball tournament.  Were the baseball tourney set up in a manner similar to basketball, Fresno would have been a 13-seed; the baseball equivalent of Siberia.

Naysayers might claim they got lucky and had a relatively easy tournament.  Not so.  Fresno had to beat North Carolina (seeded second nationally) twice and Arizona (seeded third nationally) twice in addition to other baseball powerhouses Rice and, the last to be vanquished, Georgia.    

The Bulldog’s victory is lesson, and a beacon of hope, to all who yearn for a championship.  Or, in the case of the Nationals, a .500 season.

“The Troubles” and “The Grey Eagle”

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The New Rule: Taking advantage of a new Major League rule, the Washington Nationals are considering trading 1st Baseman Nick Johnson for “a player to be named much, much later.” While the Nats front office would not name the player, it is thought to be young Bobby Bailey, a T-baller with the Overland Park, Kansas T-ball league. Bailey is believed to be a prized prospect in the Kansas City Royals scouting system.”He’s an integral part of our decades-long effort to rebuild our team,” a Royals’ scout noted proudly. While only six years old, Bailey is viewed by the Nats as a potential future player whose upside is that “while we don’t know whether he can run, hit or catch, he never gets injured.” As one Nats insider told River-Dogz: “This kid is just a stud, he just rolls with the punches.”

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Okay … well, heartless as this may seem, the truth of the situation is even more heartless. In many ways, Johnson was more valuable to the Nats than Ryan Zimmerman; he was a silent clubhouse presence who led by example. His second deck home run earlier this year was a sign of things to come — a prodigious shot. He’s gone for the remainder, after a wrist failed to heal. While “Meat Tray“ is a very fine . . .  yes, indeed a very fine hitter (and leader too), you can see why other teams pursue Johnson, while passing on his replacement. The front office quietly has it that Nick is snakebit. Maybe. But for pursuing scouts, anxious to land a leader and trade some prospects, Johnson appears fragile. There’s a world of difference.

This is a disaster. 

On another note: We mourn the passing of Ryan Langerhans to Triple A Columbus, where he will attempt to break out of his career-long slump. We have heard from sportswriters of the BBWA that the motion to change the phrase “Mendoza Line” to Langerhans Line has been tabled, pending the outcome of Pete Orr’s tenure as Langerhans’ replacement in the Nats’ lineup. We wish Ryan well. Everyone struggles in baseball, but he has struggled more than most.

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The Grey Eagle: You can make the argument (you can make it, but you would lose) that Tris Speaker was the greatest center fielder of all time. That would place him ahead of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, of course, and that’s not possible. But he’s certainly in the top five and perhaps in the top three. There’s a reason for that — and it had nothing to do with his deep friendship with that world-class chump, Ty Cobb. Speaker was the first in a long-line of unappreciated Red Sox: brilliant players who were eventually cast away for money or bums because the owner thought they were too expensive, washed up …  or just because.

The list includes Ruth, Fisk and Clemens. But Speaker was the first to go — and the worst decision in Red Sox history (yes, worse than Ruth because in Speaker at least they knew, yes the keepers of the asylum just knew), and Boston fans talked about it for years afterwards. Speaker went to Cleveland, of all places (in 1916), and for a few bucks and some prospects. That’ll show him!

So if Cincinnati is a place where pitchers go to die, then Boston is a place where great players go to get traded. Still.

Anyway. I was reading about Speaker the other day (there’s this) and I was just stunned by his statistics. Two in particular. The retro-sheets show that Speaker played so shallow in center field that he sometimes covered second during double plays: 6-8-3! He holds the record for double plays by an outfielder (139). Of course this was the dead ball era, but still. Then there’s this: in over 10,000 at bats he struck out 220 times. 

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Here Come The Halos

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

The Belinski’s breeze into town and they’re probably the best team in baseball right now: better than than slugs (who just swept three from the Pale Hose, but got schooled by the Rays), better than the Bosox (who replayed the ’67 Series with the Redbirds and did just alright), and certainly better than the D-backs, Marlins or A’s. The only other team that might come close are the Phillies (a team to be feared, in my estimation), but the Angels took them in three at Citizen’s Bank Park, 7-1, 6-2 and 3-2. The scores make it look closer than it really was. The Philadelphia press says the Phils are “skidding” — but that’s not true: the Belinskis are a buzz-saw.  

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This is the franchise the Nats want to become: profitable, popular (they rank second in the AL in attendance!), successful — and winners. It wasn’t easy. After years of being up-and-down, the Halos set into a tradition of signing players developed by others: Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew and Don Sutton (to name just three). They were all great players to be sure, but not rooted in an Angel’s tradition. Because there wasn’t one. The result was that the Halos came close — but never quite got there. Sure they were good some years, even really good. But those good years were usually followed by a collapse. Or by just plain bad luck. 

Every team has their year of tragedy, with Bucky Dent homers and black cats. The Angels had theirs in 1986, when ace closer Donnie Moore came in in the ninth inning to close-out the Red Sox in the deciding play-off game. The Belinski’s were up three games to one. And they were one strike away from a World Series appearance against the New York Mets. With two out and two on in the ninth inning, Bosox Centerfielder Dave Henderson stroked one into the centerfield seats in Anaheim Stadium to give the Bosox a 6 to 5 lead. While the Angels later tied the game, a shocked and unsteady Donnie Moore gave up the winning run in the 11th. The series went back to Boston and the Red Sox (and Billy Buckner) went on to meet their date-with-destiny against the Mets.

Al Michaels made the call: “The pitch, deep to left, and Downing goes back. And it’s gone. Unbelievable. You’re looking at one for the ages here. Astonishing. Anaheim Stadium was one strike away from turning into Fantasyland. And now the Red Sox lead 6-5. The Red Sox get four runs in the ninth on a pair of homers by Don Baylor and Dave Henderson.”

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The up-and-down history of the Angels changed in 1997, when they were bought by Disney. The mouses renovated Angel’s Stadium and infused the franchise with some badly needed cash. The Halos won it all in 2002, five years after being bought by Disney, four years after Angels Stadium was renovated and renamed, and three years after the corporate people running the franchise hired Mike Scioscia — the best move they ever made. 

But the biggest difference was that the Angels abandoned their bad habit of signing free agents developed by others and started plugging money into their own farm system — a tradition that has continued under new owner Arte Moreno, who bought the franchise in 2005. The result is that they now have the best starting five in baseball, three of whom are home grown: John Lackey (drafted second in 1999), Ervin Santana (signed as a free agent in 2000), and Joe Saunders (a 1st round pick in 2002). The Halos gave up a good shortstop to get Jon Garland, but the trade has been a draw — at worst. Francisco Rodriguez, meanwhile, owns a 1.80 ERA and has nine saves. Not bad. Anderson, Matthews, Guerrero, and Hunter man the outfield and DH and they’re all boppers. Guerrero has lost a step (it is said), and I can understand why people might be upset: over the last ten games he’s only hitting .410.

The Nats are due to face Lackey, Garland and Santana. Ugh.

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Say Hey. A Read Writes: “Mark, you’re an idiot. You had a post arguing about whether Ted Williams or Stan Musial was the second-best player in baseball. What the hell is wrong with you? Haven’t you ever heard of Willie Mays? You have lost all credibility with me. No one can ever take you or your blog seriously again.”

Okay, well … yeah, you have a point. You have a really good point. And it’s not like I think you’re wrong. Willie Mays was the second best player who ever played the game. I saw him play and he was breathtaking. There is no question about that. And he is listed second on everyone’s list, right behind The Babe. But you have to remember my blind spot. He played for the Giants. I mean … the Giants. As Carl Furillo used to say: “We couldn’t even stand the sight of their uniforms.”

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What I Thought About This Week (V)

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Down On Half Street: Elijah Dukes looks like a sorry outfielder — he has not mastered the depth of right field in Nationals Park — but he can hit the ball. Against the Rangers at Nationals Park on Friday night he went 5 for 6 and raised his average to .270. We all watched closely as Manny congratulated him after the game. Dukes even parked one in Center Field. He’s starting to look like the player the Nats thought he might be when they got him from Tampa Bay . . . Enough about this worrying whether the Nats are going to draw. There were 30,000-plus to see the Nats in a 14 inning tussle with the Rangers last night. And the crowd is hardly filled with neophytes. There is a surly quality to the fans along the right field line (where I sit), particularly on ground balls hit to Felipe Lopez . . . camera shots of people streaming in from Half Street now seem to have become a tradition . . . Josh Hamilton struck out three times in the Nats 4-3 win. He looked awful. He should have never agreed to that Sports Illustrated profile.

The Killer: I thought a lot about the Minnesota Twins and all the might-have-beens had they hung around Washington instead of moving to the twin cities. One thing: I have heard that Harmon Killebrew is the model for the MLB logo and the story makes sense  . . .

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but I have found no confirmation of it. And the closest I could find of something that looks like a Killebrew stance that might be used for a logo is this:

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which is itchy close … but only close. The Twins, of course, started out here before Calvin Griffith moved them after the 1960 season. They went to capture a pennant in ’65 with a team that should have been in Washington. Killebrew was the center of that team. In ’65 he hit 25 home runs with 75 RBIs — an off-year in which he was injured much of the time. Tony Oliva, in only his second full year, hit .321 and led the league in hitting.  But it was Killebrew who was the heart of those Twins’ teams: when he retired he had hit 573 home runs, had been in the top ten in the AL in OBP in nine years (and in the top ten in slugging in ten), and played on eleven all star teams. The Twins did well in Minnesota, but only just: “He kept us in business,” Calvin Griffith said of Killebrew.

The early ’60s were very good years for the Twins, with one World Series title, but they were not great years. The great years were the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Twins won the series in ’87 and again in ’91, behind the hitting of Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Kirby Puckett — two of whom are in the Hall of Fame — and the pitching of Bert Blyleven and

Then there’s this:

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twer it so …

The Nation: Me droog Tom (you remember Tom) and I spent Thursday night talking about baseball, and about halfway through our discussion he asked me whether it was true that the Red Sox are now actually hated — after spending years as the darlings of American fandom. It didn’t use to be that way, he noted. I told him that it was true. “You bet they’re hated,” I said, “especially Varitek.” But over the last two days I’ve changed my mind: I don’t think they’re hated, I think they’re getting too much attention. It’s not their fault.

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Here’s what I mean. On any given night you can tune into Baseball Tonight and hear Peter Gammons whinge on and on about the trials and tribulations of Dustin Pedroia. Here’s Dustin hitting for the cycle, here’s Dustin making a terrific play, here’s Dustin meeting with the Queen. Why, I bet that Dustin can even sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There’s no question that Pedroia was a terrific find for the Bosox (and I love Gammons, frankly), but Pedroia’s not a great player, he’s not even close to a great player. Then too, the guy I saw last night, Ian Kinsler, is much better — but gets half the attention.

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By-the-bye, the young lady behind me noticed that Kinsler was all over the field, ranging to his left and right to scoop up ground balls and every time he did she would yell “get ’em gadget.” And then she would giggle. Get it? Get em gadget?

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Kinsler’s hitting .306 with ten home runs and 45 RBIs: a clip that should net him 120 RBIs and close to 25 home runs. Pedroia’s hitting .277 with six home runs and 32 RBIs. Kinsler has better range at second, better speed, a better glove. But Pedroia leads the All Star balloting (Kinsler is second) by some 200,000-plus votes. Why? Because Pedroia plays in Boston, that’s why.

I’m not whining mind you (well, okay, I’m whining just a bit) — I’m just building a case for claiming that the Red Sox are not hated. They’re over-exposed. And that has nothing to do with the Red Sox. It has to do with the way that the baseball media cover them. The same is true of the Cubs, by the way. And, well, you know … I love the Cubs. And the Nats, of course. But honest-go-God, I know that ESPN has to worry about ratings, but we’ve got the Cubs and Yanks and Bosox covered — let’s see the Rangers and Pirates and, yes, even the Royals. It shouldn’t be that I have to go to a Nats game to be expose to the likes of an Ian Kinsler.

The Cleveland Naps: When I was a kid I was always delving into the history of baseball, honing my skills at talking about guys like Nap Lajoie and Kid Nichols. History is what I had instead of an ability to hit a curveball. But I only learned recently that the current Cleveland Indians were once named the Cleveland Naps in his honor (his name, by the way, is French Canadian — and is pronounced La-jway). That’s how good he was.

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One thing’s for sure: they’re not going to be renaming the Nats the Felipe’s anytime soon.

Historical Bookends

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Last night’s 14-inning win by the Nats over the Rangers was important for several reasons. First, it broke a three-game skid and provided a win to a franchise that badly needed one. Up until last night the ol’ town team had gone 5-12 in June. Ugh. Second, it was a great night for Elijah Dukes who had five hits, including the game-winner. Its good to see Dukes succeed. He could be, along with Zimmerman, the future non-pitching nucleus of the team. After his dust up with Manny in the dugout a week ago a five-hit night is just what the doc ordered.

What was also interesting was Christian Guzman’s performance. Guzman is having a hell of a year, hitting .312 (45 points above his career average) and piling up 141 total bases in just 75 games (that’s more than he had in 142 games in ’05). Given his great performance at the plate thus far, not to mention a 12-game hitting streak which was snapped yesterday, last night he went 0 for 7. Just one of those nights that everyone has at some point in their career. As it happens, that 0-fer display is the first of the bookends mentioned in the title of this post. The other is provided by one Cesar “Cocoa” Gutierrez.

You don’t know any Cesar Gutierrez? Do not fret. No one else does either. But one Sunday night 38 years ago today he had a game which few others have matched. His line in the box score looked like this:

Player          AB     R     H     RBI     TB     BB     K

Gutierrez     7       3      7         1         8       0       0

Yes, he went 7 for 7. This most improbable of feats – something that only two other players have accomplished in the last 52 years – was achieved by a lifetime .235 hitter who never hit one out of the park.

Gutierrez was playing his first full season with the Tigers after having been sent there by the Giants toward the end of the ’69 season. He joined a team coming off a World Series championship year and shared the clubhouse with guys who I watched with dread when they came to Fenway: Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLaine.

The Tigers were in Cleveland that day and they had won the first half of a double-header 7 – 2 but Gutierrez didn’t play in that game. For the nightcap, he replaced Ken Szotkiewicz at shortstop. Szotkiewicz was a weak hitting infielder – even compared to Gutierrez – and was benched for the evening tilt by manager Mayo Smith. As it turned out, the 47 games Szotkiewicz playied for the Tigers that year would comprise the entirety of his career.

Few of the 24,000 people who attended that night in Cleveland would have imagined the game they would enjoy – save for the fact that the Indians lost. The Tigers pushed a run across in the first but Cleveland opened up with five of their own in the first and added another in their half of the second. Detroit matched the score with four runs in the third and, after some back and forth scoring in the ensuing innings, tied it at eight-all in the top of the eighth when Gutierrez singled to right. In all there were 34 total hits in the 12-inning game and the Tigers won it 9 – 8 on a homer by Mickey Stanley. Gutierrez followed Stanley in the order that night and supplied his seventh hit but was erased trying to steal second.

Gutierrez would play a total of 135 games that season but just 38 in 1971. Then, he was done. A total of 223 games stretched over four years. But on one night in Cleveland, Ohio the kid from the coastal town of Cabimas, Venezuela was perfect.

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One of Gutierrez’s teammates that June night was Willie Horton whom I should have added to the list of Tigers I hated to see enter Fenway. He was a career .273 hitter who hit with power. He played 18 seasons and had almost 2,000 hits. A heck of a career. Perhaps one of those “peripheral greats” Mark talks about.

“Between the White Lines”

Friday, June 13th, 2008

One of me droogs really gave it to me at poker last night, saying a friend of his looked for a good explanation of the Elijah Dukes-Manny Acta dust-up on these pages, but without finding it. “He had to go to the Washington Times blog,” he said. So today I checked out what Mark Zuckerman had to say about the incident at PNC and it was pretty much along the lines of what we said — with some added speculation. Still, what Zuckerman has to say is more than passably interesting: 

“Close observers of the Nationals note at least three suspect situations involved Dukes in the last month alone. On May 12 at Shea Stadium, he started up the infamous dugout chant that had Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa referring to the Nationals as ‘softball girls.’ Last week at Nationals Park, he gestured toward plate umpire Doug Eddings upon hitting a game-winning homer, a move that upset both Eddings and uniformed personnel (including Acta). Zuckerman says, a little further down in the story:

“His image within the Washington clubhouse has to come into question, too. Though Dukes does have a group of supporters among his teammates and coaches, a sizeable number of uniformed personnel have soured on him and question whether the player with the checkered past really has turned his life around at all.”

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So, having heard the explanation from Mark Zuckerman (and wanting to close the book on this angry exchange) we put our crackerjack staff on this story. Their conclusion probably tells it best: Manny and Elijah are like oil and water, from different backgrounds and different experiences and the friction between them finally boiled over in Pittsburgh. The differences between the two are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. The question is, can they learn to get along, or does Elijah get shipped down — or (more likely) out. For now they’ll try to coexist and maybe things will get better. The reason for that, as Ray Knight said on the Nats broadcast from Pittsburgh, is that “between the white lines,” Elijah Dukes’ talent is undeniable.

Between the white lines.

The Test In Seattle: The three game tilt that begins tonight when the Nats sail into Seattle should be interesting. The Mariners are sinking fast, with manager John McLaren’s neck on the line. The guy I respect the most on the bench is former Cubs manager Jim Riggleman, who might get a shot when (not if) McLaren goes. My guess is the Mariners will try to run themselves out of their current troubles, with Ichiro testing Jesus Flores’ arm every chance he gets. If Nick and Ryan were healthy, these three games might not be much of a contest.

The great hope of the Mariners this season was Eric Bedard, the off-season acquisition who was supposed to vault them into contention with the Belinski’s. Bedard is 4-4 and his last game he couldn’t get into the sixth inning. The rumors in Seattle is that it’ll take one more losing streak — and McLaren’s ouster — before a mid-summer firesale strips Seattle of Bedard, Johjima, and Sexson. What the Mariners’ would get for any of them is anyone’s guess. There will be takers for Bedard, Johjima is a heck of a player (in my humble opinion), but Richie is probably done.

Homage to Carl Furillo: Last night one of me droogs asked who played right field for the Dodgers in the 1950s. One of our number (a real Dodger fan — and now a Mets partisan, with all that implies) knew the answer instantly. “It was Carl Furillo.” The questioner was non-plussed. He said that he did not follow the game anymore, since he had “grown out of it.” Not me buddy boy. I’m still the kid I was back when Carl Furillo was playing the caroms off of the wall in Ebbets Field.

Furillo is one of baseball’s forgotten talents, a player who had a very good career, seemed never to be injured, and was a heckofa clutch hitter. His final numbers are pretty impressive: a .299 career batting average, with 192 home runs. He hit .344 in 1953, and in 1955 he hit 26 home runs. He had a gun in right field — hence his nickname, “the Reading Rifle,” which he assumed in the minor leagues.

Furillo was one of Roger Kahn’s famous Boys of Summer. Kahn caught up to him after he left baseball and he was working on installing elevators in the World Trade Center. Kahn got the impression that Furillo was embittered. He had reason to be: he was released by the Dodgers just before he qualified for a pension, because he tore his calf muscle. He later sued the team and was awarded back pay. But he was also embittered because he thought that no one in baseball really remembered or honored him or his career — that the Dodgers might be remembered by their fans, but he wasn’t.

That certainly didn’t seem to be true last night. Furillo died in 1989 at the age of 66.

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Elijah and Manny … and Complete Games

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Put Up Your Dukes: Our friends at Federal Baseball weigh in on the Elijah Dukes-Manny Acta dust-up on Tuesday night, even going so far as to show a clip of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon agreeing that now is the time for Dukes to go. What? Already? Listen, the Boston Red Sox are having fistfights in their dugouts for God’s sake and the World Champion Yanks of Billy Martin’s years couldn’t stand each other. So who the hell cares? Maybe a little dust-up will do these guys some good.

MLB.com, meanwhile, puts all of this down to “dugout miscommunication.” Of course, that explains everything — and nothing. Every baseball tiff (and every war, come to think of it), is about miscommunication. Still, there’s a story here somewhere, so here’s the scoop so far. Apparently (although this is just one version of the story), Dukes thought that Acta had not properly congratulated him on his double against the Pirates in the top of the ninth (followed by the Lastings Milledge home run). He was miffed. Others, unreported others, believed that Acta was angry with Dukes for overly celebrating after Milledge and Dukes had crossed home plate. This would not be the first time — or so the story goes — and Acta lost his temper, confronted Dukes in the dugout and read him out.

Dukes does not take these things lightly, of course, so after the game, he refused to high-five Acta during the traditional on-the-mound handshake. Acta gave a sly and cynical smile to this and kept on walking, but this was an act that was not bound to please. After the game there was a closed-door meeting between Dukes, Acta and GM Jim Bowden to clear that air. We can only imagine.

So what happened? The Washington Post blog on the Nationals had this exchange between Acta and reporters:

Q: Can you expand at all on what happened in the dugout yesterday?

MA: No, that’s yesterday’s news, and I don’t read yesterday’s paper. It’s over with. What happens in Pittsburgh stays in Pittsburgh. We talked it out after the game, and we’re cool, we’re fine.

Q: So does the decision to have Elijah back in the lineup emphasize what you’re talking about – that it’s over?

A: That had nothing to do. I’m never going to do something against my club because of whatever happens on the field. That had nothing to do whatever happened yesterday. He’s our right fielder.

So there you have it. Now you know as much as we do. Which is exactly nothing.

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Complete Games: I watched the Nats lose to the Bucs tonight in Pittsburgh, then switched over to watch Ryan Dempster pitch the Cubs’ first complete game of the season, against the Braves. The Nats have not had one yet, but have come close. I thought that John Lannan had pitched one, but stats don’t lie — he went 7.1 against the O’s in a gem, while the up-and-down Jason Bergman went a full 8 against the Diamondbacks.

I only mention this because the other night I was checking some stats on the Baseball Reference and was curious about Sandy Koufax’s pitching record. I was always confused about the way sportwriter’s viewed Koufax. There was no question that he was a dominant pitcher, but he was not dominant over an extended period of time — like, say, Walter Johnson (21 years, 417 wins), or Christy Mathewson (17 years, 373 wins) or even Bob Gibson (17 years, 251 wins). Koufax, in comparison, pitched for only eleven years and had just 165 wins.

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But here’s the difference. For a short time in those eleven years, Koufax absolutely defined pitching. The Cubs got their first complete game tonight. In 1965, Koufax threw  27 complete games. He did it again the next year, in 1966. Twenty-seven complete games. Koufax was brilliant but, in my opinion, Bob Gibson was better.

In 1968, when Gibson went 22-9 for the Cardinals, he pitched 28 complete games. The other great pitcher on the staff was Nelson Briles. The number three starter was Steve Carlton, who would later be traded to the Phillies for Rick Wise. Gibson’s ERA in 1968 was 1.12. He threw 304 innings, and gave up 62 walks. He allowed 38 earned runs during the entire season. In his World Series career, Gibson won seven games and lost two. Backed by Gibson’s pitching, the Cards won the Series in ’64 and again in ’67.

But here’s the thing that gets me, and that no stats book will show. In 1968, Gibson’s manager never made a visit to the mound to talk to Gibson — or to bring in a reliever. The pitching coach did, but never to take him out.

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What I Thought About This Week (IV)

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Down On Half Street: Now we know about Garrett Mock; but despite his struggles, his latest (and first) outing as a Nat hasn’t changed my high expectations. Don Sutton had him right: he thinks too much. I had a kid like this in Babe Ruth baseball. All he did was throw strikes — until he was about 14. Then suddenly the light went off and he became a puddle of water. It looked like that today with Mock: in the first half of the fifth (as he got closer to being the winning pitcher-of-record) he started nibbling on the corners, walked some batters …. and bang, he was done.  It was almost as if he suddenly realized that he was in the big leagues and that if he just, well, started to act like a big league pitcher he would have a chance to stick.

Still, the stuff he has (a good cutter, curve, slider and change-up), his “athleticism” (gag) and a little seasoning and he’s a good number two or three. Jimmy made a good deal –Livan to Arizona for him and Matt Chico. This is only the beginning for Mock. If he stays healthy (that’s an issue — he’s had shoulder bursitis, a knee problem, and blisters), he’ll only get better. I like it that he’s 6-3, 240.

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The collapse of the Nats bullpen against the stinking Giants has been a sight, I must say. You could have heard a pin drop when Manny visited the mound in the third inning on Friday to have a short chat with Jason Bergman. I’ve never seen Acta more angry. I love to see this:

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The one good thing about the 10-1 blowout was that it gave me some time to walk around the stadium and take in the sights. I went out to the Red Loft and stood in the SRO section. Pretty interesting: I don’t think anyone I saw there (all under 30, it looked like) knew there was a game going on. But a whole bevy of guys were keeping score on the porch in Centerfield, at least 10 or fifteen of them, watching the game intently. I wonder if this is some kind of trend I don’t know about.

Juan Marichal: Sutton allowed as how Tim Lincecum (now 8-1) was well within the tradition of great Giant pitchers “like Juan Marichal, et. al.” … and so I started to think about that. Marichal brings back memories of the 1965 pennant race. In a summer of increasing brawls (see below), there was no more brawling summer than the summer of ’65 and there was no more famous fight than the one between Marichal and Johnny Roseboro, the Dodgers’ catcher. We live in an era when the Yanks and the Bosox hate each other and that seems to have gone on forever. But no one hated each other more than the Dodgers and Giants. And I hated them both.

Anyway, in the midst of the ’65 pennant race, on August 22, Marichal knocked down the Dodgers’ Ron Fairly and Maury Wills. Koufax, who was on the mound, refused to retaliate, but when Marichal came to bat, Roseboro threw the ball back to Koufax a little too close to Marichal’s nose. Marichal ignored Roseboro, but when the Dodger catcher did it a second time, Marichal clubbed Roseboro in the head with his bat and the benches emptied. Marichal opened a cut on Roseboro’s head that had to be closed with stitches, and all the newspapers showed blood pouring down poor Johnny’s face. The Giants seemed large unsympathetic, while the Dodger fans squeeled like pigs and the Congress threatened hearings. I swear, that’s how bad it got. The Dodger’s thought Marichal should have been arrested, if you can imagine that.

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Marichal was suspended for eight games. Roseboro and Marichal wouldn’t talk to each other for years and fans speculated that the hold-up in Marichal’s being elected to the Hall was his unwillingness to make up to Roseboro. Eventually, they became friends — and Marichal was elected soon after, in 1983. For the record: Marichal was 22-13 in ’65 and the Giants finished second. The Dodgers (Koufax, Drysdale, Osteen, Podres) beat the Twins in seven games in the World Series that year.

The Nation: My buddy Dwilly: you remember him? Here’s Dwilly —

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Well, anyway, my buddy Dwilly sent me a rather smug email a couple of weeks ago suggesting that the fact that the Sawx had signed starter Bartolo Colon had solidified their rotation. I had to admit, he had a point. Colon was a wizard with the Belinski’s where (in both 2004 and 2005) he proved nearly unhittable. His shoulder and elbow healed after nearly two years of nagging pain. So the Red Sox took a chance on Colon — and were rewarded with three quality starts.  But his last left something to be desired: against the Mariners on Saturday, Colon lasted five innings and committed two errors. Still, I admit, he’s a hellofagoodpickup …. and if he can pitch like he did in May, the Nation will be happy.

So you will notice that in “Emerging 8s” (that’s a post on centerfielders I wrote last week, you remember that, right?), I did not mention Coco Crisp. There’s a reason for that. I told Tom …. here’s Tom …

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(this is probably old by now, but I have to set the scene), anyway I told Tom two years ago that Coco Crisp was not the Coco Crisp that he thought he was — and that if the mighty Indians of Cleveland were willing to part with him (to the Red Sox no less), there was probably a good reason for that. In fact, there is a good reason for that — he’s not that good. His power numbers are anemic (eight and six homes runs in Boston over the last two seasons), and his stolen base numbers for the same two years (22 and 28) are bare compensation. Don’t tell me he’s good defensively, hell, I’m good defensively. What really bothers me is that the Slugs considered trading for him and putting him in Centerfield. I kid you not.

But the one thing about Coco, apparently, is that he’s not afraid to fight. The best video of the tiff is here, and it’s worth seeing.

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Ivy Leaguers: Instead of getting Coco Crisp, the Cubs picked up Jim Edmunds. The Cubs GM said that the Edmunds trade was a good one, because it didn’t cost the club anything. But it sent me to my bed for a full day. It also denied me, and thousands like me, of one of my pet hatreds. Worse: it deprived Carlos Zambrano of someone to throw at. “Watch out Jim, here it comes,” the fans behind home plate would yell at Edmunds. How bad is it? Edmonds’ first hit as a slug was a double and the Wrigley faithful booed him. Jimmy has figured this out: when Carlos started throwing things around the dugout in LA yesterday, Edmunds started walking down the bench — getting as far away from him as possible. Good idea.

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One of Slugdoms favorite fan razzes is now lost to all time. “Hey Jim, where are my chicken wings?” This refrain is chanted by the bleacher bums in centerfield at Wrigley everytime Edmunds appears. Jim, you see, left his wife to marry a waitress from Hooters. That’s right. Hooters. Smart guy, huh? He’s notorious. Before leaving St. Louis, Jim styled himself a restauranteur and opened “15” — a “high end” eaterie cum disco. “15?” That’s his number with “the Redbirds” don’tchaknow. It looks like something he’d do and I’m sure it’s all the rage for those high end dudes down in St. Louie land, where they love their three day old lobsters, their Chicago-killed beeves and their Budweiser. “I’ll have the Salmon and a Bud Light, please, and tell Jim if he has a minute to come on out here and bring that pretty little button Charlene with him.”

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A sportswriter passed all of this, this, this … bad blood … off the other day, by saying that after Jim had got his stroke back and put a couple of homers out of Wrigley, “all will be forgotten” and the Cubs faithful will open their arms wide and welcome Jimmy-boy as one of their own.

Guess again.

Doing It the Hard Way

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

The top half of the Nats lineup had a field day on Thursday evening against a very strong Cardinals ballclub but the pitching staff nearly gave it away before Elijah Dukes hit a walk off home run in the 10th.  The home town team was up 7 – 0 after three frames and gave up the lead in the top of the 10th on a homer by Cards rookie right fielder Joe Mather.  After Christian Guzman singled to lead off the bottom half of the 10th, Dukes worked the count and then hit a rocket to the deepest part of the park to complete his 4 for 6, four rbi night. 

Tim Redding started strong and with a seven run lead it appeared he was a cinch for his seventh win.  But he gave up three in the fourth and three again in the sixth on a home run by one Mark Worrell — which sent him packing.  You don’t know Worrell?!  Well, no surprise.  Thursday was his first appearance in the majors and his shot half way up the stands in left on a 3-2 Redding fastball was his first major league at-bat. Maybe he’s the second coming of this guy. 

In addition to Dukes’ four hits, Guzman had four and Boone and Castro had three apiece to lead the 16-hit attack.  And the highlight for the defense was a nifty 3-6-1 double play to end the fifth.  But it looked bleak when Rausch gave up two in the ninth to tie it and Sanchez gave up a dinger in the 10th.  And what was left of the 32,357 that attended the game reached for the Pepto-Bismol before Dukes’ heroics.      

Diamond Nuggets 

The kinks in the ballpark continue to irritate.  Thursday night two concession stands had inoperative credit card scanners which forced me to bite the bullet and stand in line at the ATM.  Which, of course, made me watch the Nats score two runs in the bottom of the third on t.v. while waiting in line. 

I shared an elevator ride with Screech the mascot Thursday night.  I must admit he was nice to the kids and didn’t smell despite his gray feathers.  One notch in the “keep him” column.

 As we walked to the bus to take us back to the car at RFK we came upon the “Field of Dreams” that was playing on a large out-door screen on a grassy plaza near the park.   Evidently it was a promotion put on by the developer of the new buildings going up in the area. What a treat after seeing a walk off home run on such a beautiful evening in an almost-full park.  We approached the plaza just at Moonlight Graham dislodged the piece of hot dog from little Karen’s throat.  Well, if you catch the film at that point you can’t not watch to the end. 

 So, at 10:30 on a school night my 10 year old daughter and her friend and I sit on the grass watching the movie while I recite the dialog in my head.  We watch as Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) yells out to Graham (Burt Lancaster), “Hey rookie. . . . you were good.”  And then we smile as Thomas Mann (James Earl Jones) hesitates with the glee evident on his face before entering the corn field as we realize that the cool evening breeze we feel on our faces is coming from the same direction that makes the corn sway in the film.   And then we watch the catcher take off his mask as Ray (Kevin Costner) utters, “Oh my god.”  And then I listen with pride as my daughter, after hearing her friend ask, “who’s that?” explains that its Ray’s dad when he was young so he doesn’t know Ray is his son but Ray knows it’s his dad. 

As we begin to walk to the bus my daughter looks up at me and says, “Hey dad, what’s your favorite movie?”  Without speaking I simply point to the screen that now has the credits rolling across. 

“Yeah, me too,” she says.