Archive for September, 2008

Our Long Nationals’ Nightmare Is …

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Bound To Continue: I’ve been thinking about the Nationals obsessively for a week now — ever since Washington Times writers Tim Lemke and Mark Zuckerman published a piece on how the policies of the tight-fisted Lerners have sparked a “growing level of frustration with the team’s ownership, stretching from the front office to the clubhouse.” While the Post’s Tom Boswell was not nearly so negative, his September 17 article on the Lerner ownership group included complaints from one player that while the Nats were “making money,” they seemed unwilling to spend it.

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After a week of pondering this, I’m not sure I buy what Lemke, Zuckerman and Boswell are selling. True: this crackerjack triumverate has a lot more access to the Nats than I have, but there’s something lacking in their critique that leaves me puzzled. I am not arguing with their reporting, but with their perspective. My skepticism took shape during the course of the Sox-Tigers playoff game when, in the middle of the fourth inning, the WGN camera panned into the empty bleacher seats at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field.  

Empty bleachers? I was stunned. While the Nats drew “only” 2,320,400 fans for 80 home games (ranking 19th in the majors), I am as certain that an Anacostia playoff game would be sold out as I am that fossels are not placed in rocks by this guy. The Pale Hose drew 35,923 for their one game do-or-die tilt with the Leyland’s, 5000 less than capacity. In a playoff game! In Chicago! And there’s this: the White Sox, a storied club with a shot at the series, drew only 100,000 more fans than the Nats. A pittance. If you think the Lerners want a more loyal following, think of how Jerry Reinsdorf must feel. 

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We have to remember: we live in a town where pastors rush their Sunday prayers so they won’t miss the opening kickoff, where baseball knowledge is as difficult to come by as bank bailouts and where the likes of “Doc,” “The Coach” and “Smokin Al” spend the summer talking about (gag) basketball (Koken hates baseball, taking every opportunity to claim, as he did recently, that it’s way behind the popularity of the two sports he loves.) 

There’s worse. In early July, three months after opening day, radio “personality” Andy Pollin, the sidekick of on-air semi-celebrity Steve Czaban talked about how he would never drive to Nationals’ Park because of the “huge” traffic back-ups. “The Czabe” (as he is known) was quizzical: “oh yeah?” Pollin was positive: “You kidding? Anyone who doesn’t take the metro is out of his mind.” And it occurred to me: these guys had never been to a Nationals game. How do I know? Because after Opening Day there were no “huge” traffic back-ups – at least not in the 26 games I attended. I can only conclude that Andy and “The Czabe” are confusing Nationals Park with some other stadium.

So here it is: as a part of this blog’s “state of the Nats” end-of-year reflections, I am prepared to give the Lerner family the benefit of the doubt. Not least of which because “a guy” who knows them (in the real estate business), says that while the Lerners are businessmen first, they have a reputation for spending money on projects only when necessity demands. “They save their money until they can spend it wisely,” he says, “so stop worrying.” The operative word is “wisely” — which is to say, don’t trade your seed corn for Eric Bedard and don’t trade your best prospects for left-handed busts. Don’t want to spend millions signing Andruw Jones? Fine by me. 

It’s true: the Nats have yet to build a solid fan base, have yet to put a decent team on the field, have yet to spend big money on a big player. But it’s also true: the Nats have yet to find any D.C. sports yakker who knows anything about baseball (except for the MASN team – and Phil Wood), have yet to adequately promote their on-air presence, have yet to reap the benefits of a not-bad marketing plan. How long will it take to build a fan base? 

Of the eleven teams that finished below the Nats in attendance, six of them (Pittsburgh, Oakland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Minnesota) are among the oldest franchises in the game. Three of them (the A’s, Indians and Twins) are perennial contenders. Two other teams in the bottom third (the Marlins and Rays) have very good teams and they still can’t draw. And the Marlins (get this), have won two World Series in the last fifteen years. Two! Which is one more than the Phillies, who were founded in 1883. There’s even a team in baseball that hasn’t won a World Series in 100 years (there’s no certainty they’ll win one in the next hundred by the way. In fact, they might not). Which means that glory in baseball is not  just “occasional.” It’s rare.

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Baseball is not a game of
infant gratification, but of perseverance and patience. It takes a long time to build a ballclub, longer still to build a fan base, and even longer to grab the prize. Such knowledge might be only a modest salve to the wounded fans of Natdom, but it’s the truth. I am living proof. It used to be that watching my favorite team was a painful experience, because they always, always, always disappointed me. I was “miserable.” And then, about ten years ago, I realized my love for my team was making it impossible for me to love the game. I was a fan, but not a baseball fan. 

Then the Nats arrived. It used to be that I would drive 90 minutes to Birdland to watch a team I didn’t particularly like. Now it takes me 30 minutes to get to a ballpark to watch a team that outdrew them and that just might — might — someday, have a shot at something special. There’s also this. If you think Ted Lerner is bad you-oughta-geta-loada-this-guy:

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You would think that all of this is known to the likes of Lemke, Zuckerman and Boswell, who know baseball, but in their recent commentaries they seem as innocent as eggs. Give Ted and Stan and Jim and Manny a break. They’ll get there.

Or they won’t.

“Pepperpots and White Elephants”

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

That announcer Howard Cosell could bring bile to a mammal’s mouth was proved during the 1977 World Series. Cosell became semi-famous for coining the phrase “the bronx is burning” when, during the second game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a blimp-mounted camera looked down on an elementary school set accidentally ablaze and burning out of control. Cosell made the most of the moment, linking the fire at the school (which he conveniently misidentified as an abandoned tenement) with New York’s crime-ridden “Son of Sam” summer.

The term became the title of a so-so ESPN special on the machinations between the Evil Empire’s Senator Palpatine (George Steinbrenner) and Billy “Luke Skywalker” Martin. That Cosell could lower America’s gag reflex is not in doubt (he remains, in death, a controversial — and largely loathed — figure), but what I remember most is his constant reference to Billy Martin as a “pepperpot.” He sprinkled his every reference to Martin with the term, using the term reverently as a description of the “embattled” but “feisty” Yankee skipper. “Here he comes again, that little pepperpot.” It was enough to make you vomit.

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While Keith Jackson nearly literally rolled his eyes every time Cosell used the term (which was ridiculously often), I thought he might be on to something, and over the years I’ve been unofficially tracking baseball’s post-season “pepperpots” — a distinctive class of players who rise to the challenge of the World Series and provide surprising leadership. They are not great players (Martin was not), but are all, without exception, fascinating characters: they are invariably undersized and obnoxious with good gloves and outsized egos, which they hide with a liberal dose of false modesty.  

Take Martin: he probably saved the 1952 World Series for the Yankees when he made a lunging catch on a Jackie Robinson infield pop-up during the seventh inning of the seventh game. The bases were loaded. It was a single, simple play, but it made the difference in the world championship. In 1953, Martin was the Series MVP, playing unbelievable defense — even for him. But Martin couldn’t stick with the Empire because he was always in trouble, mouthing off and getting in fistfights. Nor was his the stuff of the Hall of Fame. He was a fairly average hitter: his personal high for homers was fifteen — in 1956. It wasn’t enough to keep Stengel from approving his trade to the Yanks’ farm team, the Kansas City A’s, in 1957. But Martin knew baseball, perhaps the most unique quality of “pepperpots.”

Pepperpots have always been a part of the game, ever since Miller Huggins seemed to define the term. Like Martin, “Mighty Mite” was scrawny, tough, vain and a good on-base man. He finished his career with more than 300 stolen bases and a much better player than Martin (unlike most “pepperpots” he’s in the Hall of Fame, a tenuous honor, if you ask me). Mighty Mite’s real genius was in managing, which he proved after he took over the reins of the Empire in 1918. Huggins built the then-laughing stock of the junior circuit into a powerhouse, leading them to six pennants and three World Series titles.

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I can think of four recent “pepperpots” in the mold of Huggins — most of them veterans of the Oakland A’s. Dick Green is the first: the brawling A’s of the 1970s were symbolized by Green, whose good glove, feisy attitude and post-season heroics during the ’74 Series won him a Babe Ruth MVP trophy, this despite the fact that he barely grazed the ball with his bat during the series. Instead, his claim to fame in the Series was his Game 5 relay throw to Sal Bando to squelch a Los Angeles rally — the same kind of play that saw Billy Martin save the Empire in their showdown with the Dodger’s two decades before. The other notorious White Elephant Pepperpot is Walt Weiss, whose 1988 and 1989 World Series glovework (he only hit .133 in the ’89 series) helped the A’s become a temporary dynasty.

More recent “pepperpots” are more legion. The World Series seems to follow Craig Counsell around. The light-hitting (.255 batting average in thirteen seasons) second baseman (there’s a pattern here somewhere), held down the second-sack for the World Champ Marlins in 1997. The Marlins regular second baseman that year was Luis Castillo, but only after Counsell arrived in a mid-season trade did the fish seem to start playing (he hit .299 in 51 games). While Counsell did not hit well in the post-season he, like his predecessors, continued to turn stellar plays up the middle. Counsell ended up in Arizona in 2001, where he homered in game one. Counsell, fast and tough and of only medium height and build for his era (six feet, 180 pounds) is now with the Brewers — the only evidence available that they have a chance at the Series. Counsell, an otherwise average player, wears two rings. At 38, Counsell is on his way out of baseball. If they were smart, the Brewers would hire him as his manager — but then, they’re the Brewers

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The other two nominees in this category are Mark Lemke and Phil Garner. Lemke might well be the quintessential “pepperpot.” An anemic looking second baseman with stick hands, Lemke played like Dimaggio in the post-season. In the 1991 Series, he hit three triples and batted .417. His extra-inning walk-off single in Game 3 is still memorable for me because Braves fans were, at the time, engaging in that incessantly insulting tomahawk chop. A never-amounted-to-much second baseman who flirted with the bench throughout his career, Lemke was the talk of baseball.

Like Martin, Phil Garner is remembered more for his managerial prowess than his on-the-field heroics. But Garner, like the “pepperpots” before him (he was nicknamed “scrap iron”), was known for his nearly unconscious post-season glove and (like Lemke) for his post-season bat. He hit .500 for “the family” in the ’79 Series, where his teammates began to call him “Yosemite Sam.” Currently unemployed (he once managed the Crew, before they brought in the now dearly departed curse) the Brewers should bring him back: Garner’s teams are always built on speed and defense.

My tentative conclusion from all of this is that any successful post-season team needs a Martin, Huggins, Green, Weiss, Counsell, Lemke, or Garner — almost more than they need a “Mr. October.” Exhibit A was last year’s Bosox wunderkind Dustin (our lord and savior) Pedroia (Peter Gammons, fan club president, presiding). Pedroia remains the firmest evidence that defense and speed are at a premium in the post-season, where the nod goes to tough-guys who can win in an abbreviated series. It should be no different this year — where fast, defensive-minded infielders could make a difference. I’m not talking about a brilliant big-bat player (which Padroia has become) or Chase (say hello to my little friend) Utley, but rather a guy like the Angels’ Erick Aybar, the Pale Hose’s Alexei Ramirez, the Cubs Mike Fontenot or the Dodgers’ Angel Berroa.

By this barometer, where defense and speed are emphasized (as they are in the playoffs), it will be the Angels vs. White Sox in the AL, and the Cubs and Dodgers in the NL. And the MVP in both of those playoffs (and the World Series to follow) will not come down to a walk-off Mazeroski, but to a lazy infield pop-up that needs to be caught, or a relay throw that guns down a runner at third, or a deftly turned double-play. 

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Tex and Milt

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Getting Tex: Now that the Nats have that big “E” in the “elimination number” column in the standings, they can play spoilers for the rest of the league and prepare for next year. Balester, Redding and Lannan are the great hope for the Anacostia Boys going into next Spring, a trio of frontline pitchers who can anchor the staff. A fourth pitcher can be picked from among a group that includes Detwiler, Clappard, Mock (perhaps) and (now) Martis. Or Jason Bergman, I suppose. Two outfield spots look good, but rightfield is open. My bet is that Kentucky will go elsewhere.

That leaves a semi-solid infield, with the exception of first base, where Nick Johnson will probably be given a chance to show he can play more than 101 games in a season. But assuming that he pulls a groin or pops a shoulder in Spring Training (a pretty good bet, actually) the Nats will be looking for someone to add power to the line-up — as already confirmed by Jim Bowden.  The nightmare scenario is that Jimmy-boy reconfirms his love affair with everything Cincinnati and brings in Adam Dunn, the strikeout king of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Say it ain’t so Jimmy and tell us (puhhhhh —leeeeez) that the Nats will throw some money at a player who is young, can hit, and knows how to put the ball over the fence. Someone who knows the strike zone. Someone with a future. Someone who is can complement Zimmerman. A free agent. Hmmm. I wonder who that might be . . .

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Milt’s Masterpiece: Baby Bear fans better be ecstatic about Carlos Zambrano’s no hitter, because leaving a guy with rotator cuff tendinitis in for 110 pitches is not a great idea. The Slugs will need Carlos in the post-season, particularly if they face the Phillies in the first round. The Phillies are the big-boppers of the NL and throwing a 89 mph slider to the likes of Ryan Howard isn’t always a good idea. I loved it that Carlos was up around 98 and 99 mph in his no-hitter. It would be even better if he was throwing the ball as well in the post-season.

Cub fans have been waiting for “Big Z” to throw a no-no, because he’s come of-so-close so often. Then too, Sluggie fans were tired of the drought: the last time a Cub threw a no-hitter was when Miltiades Stergios Papastergios threw one back in September of 1972.

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Pappas was a good pitcher, but he was forever stigmatized by the storied 1965 trade that saw him swapped to Cincinnati for Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. The Reds’ GM said that he thought Robinson was “an old 30.” It was one of the worst trades in baseball history: the next year (1966) Robinson won the triple crown, the AL’s MVP award, and led the Orioles to a win in the World Series. Pappas, mneanwhile, struggled and never seemed to get past the label that had been put on him as “the guy the Reds got for Robinson.” In 1968, he was traded to Atlanta, where he was only average. In 1970, the Braves traded him to the Cubs, where he had his best years. He went 17-14 in 1971 and 17-7 in 1972. I saw him pitch in ’72 and noticed he had somehow revived his curve, which had been dormant in Atlanta. In the game in which he threw his no-hitter, Pappas was one strike away from throwing a perfect game. The next-to-the-last batter, San Diego’s Larry Stahl, walked. Just before the ’74 season the Cubs released Pappas and, for a time, he faded into obscurity.

Here’s the thing about Pappas. Not many people liked him. Reds’ pitcher Joe Nuxhall accused him of laziness. Pappas responded by claiming that Nuxhall, then an announcer, was traveling first class when the Reds players were in economy. When he retired, Pappas accused homeplate umpire Bruce Froemming of purposely blowing his perfect game by calling two balls on Stahl, which Pappas said should have been called out on strikes.  Pappas said that he had caught Froemming “smirking” about the calls when Stahl trotted to first base. Later, after Pappas retired, Froemming and Pappas had a shouting match about the controversy on a Chicago radio station. Leo Durocher, famous for getting along with just about anyone, had unkind things to say about Pappas in his memoir, Nice Guys Finish Last. He called him an “ingrate” and a “cancer” on the team.

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In 1982, nearly a decade after his retirement, Pappas’s wife Carole disappeared without a trace and for many years thereafter, Pappas claimed that she was abducted and murdered by Chicago’s notorious Ripper Crew. The Ripper Crew were a bunch of sweethearts who ran a satanic cult accused of the disappearance of 18 women in and around the Windy City. One of them was later given a lethal injection. Not surprisingly, Pappas’s focus on the Crew became a kind of obsession. But no one could explain his wife’s disappearance: she had vanished without a trace. I followed the mystery closely and have to admit: well, perhaps she just left him. After all, not many people loved Milt Pappas. Unkind, you see, but there you have it.

But in 1987, her body — along with her 1980 Buick — was found by workers draining a pond just blocks from the Pappas home, in Wheaton, Illinois. The police concluded Carole Pappas had made a wrong turn, apparently confusing a side road for her driveway. She had been missing for almost exactly five years. The coroner said she had drowned. “I don’t know what to say,” Milt Pappas told the media on the day his wife’s body was found. “It has been a long ordeal, not knowing what happened.” 

I always liked Pappas, while knowing that he was an ordeal in the clubhouse. I was thrilled that he was so good with the Cubs — and thought his addition might put them over the top. He filled out a very good rotation: Jenkins, Hands, Pappas and Holtzman. And I admit: Pappas might have been only a good pitcher, maybe even a very good pitcher. He was certainly not an ace. Even so, for one day in September of 1972, he was the best pitcher in baseball.  

Why We Have the Baseball Reference

Friday, September 12th, 2008

As I was walking out of Nationals Park a couple of weeks ago, one of me droogs (Dave, to be exact) asked me to recite the starting line-up of the 1960 Yankees and then their opponents in the World Series — the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. This was a matter of pride, of course, and I puffed myself up to meet the challenge. I had learned the starting line-ups off the back of the 1960s Topps set of cards, perhaps the most memorable set ever made, and I had it down. By heart. So I recited: Mantle, Maris and Tresh in the outfield; Boyer, Kubek, Richardson, Skowron and Berra around the infield — with Elston Howard as a fill-in behind the plate. And then I did the Pirates, struggling over who played third and short (it was Don Hoak and Dick Groat — and honestly, I missed Hoak), but getting the rest.

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Dave looked at me: “You sure about Tresh?” Sure I’m sure, I said. I sat right there in my father’s chair and watched the Yankees play every Saturday. They called it the “Game of the Week,” but it was New York Yankees television. I remember it like it was yesterday. I even remember the little black and white screen and the summer heat. I damn near can still smell the room. I remember the voices of Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean announcing the games. The game came to us over the only television station we had; it was WSAU in Wausau, Wisconsin. The announcer who did the news for the station was Walter John Chilson (who lost an election to Mel Laird). They had a mascot at the station: a graphic of a knight on a horse with a sword. Am I sure? Don’t make me laugh. Damn right I’m sure.

Well, here’s the deal — as Dave so kindly pointed out to me later. Tom Tresh didn’t play for the 1960 Yankees. The guy who played left field for the Yankees was Hector Lopez. I was stunned. Hector Lopez? I would have been less surprised if Dave had told me that left was played by Sarah Palin. I was sure, I was positive, I was absolutely certain, that Tom Tresh played left field for the 1960 Yanks. Don’t tell me he didn’t. Hector Lopez? He played for the A’s. Right? Right?

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Scientists tell us that people forget for three reasons: they don’t get it in the first place, they had it but lost it or, they have it but can’t find it. You get memories by acquiring them, storing them and retrieving them. You lose memories when you fail to acquire them, fail to store them or (when you get older) you fail to retrieve them (which is why, I suppose, we have the Baseball Reference). In the case of Hector Lopez, I probably never acquired the memory in the first place — and then, for some reason, substituted Tom Tresh for Lopez. But here’s the thing: I am quite certain I can remember the 1960s Tom Tresh Topps card. Man, I just know how that guy looks on his card. I swear it. So when Dave told me that Tresh didn’t play left field for the Yankees in 1960 I scoffed and looked through my collection for him. Numbered. In order. In a box. Complete.

He wasn’t there.

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I always thought that Tom Tresh was a heck of a ballplayer. And he was, but only for a time. Hector Lopez was better. A lot better. Lopez came over to the Yankees from their farm club (the Kansas City Athletics) and became one of the greatest Panamanians to ever play the game. He hit the hell out of the ball for the A’s, which is why they traded him to the Yanks (A’s owner Arnold Johnson was a business partner of Yanks owner Del Webb). As any Yankees fan can tell you, Lopez was a mainstay for the Yanks during their five consecutive pennants (1960 to 1964), along with Ford, Howard, Richardson and Boyer (who was signed as a bonus baby by . . . the A’s). Lopez went on to be the first black manager at the Triple A level. He’s the reason the Yankees are loved in Panama. He was a very good player and, arguably, a better hitter than Maris (whom the Yanks got from the A’s) and if he had had a little power he would have been him.   

I got it. Hector Lopez played left field for the Yankees in 1960. He hit second behind Kubek in the World Series. He watched, in shock, as Bill Mazeroski put it over the centerfield fence in game 7. He trotted into the dugout as Mantle, slumped with his head in his hands, wept. He came out the next year and played only part time as Yogi Berra, near the end of his career, was put in the outfield. At the end of the season, the Yankees called up their newest phenom, Tom Tresh. Tresh only played in nine games in 1961, but the next year he was in the line-up nearly every day. He hit .286. It was the best year he would ever have. Hector Lopez retired in 1966, after playing twelve seasons.  

I remember it like it was yesterday.

Drysdale’s “Dingers”

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

I know that Mark is sorry to read about Carlos Zambrano — I know that I am, and I hope he’s okay. And I mean that sincerely. A Red Sox-Cubs World Series match-up will be that much better with a healthy Zambrano. But shouldn’t Mark be slapping himself now for the fact that the Baby Bears could have picked up Bartolo Colon? They passed. But I digress.

One of the wonderful things about Zambrano, and why it’s so much fun watching National League teams in general, is that he’s a good hitter. And a genuine home run threat. Another great pitcher who was also a home run threat was the legendary Don Drysdale.

Although best remembered for having broken Walter Johnson’s record of consecutive scoreless innings in 1968, Drysdale hold the National League record for the most home runs in a season — a feat that he accomplished twice (’58 and ’65). Only Warren Spahn hit more homers than Don Drysdale among pitchers in National League history. (Spahn hit 35 dingers in 22 seasons, Drysdale hit 29 in 14 seasons.)

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The major league career (38) and season (nine in ’31) records belong to Wes Farrell.

One last note on Drysdale. One of the subplots in Emilio Estevez’s uneven, but often moving film, “Bobby” is whether a kitchen worker in the Ambassador Hotel will be able to go to the Dodgers’ game that day (June 4, 1968). Drysdale pitched his sixth consecutive shutout that day — a fact acknowledged by RFK in his victory speech that night.

Drysdale broke Walter Johnson’s consecutive scoreless inning record (which was set in 1913) four days later.