Archive for the ‘Belinskis’ Category

The Princes of Chavez Ravine

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Once upon a time there was a pitcher who was nearly as celebrated as Stephen Strasburg — a phenom, a whiz, an over-the-top fastballer whose mid-90s down-in-the-zone pitches defeated even the best hitters. But Dean Chance will not go down in baseball history as Hall of Famer or even as one of baseball’s near greats, but rather as a one-time memorable figure whose talent and savvy brought him from the small Ohio hamlet of Wooster to the hallowed streets of Hollywood. Those were the days: when Hollywood legends packed the stands of the Dodger Stadium (which the expansion Angels shared with the N.L. legends), to oggle the young and brash stalwarts of “the singing cowboy’s” newest entrants into the Yankee-dominated American League. The most celebrated Angel of all was Robert Boris “Bo” Belinsky, the lefty throwing pool hustling playboy-athlete whose 1962 no-hit, no-run feat against Baltimore’s Orioles launched him into the headlines — and into the arms of (among others) Mamie Van Dorn, Connie Stevens and Ann-Margret.

In spite of their attraction to L.A. celebrity-wood, the 1961 expansion Angels were predictably poor. But the 1962 Angels were a fairytale, matching the Yankees in win for win as Hollywood oohed and ahhed and celebrated — prematurely. The Angels went through a late-season swoon and finished third. But with the storied, oh-so-handsome and charismatic Belinsky (a former “street rat” from New York by way of Trenton), on the mound, everyone thought the future was bright. The Angels would conquer both the Yankees and the American League  — and Bo Belinsky (handsome and blessed with a flash-bang smile), would lead the way. It was not to be: after his meteoric rise, Belinsky’s fame undid him, drowning a  promising career in years of dissipation — until (in later life), he became a reformed alcoholic and born again Christian living in Las Vegas (of all places). And as Belinsky fell, so too did the Angels, reverting to their losing ways and finishing 9th in 1963. Thus, Bo Belinsky.

Not Dean Chance. Like Belinsky, Chance was young and handsome. And, like Belinsky, Chance could pitch — could pitch so well, in fact, that he left hitters shaking their heads and walking back to the dugout. But that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike Belinsky, who dreamed of stardom and Hollywood and beautiful women, Chance dreamed of baseball. And unlike Belinsky, street smart and tough, Chance was a small town boy who grew up on a farm. Then too, Chance was dedicated to the game and, while he “ran” with Belinsky (and became his lifelong friend), he was never awed by flashing cameras, beautiful women — or the glitter of Hollywood. While the young Belinsky spent his New York childhood dodging the cops and tossing nickels on street corners, the 6-3 Chance spent his Ohio childhood listening to the Indians on the radio . . . and dreamed of becoming a ballplayer. And when the Indians weren’t playing (when the  midwest winds wickered across Ohio’s cornfields), Chance spent his time dreaming about being a boxer. “When I was growing up I always wanted to be a ballplayer,” Chance recently told a baseball reporter. “But I always loved boxing, too. I grew up listening to and watching Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Boy, were they exciting.”

Chance was a “puncher.” He styled his mound tactics in the same way that ’60s boxers styled their straight-ahead heavyweight tilts — he bored in on hitters, ratcheting up his fastball into the mid-90s, before dropping it (unpredictably) onto the outside corner. In high school Chance was not only unhittable, he became the most talked about young hurler in Ohio baseball history. His high school records remain unequaled: he threw 17 no hitters at Wooster high school — the closest contender is another Ohioan, Tom Engle, who threw six straight back in 1989. In 1962, as Belinsky was making headlines (though he was only 10-11) and dating the stars, Chance began his own career with the Angels, forging a workmanlike 14-10 campaign. In 1963, both of them struggled: Belinsky was 2-9 and Chance was 13-18. But, just as Belinsky was fading, Chance was becoming a premier pitcher. In 1964, as the Angels struggled to finish just two games over .500, Chance compiled a breathtaking 20-9 record and became (at 23) the youngest player to that point to win a Cy Young award. His 1964 campaign remains among the most memorable in A.L. history, in large part because Chance pitched better against the Yankees than he did against any other team: “It’s Chance, not CBS, who owns the Yankees. Lock, stock and barrel,” Angel’s center fielder Albie Pierson said during the season. “When Dean pitched, the Yankees became a bunch of guys in pantyhose . . . they had no chance.”

Belinsky couldn’t keep up. As Chance was making baseball history, Belinsky was struggling with his control (he would go 9-8 in 1964), and with his personal life. Flitting from date-to-date, and being photographed with the glitterati, Belinsky’s lifestyle (his constant fist fights, most notoriously, with an L.A. Times beat reporter) and his interminable scrapes with the Beverly Hills constabulary — was wearing thin with Angel’s owner Gene Autry. After the end of the ’64 campaign, Autry decided he’d had enough and traded Belinsky to the Philadelphia Phillies. But Belinsky’s fame preceded him, as Phillies fans viewed the new duo of Bunning and Belinsky as Philadelphia’s salvation; the two even appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Back in L.A., farmboy Chance continued to labor; and while the Wooster native would never equal the near perfection of his Cy Young year, his ten-year career remains a talisman of consistency — he won 20 games for the Twins in 1967, an astonishing 18 of them were complete. His career nosedived after 1968 (when he was 16-16), and, in 1971, he retired to Wooster, where he became a boxing promoter and manager and formed a respected sanctioning organization — the International Boxing Association.

Now, at age 68, Chance will talk baseball (and boxing) with anyone who will sit and listen. “The greatest defensive player I ever faced was Brooks Robinson,” Chance told one reporter several years ago. “The greatest relief pitcher was Dick Radatz of the Red Sox. The toughest hitters I ever faced were Tony Oliva of the Twins and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. They always hit me the other way. If I had a runner on third and no outs, those were the last guys I’d want to see at the plate.” Chance says his biggest thrill as a major leaguer was winning the 1964 Cy Young award. That may well be. But for fans of baseball, the most memorable event in the life of the Ohio farmboy-made-good, came on this date in 1967, when Chance threw the best game of his career — a no hitter against the Cleveland Indians. That in itself might not be historic, except that Chance’s no-hitter was the second he threw that month. The first had come on August 15 — when he no-hit the Red Sox.

(above: Dean Chance as a rookie; below: Bo Belinsky in the Angel’s clubhouse.)

Lackey, DeRosa . . . Or Both?

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

CFG writer and droog DWilly (here he is, in case you’ve forgotten), is pessimistic about the possibility the Nats will sign Belinski free agent pitcher John Lackey: “The Red Sox will be in the mix and they’ll bid him up, but only to make sure the Yankees don’t get him,” he opined during a break in the action this last week. “And for good reason: can you imagine the Phillies facing C.C., Pettitte and Lackey in the World Series? Forget Burnett – in that mix he’d be number four. For the Red Sox, the Yankees getting Lackey would be their worst nightmare.” Add the Angels to that list: Anaheim owner Arte Moreno says that he can afford either Lackey or third sacker Chone Figgins, but not both — making his choice a no-brainer. With the crosstown Dodgers taking a pass on Lackey that leaves the Red Sox, Yankees, and Nats bidding for his services. Oh, and the Mets, who are desperate for pitching. Bart Hubbach of the New York Post says that Lackey tops the Chokes’ wish list, ranking well ahead of both Jason Marquis (who “badly wants to be a Met”) and Joel Piniero — the 31-year-old Cardinal slinger.

The Lackey-to-the Nats rumor surfaced last week, when Nats beat writer Bill Ladson reported that the Nats “are looking for an ace who can tutor pitchers such as John Lannan, Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg. Washington has been looking for this type of pitcher since after the Trade Deadine.” True enough, but Lackey won’t be cheap — and at least some baseball executives are questioning his health: Lackey got off to a slow start last year due to a sore elbow and he’s spent a part of each of the last two years on the DL. And the price tag? The figures are all over the place, but current betting is that Lackey would ask for (and get) an A.J. Burnett contract — somewhere in the range of five years and $82 million. At the top end, the contract would max out at five years and $100 million, at the low end a Lackey contract would be for three years and $30 million. Lackey’s a tough, nose-in-the-dirt pitcher who could feast on N.L. hitters, but that’s a lot of change for a potential sore elbow and a tutor. And it’s a lot of change if, after spending (say) $80 million, you have nothing left to shore up your infield or add to your bullpen.

Signing a top flight innings-eating pitcher had to be a priority of Nats GM Mike Rizzo — but it will do little good for the Nats to spend oodles on Lackey and have little left over. So a rejiggering the priority list makes a lot of sense: back in ’08, the Nats spent a good part of their season scrambling to put together a roster that had Ryan Zimmerman struggling to overcome a left shoulder tear. Zim ended up losing 56 games, a nightmare for a team that has few marque players. While this unthinkable knock-on-wood scenario seems unlikely for 2010 (knock on wood, and hard), the Nats’ unsettled up-the-middle problems — including the distinct possibility that wunderkind Ian Desmond might not be the solution to the Nats’ shortstop woes that they think he is — would stretch the Nats to the breaking point were something to happen to Zim (or Adam Dunn, or Josh Willingham, or Cristian Guzman).

Which means that John Lackey isn’t the only priority for the Nats, and maybe not even the top priority. The Nats need pitching and desperately, but if they want a tutor and innings eater they can find one among a free agent class that includes Jon Garland, Joel Piniero, Jason Marquis or even (gasp) Carl Pavano. Garland (just as an example) won’t be cheap ($25 million over three years), but he won’t be as expensive as Lackey — and the Nats can use the savings they might have spent on JL for Mark DeRosa. The more you think about DeRosa the more you have to like him, especially as a fit for the wobbly Nats’ infield. Forget for just a moment that he’s a helluva player. Remember, instead, that his glove work eclipses that of Desmond or Guzman or Gonzalez. He can play short and second and he can spell Willingham in left and if worse comes to worse (knock on wood) he can play third. And he can hit. Then too, taking a pass on Lackey means there’s more money to not only plug the holes in the infield, but in the bullpen.

Here’s what all of this might come down to: signing John Lackey (and no one else) doesn’t make the Nats at .500 ballclub, but signing Garland (or Piniero, or Marquis) with DeRosa behind them and Mike Gonzalez in the bullpen does.

Angel’s Stun, Sweep Sox

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

That glazed and puzzled look that has appeared on the faces of so many other post season teams (the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday, and the Chicago Cubs last year, to name just two) is now being worn by the Boston Red Sox. The A.L.’s wild card entry was stunned by a ninth inning rally in Boston on Saturday, and swept in three games by the Los Angeles Angels to be eliminated from the playoffs. The Bosox appeared headed for a sure win in their head-to-head match-up against the Belinskis, leading the Halos 6-3 heading into the 9th inning at Fenway Park — with their ace closer, Jonathan Papelbon on the mound. But with two outs, Papelbon’s down-and-out or up-and-in stuff failed him: Erick Aybar singled, Chone Figgins walked and Bobby Abreu doubled to tighten the contest. Even then, the Red Sox remained a simple grounder or fly ball away from victory. To set up a force out at every base, Papelbon walked Torii Hunter intentionally. That brought Vladimir Guerrero to the plate. On the very first pitch to one of baseball’s beset bad-ball hitters, Papelbon gave up a single to center. Guerrero’s hit, a leaning over-the-plate smack of a low and outside fastball, scored Figgins and Abreu and gave the Angels the 7-6 victory.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The elimination of the Redbirds and Bosox now sets the wheels in motion for the offseason in both Boston and St. Louis. There’s a lot to do. Fans of “the Nation” face some big questions: about the future of David Ortiz and the cost of Jason Bay. The team is hardly in need of a major overhaul, yet the horses that have consistently put it into the off season are aging or hobbled. The entire left side of the Boston infield is in question: Mike Lowell can’t play third forever and the team has no ready answer at shortstop. “Phtttt . . . c’mon” — fans of the Nation say: what about Jed Lowrie? Well, what about him? Maybe Baseball Reference is lying, but their stats show him hitting .147 in 32 games. Hell, there’s a shortstop in Washington who hits a damn sight better than that and he’s no damn good at all . . .   

The Redbirds are younger, but the questions might be more pertinent: whether to pony up the big bucks it will take to keep Matt Holliday in left and (just like the Red Sox) what to do at third. Mark DeRosa is a free agent and while he likes St. Louis he will test the free agent market. Then too, while shortstop seems set for the River City Nine, rookie phenom Brendan Ryan hit a scorching .083 in the playoffs and looked shaky in the field. Redbird fans have the same reaction to this negativity as their Bosox buddies: “Oh yeah, well what about Troy Glaus?” Okay, right. Troy Glaus: who left his right shoulder somewhere in Toronto and hasn’t been the same since. Maybe he’ll return to his 2008 form (.270, 27 home runs), but it’s a pretty big maybe. Then too, number three starter Joel Pineiro is a free agent and would be a number one starter on most major league teams: including the Nats (now there’s an idea). Oddly, whether Holliday or DeRosa or Pineiro decide to stay in St. Louis might hinge more on the fate of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan than on how much money Billy DeWitt puts on the table. LaRussa and Duncan’s contracts are up and both are rumored headed to Cincinnati, to team up with their old St. Louis G.M. pal Walt Jocketty . . .

Twin Killings: Twinkies, Bosox On The Ropes

Saturday, October 10th, 2009


There have been 26 Yankee juggernauts in major league history — 27 if you count the 1960 team, that could have, might have and should have won a world title: were it not for the heroics of Bill Mazeroski. This team, the 2009 version, is even more formidable. The twin killers of the Twins on Friday night (that put the reeling Twinkies down by two games to zip) were Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, one of whom is headed to the hall and the other who might well be. It’s easy to see why Teixeira — offered an off-season gift basket from the Nationals — decided to play for the pinstripes: the New Yorkers know how to spend money, and they know how to win: a requirement for any ballplayer who prizes not only a large bank account, but a handful of rings.

What was billed as a pitchers’ duel turned out to be exactly that: as Yankee A.J. Burnett mixed four kinds of fastballs to put the Twins down through six innings. But Burnett, a puzzling mess at odd times, was pulled after six complete, with Yankee manager Joe Girardi suddenly dependent on a relief core that has often been shaky. And so it proved: even Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera were merely human, while former Ahoy fireballer and reclamation project Damaso Marte was a disaster. The often so-so Nick Blackburn, meanwhile, was brilliant — posting a 1.59 post season ERA and befuddling Yankee hitters through 5.2. So when Joe Nathan arrived with the Twins’ lead intact we could be forgiven for thinking the game was over. Not so: Alex Rodriguez’s ninth inning home run tied it, while Tex’s walk off against Jose Mijares in the 11th won it. “It’s really disappointing,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I’ve been walked off enough times here. Some of the things that happened out there were pretty disappointing. It was a good baseball game. A lot of things could have went either way, but didn’t go our way again tonight.” 

The Boston Red Sox Are Being Eaten In Anaheim. After a not-even-close 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Belinskis on Thursday, “the Nation” sent ace Josh Beckett to the mound against Jered Weaver. It was a bookie’s fantasy: the lanky if talented Weaver brothers have “never quite” and have a tendency to implode (and what a sight it is!), while Beckett is calm to the point of perversity — and it’s downright weird. If Jered is Yosemite Sam (arms akimbo, fist slapping glove), then Josh is Mr. Magoo (calmly asking for another ball, as the one he just pitched sails into the night). So it was that — if you were to actually bet (and you wouldn’t would you?) — you would have been all-in on Beckett. And you’d have lost.

It happened in the seventh inning in Anaheim and it went something like this: Vlad Guerrero walked (Howie Kendrick runs for him), Kendry Morales lines out, Kendrick steals second, Juan Rivera grounds out to third (two outs), Maicer Izturis singles (Kendrick scores), Mike Napoli HBP, Erick Aybar triples, (Izturis and Napoli score), Chone Figgins strikes out for out number three. Score: 3-1 Angels.  What was most unusual was that Beckett seemed to lose his cool — complaining to homeplate umpire C.B. Bucknor that Mike Napoli hadn’t moved out of the way of a fastball that hit him in the back. Beckett seemed to come unhinged. “I wasn’t much [ticked] that he wouldn’t overturn the pitches, but show me a little bit of respect,” Beckett said. “He just straight-faced me and then walked away. I was just like, I went up to [catcher Victor Martinez]. I said, ‘Vic, he’d be [ticked] if I did that to him.’ I’m not asking him to even overturn it, just listen to what I have to say. Don’t like, take your mask off, straight-face me and then walk away. I can’t say anything to the point of getting thrown out.” 

The Red Sox, now down two games to none, must win three games in a row to advance to the league championship series. “We’ve just got to regroup,” Beckett said. “We know what we need to do now. We can’t lose another one. A lot of guys in here have been through this. It’s not an ideal situation, but we have to win.”

Rockies Even Series; Trolleys Stun Redbirds

Friday, October 9th, 2009

The Colorado Rockies held off the rallying Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday to take the second game in their five game series, 5-4. The key for the Purples was an unlikely two run homer off the bat of catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who hadn’t had a four base knock since May. Torrealba’s knock was complemented by solid pitching from Rockies’ starter Aaron Cook and bullpen aces Jose Contreras, Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt, Franklin Morales and all-world closer Huston Street (above). The Heltons, who won during the regular season by counting on the bats of an unlikely mix of new heroes, depended on the bat of yet another unknown newcomer: in this case it was left fielder Carlos “Cargo” Gonzalez. Gonzalez — a former Showboat prospect and a throw-in in the off season Oakland-Colorado Matt Holliday-for-Huston Street trade — spent much of the last two seasons in triple-A, while Denver’s front office waited for him to pan out. Gonzalez got his chance this year, after a series of injuries made room for him in the Colorado outfield. On Thursday, the fleet Venezuelan went 3-5 to spark the otherwise sleepy Rockies’ line up.

When the Oakland A’s got Matt Holliday from the Colorado Rockies in the Huston Street trade back in November of 2008, they thought their search for a big bat was over: the Stillwater, Oklahoma native was a three time all star and three time silver slugger and he’d been named the 2007 World Series MVP. But Holliday didn’t seem to fit in in Oakland (he hit an otherwise anemic .286 with 11 home runs in 93 games), and on July 24, 2009 Oakland A’s guru Billy Beane swapped him to St. Louis for three top prospects: Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson. In St. Louis, Holliday tore the cover off the ball — hitting .353 with 13 home runs in just 63 games, and propelling the Redbirds into the post season. He was just what Tony La Russa ordered.

Holliday’s post season experience gave St. Louis the confidence they needed against L.A. With Albert Pujols and Holliday in the middle of their order and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright their big guns as starters, St. Louis was set to head into L.A. to face Joe Torre’s big bats. L.A. took the first game, with a surprisingly shaky outing by Carpenter. But St. Louis came back to dominate the second game: and it looked like the Redbirds were set to even the series at one game apiece. But with two outs in the ninth ining and St. Louis leading, the otherwise sure-handed Holliday dropped a sinking liner off the bat of first sacker James Loney to give the Dodgers new life. Casey Blake then walked and former Nats Ronnie Belliard singled home the tying run, before Mark Loretta’s short centerfield single provided the 3-2 walk off win. “It’s tough to swallow,” Holliday said after the game. “Obviously, I feel terrible. But I just missed the ball. It hit my stomach. I think I can catch a ball hit right at me.” The Trolleys now lead the series, 2-0.

Playing Hunches — and Playing Favorites

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Tom Boswell and Dave Sheinin’s sobering dual articles (“everything-has-changed-now-that-we’re-in-the-playoffs”) in yesterday’s Washington Post hasn’t kept anyone from playing hunches — or favorites. We should scatter all pretensions of predicting the future by studying statistics (or counting on hot streaks) by scattering sabermetrics to the wind. And play our hunches. Or favorites. Or both. So it is that, at least before Wednesday’s trifecta, my hunch was that Redbird Chris Carpenter would prove to be unstoppable, that the Rockies would be too hot even for Cliff Lee and that the Twinkies — riding Tuesday’s Tectonic win over the sinking Kalines — would upset the empire, even in the heart of the death star.

But, since hunches are hopes, I have been humbled by October’s cheerless realities: Chris Carpenter never looked worse, Cliff Lee never looked better and the Twinkies looked like . . .  well, they looked the Twins. But while hope might be humbled, it also springs eternal, so I’ll stick by my original predictions (which I should have made yesterday, just to make them more official): the Purples are the team to beat in the N.L., the Cardinals have the best one-two pitching punch in the playoffs (Adam Wainwright — below — will win tonight), the Twins can be the surprise team of the junior circuit and (yet to be decided) “the nation” doesn’t have a prayer against the Belinskis.  

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Good news for Nats fans! The Phish have re-upped with manager Fredi Gonzalez. Actually, what’s shocking is that Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria was considering dumping Gonzalez for not making the playoffs, even though Gonzalez was managing a franchise with the lowest payroll in baseball . . . Even better news (and this time, seriously) – is that Mets G.M. Omar Minaya still has his job! though a source on the team says that were it not for his three year extension (signed in October 2008) he wouldn’t. Minaya is on a short string (or noose, as it were) and that, if he falls on his face, he’ll be gone. Clearly, patience is running out in New York, and most particularly among its most avid fans. Our buddy-buds at NL East Chatter are running a whole chatter on “What Happens to Omar Now?” The answer is: nothing. At least not yet . . . 73 percent of those responding to an NL East Chatter poll answer the question as follows: “we are having the same damn discussion next year” . . .

Connor Tapp (the voice at Braves Baseball Blog) has some interesting things to say about what the Tomahawks should do in the off-season. He doesn’t mince words, saying that if Frank Wren resigns Garret Anderson “I might become a Mets fan.” That seems awfully dramatic, but I know what he means: if Mike Rizzo resigns Austin Kearns I might become a Braves fan. We here at CFG note that there is a hole in Tapp’s entries between August 25 and October 6: corresponding (very roughly) to those dates during which which our beloved Nats swept the Braves in three. It is onto such thin reeds that drowning men (and fans of last place baseball teams) grasp . . . Meanwhile, our friends at Phillies Phandom are having a field day (so to speak). The Phuzzies should be confident: they haven’t lost a home playoff game in two seasons.

Redding, Mets Dump Nats

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

If you were to name former Nats’ players who might come back to haunt their old team, you might nominate several: the Belinski’s star slugger and former Expo Vlad Guerrero, Royals outfielder Jose Guillen (okay, well maybe not), perhaps even outfielder Ryan Church of the Atlanta Braves. There are others, and lots of them. But Tim Redding? The Nats gave up on Redding after the end of last season, after the right hander had put in two so-so years in Washington: he was 3-6 in 2007, 10-11 in 2008. The Mets needed arms so they signed him. But he has struggled for the Chokes, with a record that reflects his worst year in D.C. along with an elevated 5.25 ERA. But on Saturday, Redding might well have pitched the game of his life, dueling D.C. ace John Lannan through seven complete while giving up only four hits and one run. Redding kept the Nats off the board long enough to allow the Mets to score enough runs to squeeze out a 3-2 victory that turned (as pitchers’ duels often turn) on a misplay in the field. In the case of the Nats, it was a misjudged liner hit at rookie Ian Desmond, who was starting his first game in right field. Redding’s outing and Desmond’s miscue were the headline news of the day, though Lannan gave up only five hits with Tyler Clippard nearly perfect in relief.

Redding pitched well, brilliantly in fact, but — as always — Nats fans will have trouble giving the former Anacostia Nine righty full credit for the win. Our preferred method is to point out that Nats’ hitters returned to their slumping ways, reverting to the stretch against Philly that saw them flailing against the likes of Hamels and Lee. The previous game, when Zimmerman and Willingham finally unwrapped the lumber, was little solace: the Nats are stuck in a drought of magnificent proportions, with Tim Redding only the most current beneficiary. Others, too many others, have come before. The Nats squeezed out a measly five hits against the Chokes, scoring only two runs. It was hardly a palliative that Adam Dunn plated RBI 100, or that Josh Bard continued to knock the ball. The Nats have to unlimber the wood against guys like Redding, and they failed to do that on Saturday — and, as has happened too often this season, John Lannen suffered.

Down On Half Street: CFG contributor DWilly — in the midst of a typically male gathering several nights ago — castigated one of our blog’s contributors for “going easy” on Nats’ owners. “I’m a season ticket holder,” he said, “and I have to tell you my patience is giving out. You’ve been nice to them, a lot nicer than I would be.” He put his index finger and thumb together to display his lack of patience: “I’m this close,” he said. (Nods all round to that.) But, you know, lots of fans are “this close.” But just when I thought he would go on and on, listing the original sin of the team’s owners — which are many and varied — he closed the conversation with two words (and a re-raise): “Juan Rivera.”

Juan Rivera? Was Juan Rivera once a part of the franchise? Really?

Oh yes, he certainly was. I should have remembered. The current 30-year-old Belinski outfielder and DH is a human highlight film — and having the kind of year that he did in 2006, when he hit .310 and logged 23 home runs. Rivera has the same kind of numbers this year, though his batting average has dipped a tad. Rivera was once a Nat — or Expo, actually — back in 2004. The then-25 year old had a good year, hitting .307 in 134 games for a last place team whose players were on their way to Washington. Rivera wasn’t: he was traded by the to-be Nats along with Maicer Izturis to the Belinskis for Jose Guillen. In the universal register of bad trades, this one is right up there: a galactically stupid move that ensured the Nats would show up in Washington with the worst team possible. You remember, don’t you?

This was when major league baseball was using the Nats as a farm system for the rest of the league and Omar “the Sultan” Minaya (who’s doing the same kind of bang up job with the Chokes that he did when he was here) was presiding over the team’s dismantling. Wouldn’t it be nice if Juan Rivera were holding down right field for the Nats? Wouldn’t it be nice to see Maicer Izturis somewhere in the infield? Wouldn’t it be grand if Austin Kearns (now gone, it seems, for good) turned into Joe Dimaggio? If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs: if we had some eggs. In the universal list of “these things are best forgotten” (world wars, continental pandemics, the melting of the ice sheets — and Expos and Nats trades) the trade of Juan Rivera is best forgotten.


Wee Willie and Ichiro

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Sometime this next week, Seattle Mariners’ right fielder Ichiro Suzuki will break William Henry “Wee Willie” Keeler’s record for most consecutive seasons with 200 or more hits. Keeler registered eight consecutive seasons of 200-plus hits from 1894 through 1901 while playing for the Dan Brouthers-John McGraw Baltimore Orioles of the then 12-team National League and American Association. Barring an unexpected injury, Ichiro will eclipse Wee Willie’s record — one of the oldest and most legendary in the game — when he plays this week against the Belinskis in Anaheim. The Mariners, and all of baseball, are aware of the moment: the Mariners’ website features an Ichiro hit counter and the MLB Network (and undoubtedly, “Baseball Tonight”) will tune in to capture the famous moment. Ichiro’s streak began in the first year he was in the majors, in 2001, and comprises a run that includes seasons of 262, 242 and 238 hits.

Baltimore Orioles Stars: (standing) Wee Willie Keeler and John McGraw (seated) outfield Joe Kelley and shortstop Hugh Jennings

Baltimore Orioles' stars: (standing) Wee Willie 'hit em where they aint" Keeler and John McGraw and (seated) outfielder Joe Kelley and shortstop Hugh Jennings

Keeler was built to hit singles: he stood only 5-4, weighed 140 pounds, was the master of the drag bunt and was fast to first. Baseball gets enough of its traditions from him to fill a small pamphlet: he authored the phrase “hit ’em where they ain’t” and was the inventor of the “Baltimore Chop” — defined by our friend Paul Dickson as “a batted ball that hits the ground close to home plate and then bounces high in the air, allowing the batter time to reach first base safely.” The tactic, perfected by Keeler, was used by the O’s of the 1890s to win three pennants. Keeler’s biggest fan might well have been Pittsburgh great Honus Wagner, who was in awe of Keeler’s skills and viewed him as one of the toughest outs in baseball: “Keeler could bunt any time he chose,” Wagner said. “If the third baseman came in for a tap, he invariably pushed the ball past the fielder. If he stayed back, he bunted. Also, he had a trick of hitting a high hopper to an infielder. The ball would bounce so high that he was across the bag before he could be stopped.”


Keeler’s “hit ’em where they ain’t” quote is a perfect reflection of the man. While the Orioles of the 1890s were a rowdy bunch — body blocking and tripping their way to some of the best records in the game prior to 1900 — Keeler remained one of the team’s quiet players. He didn’t have a lot to say. He batted sixth in a line-up of dead-ball era speedsters that included hall of fame first baseman Dan Brouthers, second baseman Heine “gapper” Reitz (who once had a season where he hit more triples than doubles) and the inimitable John Joseph McGraw, who held down third, and whose train wreck personality would later make him one of baseball’s best managers: and assure him of a place in the hall of fame. The Orioles of the 1890s were a great team: Joe Kelley would later go on to enter the hall (playing for a time with Keeler in Brooklyn before ending his career in Cincinnati and with the Braves in Boston), as would Hughie Jennings, a slick fielding shortstop and lifetime .311 hitter. In 1896, Keeler, McGraw, Kelley and Jennings sat for a portrait (slicked hair, parted in the middle, the style of that time — and all the rage) that belied their trade: young men (friends all) who just happened to be ball players. It was his legendary ability to “hit ’em where they ain’t” that made Wee Willie Keeler a legend in baseball, but breaking his record will put Ichiro in the Hall of Fame. 


Ichiro Two

J.D., Riggleman, and Dunn’s Dinger

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009


The Milwaukee Brewers came into Nationals’ Park the proud owner of a four game losing streak that had put them ten games behind the St Louis Cardinals in the NL East. The Brewers will not likely catch the Redbirds, but they must have been pleased to escape Friday night’s game at Nationals Park with a decisive 7-3 win. There was much to be proud of in the Nats’ play, except for the final score: J.D. Martin threw 6.2 innings, gave up eight hits and struck out four. Perhaps most important of all, he didn’t walk one Blatzman and gave the Nats’ bullpen a rest. His solid showing placed him firmly in line for future starts — and a potential place in a revamped 2010 rotation. But Martin gave up home runs to Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee, which proved decisive: and Brewers’ starter Braden Looper gave up four hits in six innings of work.

The most memorable moment of the day, of course, was Stephen Strasburg’s appearance at Nationals Park, where he was introduced by the front office and Nats’ All Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Nats’ fans packed the stands along the third base line to get a glimpse of the college phenom. Strasburg appeared genuinely complimented by the lavish attention and modest enough to admit that his journey to the big leagues was dependent on his own success — and the decision of the organization’s baseball people. This is amazing,” Strasburg said of the crowd. “To play at San Diego State, where we didn’t get many fans until this year, this is pretty special.” The Strasburg introduction was well-handled, a down payment on the promise made by the ownership at the all star break that things would get better for Nats fans. The Nats front office must believe the Strasburg investment has already started to pay dividends.

There were two other memorable events of the day, both important. The first was the light stand shot that Adam Dunn launched against the Brewers in the 1st inning. The home run, Dunn’s 32nd,  landed on the concourse just off the second deck in upper right field. My guess is that it was the longest dinger hit in Nationals Park. Ever. Dunn’s OBP is at .420 and after a late-July swoon, his batting average is .288. The second post-Strasburg event of note was interim manager Jim Riggleman’s praise of Nats’ fans in his post game comments after the loss to the Brewers. Riggleman seemed genuinely humbled by the fact that Nats fans are still showing up, night after night, to see major league baseball’s worst team. Riggleman noted that the players appreciate the support. Rigs has it right and it’s about time people noticed. Night after night, between 18,000 to 24,000 fans are showing up to see the Nats play. True: the high end numbers (some 30,000 or more) come to see the Red Sox or Cubs or Cardinals. But that hasn’t been true recently, when the Nats have faced the Rockies and Brewers.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Yankees-Red Sox tussle is over in Boston, with the final score 20-11. The Empire sealed the victory in the last minute with a field goal by Hideki Matsui. The Yankees drove the ball on the Red Sox with ease, picking apart their secondary. “This shows our character,” a Yankees player said after the game. “This was smash-mouth baseball all night. We were really able to get into their backfield. I just want to thank God for giving me this opportunity . . .” The Back Bay is burning: the Sawx are trailing New York in the NL East by 7.5, and are only one game ahead of the Rays in the wild card . . .

I mean, I can see why the Nats continue to play Ronnie Belliard instead of say, oh, Mike Morse. Can’t you? I mean, really, if we give Morse a chance you never know what might happen. Why, we could even lose some games. We wouldn’t want that to happen. Listen, Ronnie justs needs to get over the nervousness of playing in the big leagues. Like last night for instance: when he got picked off of first base for no damn good reason . . . The Centerfield Gate board of directors (by a very close vote) has instructed me to add three names to my list of underrated MLB Players: Naps’s outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Belinski’s outfielder Kendry Morales and Ahoys’ outfielder Garrett Jones. So who the hell is Garrett Jones? Jones is the Pirates’ new right fielder, whom the Pirates got from the Twinkies  for ah . . . well, for no one at all. Jones is the guy the Ahoys signed as a free agent after the Twins released him. Will someone please, please, please, wake up the Twins. Garrett Jones has fourteen home runs in 43 games. Every time you turn on the television, there he is, plunking another one into the stands at PNC Park. Then the three people in attendance stand and cheer as one. It’s enough to shake your lack of faith in Neal Huntington . . .

Mets Pirates Baseball

On Baseball Tonight on Friday night, Tim Kurkjian said that the Cubs might be done. What? C’mon, really? There’s forty games left. Are you sure?


John Hart’s “Sense of Urgency”

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

MLB Network’s two hour special30 Clubs/30 Report Cards — provided a good snapshot of who’s where with a little less than half-a-season left. There were few surprises: the Trolleys are the class of the National League, the Redbirds are the team to beat in the NL Central, “the Nation” and “the Empire” remain the flagships of the AL, the Belinskis finally have competition in the AL West and no one (but no one) thinks the Nats will improve. Former Rangers General Manager John Hart’s on air analysis was sobering. “I’m not going to beat a dead horse,” he said — and then went ahead with the whipping. Not only has the team little talent, but there’s little talent for Mike Rizzo to call on in the Nats’ farm system. “I don’t see a lot of good young players waiting in the wings to come up,” Hart said — a statement that debunks the sometime-narrative that the Nats’ development program will soon yield major league-ready ballplayers to the Anacostia Nine. It just ain’t so and John Hart isn’t the only one who thinks so — Baseball Prospectus ranked the Nats’ farm system 29th, which is (if you’re counting), next to last in all of baseball.

What’s so astonishing about Hart’s assessment (little talent — and none coming), is that it’s difficult to see how the team can appreciably improve in the second half. They just have to play better, no matter who’s on the field. This means, as Hart made clear, that new manager Jim Riggleman has to instill a culture of discipline and pride in the players. Easier said than done. “I really look at the fundamentals, that’s where it starts . . .” Hart said. “This is a club that fundamentally hasn’t been able to get the job done.” He added: “If you look at their pitching staff they’ve got a bunch of guys who are under 25 which is a good thing, they don’t have a lot of power in that staff, so you have to catch the ball if you’re going to compete . . . how did they get here? I think they overevaluated some of their people; I think number two, I haven’t seen a sense of urgency.”  

Hart’s assessment is the harshest I have heard, reinforcing the on-air and in-the-stands complaints about the product the front office has provided. The overriding complaint, in truth, has nothing to do with the team’s talent, but with the players’ desire to win. This is what Hart’s statement about a “sense of urgency” means: forget the on-the-field talent, the Nats are playing like they don’t care — which is the worst thing you can say about any team in any sport.

Down On Half Street: The Nats open against the North Side Drama Queens tonight at Nats Park. Next to the Nats (and the New York Chokes), the Cubs are probably the most dysfunctional team in the game. Cubs GM Jim Hendry traded away all-world utilityman Mark DeRosa, signed bad boy and galactic whiner Milton Bradley, and has continued to coddle “isn’t he cute when he’s angry” underachiever Carlos Zambrano. The baseball gods then intervened to punish Hendry: Aramis Ramirez went down with a shoulder separation, second baseman Mike Fontenot started hitting like Mike Fontenot, Alfonso Soriano started hitting like this guy and, most recently, the answer to all the Cubs woes — Geovany “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” Soto — has been sidelined due to an oblique strain.


The result is that all of baseball has gotten to see the Cubs farm system in action — and, unlike the Nats, the Cubs actually have one. Itsy-bitsy Sam Fuld has replaced Soriano in left field, drain plug Jake Fox is the interim catcher (we have an interim GM, so why not an interim catcher?), potential powerhouse Micah Hoffpauir has been able to show his stuff, oldster Randy Wells has pitched like Zambrano oughta, Kevin Hart has finally been allowed to audition for the rotation and permanent minor leaguer Bobby Scales (who?) has shown Hendry that he should have brought him up from triple-A years ago. Cubs fans have watched all of this with something akin to Jean-Paul Sarte’s view of the universe: hell is other people, or in this case — hell is Milt the Moron lofting the ball into the bleachers after two outs. “I haven’t seen that one before,” Lou said, “I’ll be honest with you . . . I mean, do we need to teach math?”

Okay: none of this is pretty, but you’ve gotta admit, it sure as hell is entertaining.

I would add this caveat. The Cubs aren’t dead. They’re a solid team and should they ever reach their potential (with a middle of the line-up order that is among the best in baseball), they’ll catch the Cardinals and end up in the playoffs. Certainly, Tony LaRussa knows that — it might be the only reason the Redbirds are willing to trade half their farm system (and — unlike the Nats — they also have one) for Roy Halladay.