Archive for the ‘New York Yankees’ Category

Espinosa Arrives, But Nats Fall

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

Danny Espinosa U.S. Futures All-Star Danny Espinosa of the Washington National fails to tag out World Futures All-Star Tyson Gillies of the Seattle Mariners as he steals second base during the 2009 XM All-Star Futures Game at Busch Stadium on July 12, 2009 the in St. Louis, Missouri.

Nationals fans got a glimpse of the team’s future double play combination on Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Danny Espinosa got the starting nod at second base. After spending most of three years in the minors (with stints in Vermont, Potomac, Harrisburg and Syracuse), Espinosa cashed in on his early-September call up by launching his first home run (in the top of the third inning) into the right field seats at PNC Park and turning a seamless double play at a position that he will play well into the future. The Desmond-Espinosa combo is likely to be the opening day up-the-middle defense for the Nats in 2011. Espinosa’s exposure at second base was the only piece of good news for the Nats on Friday night, however, as the Pirates beat up on steady starter Livan Hernandez, touching up the right hander for eight earned runs in just 4.1 innings. Hernandez was philosophical about his outing: “It’s not happening sometimes,” he said. “When it’s not your day, it’s not your day.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We had plenty of responses from readers on our posting on Albert Pujols and Lou Gehrig, including complaints that we are “N.L.-centric” and that we purposely left out “the one guy who puts Albert to shame.” The reader went on a screed, saying that “Alex Rodriguez has better numbers, plays for a better team, has more awards and plays a more difficult position” than Pujols. “Pujols is a very, very good player,” the reader said. “But he’s no Alex Rodriguez.” So we checked the numbers. Rodriguez has 604 home runs in 17 seasons (Pujols has 401 in ten), has a career BA of .303 (Pujols is at .332), has a career OBP of .387 (Pujols is at .425) and has won three MVPs — the same number as Pujols. Albert doesn’t play for the Empire, but he’s played in two World Series, while Rodriguez has played in one. Pujols lags behind Albert in games played (of course), but all that this means is that Pujols (who’s played in 1530) has about 700 games (Rodriguez has played in 2278) to catch the pride of the Gothams in career home runs — and at this rate (of about 33 per year) he will. By our reckoning (and at the current rate), when Pujols has played in 2200 games, he will have hit just over 610 homers. The reader is right: Alex Rodriguez is a great player. In fact, he’s the second best player in baseball today.

Is Buck For The Birds?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

If it weren’t so obviously cruel, we’d take this space to re-baptize the Baltimore Birds the “Showalters” — in the belief that the Orioles of the last twenty years would soon reflect the go-get-’em attitude of their new manager. But even Showalter (a veteran of turnarounds in Arizona, New York and Texas), is willing to admit that it will take more than a new manager to turn around the ailing Orioles: it will take good starting pitching, a revamped bullpen, eight fielders who know their business (and can swing a bat) — and a change in attitude that has been sorely lacking in Baltimore for the last two decades. It will take, as Showalter says, little “golden nuggets” that Showalter will sift out of the detritus that has become Baltimore’s soiled nest. “There isn’t anything too complicated about this,” Showalter said at his introductory news conference. Well, he oughta know.

Showalter comes with a reputation for being a “the ultimate baseball perfectionist” with “a militaristic attention to detail.” Not surprisingly, he’s made some enemies. In his first managing job in New York, Showalter did things his way, to the great irritation of owner George Steinbrenner. Worse yet, back in 1995 — when Steinbrenner put enormous pressure on Showalter to win, he did: but not enough for George. Then too, Showalter was getting more attention than “the Boss,” a line that Yankee managers knew they should never cross. And so it was that eventually Showalter resigned — after refusing Steinbrenner’s orders to dismiss two of his coaches. But Buck he didn’t go quietly. In the wake of his resignation, Showalter called Steinbrenner “Fidel” and said that sitting next to him on a team charter was “the worst flight I ever had.” The quotes ended up in the New York Times. Steinbrenner was enraged, though not because Showalter compared him to Castro (he probably liked that), but because he’d gotten the last word. Steinbrenner didn’t know the half of it. When “the boss” died earlier this summer, Showalter praised him, called him a friend, and then paid a compliment — to himself: “I was one of the managers he never fired. I resigned because he wanted to get rid of my coaches. He knew where people’s buttons were, and mine were loyalty to my coaches.” Rest In Peace, George.

The Steinbrenner-Showalter saga is certainly known to Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos (whom Birdland fans blame for the demise of their “once proud franchise”), so it might be considered a testament to Angelos that he would hire Showalter anyway. But Showalter’s enemy’s list (“He never even smelled a jock in the big leagues,” current Pale Hose manager Ozzie Guillen once said. “Mr. Baseball never even got a hit in Triple-A. I was a better player than him, I have more money than him and I’m better looking than him”), is complemented by more than a handful of detractors who claim that “the smartest man in the room” is overrated. These detractors point out that while Showalter is given credit for turning around the last place Arizona Diamondbacks, the real credit (they say), should actually go to D-Backs owner Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo signed Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Steve Finley to lead the team into 1999 — and into first place in the N.L. West. But this isn’t damning with faint praise, it’s faint damning with just the right praise: Showalter knew his team wasn’t going to win with Andy Benes, Alan Embree and Devon White and he made that clear to Colangelo in the off-season. The lesson is now clear; not only will Bucky get the last word, he’ll insist that you spend some money. There are worse things.

So all of this is good news, right? Well, not exactly. While Showalter was the choice of Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos, it’s not a secret that team president Andy MacPhail preferred the lower key Eric Wedge. MacPhail might have had a point — one of the reasons that former Texas Rangers’ owner Tom Hicks had problems with Showalter is because of constant complaints that Buck kept the Rangers’ clubhouse in turmoil. As soon as Showalter’s hiring was announced, the inimitable Camden Chat ran a long piece by Rangers’ blogger Adam Morse (of Lone Star Ball), who commented that “Rangers players never knew exactly where they stood with Showalter, and that he preferred it that way . . . he either wanted guys on edge, or just simply wasn’t comfortable communicating directly with the players.” MacPhail wasn’t the only one questioning Angelos’ choice. Just this morning, Orioles icon Rick Dempsey took on both Angelos and Showalter, calling the hiring “the biggest mistake made here in a long time, and I’m not talking just today, I mean over the years.” Roughly translated, what Dempsey means to say is that Angelos should have hired a manager from within. Showalter is an “outsider” — he doesn’t understand Baltimore.

So there they are, the legion of critics who think that Buck Showalter is not the second coming: George Steinbrenner, Tom Hicks, Rick Dempsey and a huge crowd of Baltimore naysayers and former players who think that a manager with “a militaristic attention to detail” and a huge ego will be bad for the Birds. As opposed to? Well, as opposed to Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Phil Regan, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley, men who presumably had no egos and could care less about details — and who led the Baltimore Orioles to precisely two postseason appearances in 27 years. These naysayers ought to listen to Orioles’ commentator Drew Forrester, one of a legion of sports gabbers that we (we here at CFG) never pay attention to. Except in this case: “This is the Orioles,” Forrester writes. “And we have about 4 players who can play. And maybe two pitchers. And a couple of other live arms that need some tutoring. Of the 25 guys on the roster right now, I can think of six I’d take on my team. I hope Showalter comes in, stomps his feet and demands better players from Angelos and MacPhail. I hope he’s a prick to deal with in the Warehouse and I hope he threatens to fight people if the roster isn’t improved and quality free agents aren’t pursued.”

Yeah, that’s right. So while Showalter has a controversial background and knows how to make enemies, he also has a history of winning. Which is hell of a lot more than you can say for either Peter Angelos or Andy MacPhail.

Hanley’s Team

Friday, July 16th, 2010

There’s something in each of us that doesn’t like a showboat. Muhammad Ali had a hard time catching on back in the early ’60s for precisely this reason and it’s why I never took to Eric Byrnes — who made several ostentatious attempts to collide with walls in pursuing deep fly balls. He once flapped his arms going backwards, just to show how hard he’d hit the bricks. Puh-leeeez. But, for some reason, showboating never bothered me when it came to Ricky Henderson or Mickey Rivers. And it doesn’t bother me when it comes to Mannywood either, though his case is a little different: Manny isn’t a showboat because he plays hard all the time and in every situation, but because he doesn’t. You can think of dozens of similar examples: I couldn’t stand Pete Rose’s “Charlie Hustle” routine, but loved it when Mark Fidrych sprinted off the mound. Fidrych was believable, Rose was showing off. Then too, I would have hated it if, say, Will Smith had done backflips at shortstop, but Ozzie Smith? Not so much.

Now then for the case of Hanley Ramirez, who is not only the most talented shortstop in the N.L., but probably the best shortstop in the N.L. Ramirez is as far from a showboat as possible, but he’s been accused of “dogging it” during games — which is widely interpreted by baseball pundits as hinting that he thinks he’s more important than the guys around him. That is, he’s a kind of showboat in reverse, an Eric Byrnes at half speed, a Mannywood of Miami. Back during the third week of May, for instance, Ramirez ran at half speed to first on an infield hit and then, the next day, he booted a ball and trotted after it . . . and after it . . . and after it. Fredi Gonzalez, the then-manager of the Marlins had had enough. He benched Ramirez and told him to apologize to the team. Cameron Maybin, Wes Helms and Dan Uggla all thought that would be a good idea. Ramirez refused. The situation was apparently cleared up after two days of sullen silence, when Fredi and Hanley “cleared the air.” Five weeks later, Gonzalez was gone.

While Ramirez has always claimed that his dust up with Gonzalez had nothing to do with his firing, you have to wonder. The Marlins have been down in the standings before and stuck with their manager. And Gonzalez was universally viewed as a top baseball strategist, all-around good guy and friend of the owner. In the end it didn’t matter. Just days after the firing, Bobby Valentine (another friend of the owner) was rumored as his “sure thing” replacement — but that never panned out. Was Valentine deep-sixed because of his view of the Ramirez situation? We can just imagine Valentine’s interview with fish owner Jeff Loria. “Hey Bobby, would you have benched Ramirez for not hustling?” And Bobby’s smiling answer: “You damn right.” The owner nods, squints, fiddles with the things on his desk and then gets up from his chair. “Thanks for coming.” As for Cameron Maybin, Wes Helms and Dan Uggla — well, they’re either headed back to the minors or they’re headed out of town.

Uncomfortable as it is, and as hard as it is to swallow, Hanley Ramirez probably has this right: he’s the best player on the team and maybe even in the NL East. And therefore (therefore), the rules that apply to Maybin, Helms and Uggla shouldn’t be applied to him. In fact, that’s what he said when asked if he’d lost respect for Gonzalez after he was benched. Yeah, he said. A little bit. “We got 24 more guys out there. Hopefully they can do the same things I can do. They’re wearing the Marlins uniform.” Here’s a rough translation: all baseball players are equal, but some are more equal than others. Or perhaps this — if you want to bench someone for dogging it, do it to a player who’s hitting .225. If Casey Stengel had actually benched Mickey Mantle for showing up for a game with a hangover (or worse), who do you think would have been out the door? And don’t claim that Hanley Ramirez is no Mickey Mantle. That’s not the point. The point is that Casey would never have benched Mantle. Ever. Because Casey knew what Gonzalez didn’t: managers don’t win batting titles.

No Surprise: The Phillies Will Grab the Flag

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Roy Halladay, Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies

The votes are in and it appears to be unanimous: the Philadelphia Phillies are the New York Yankees of the National League — or rather, the Ponies are so good that the Yanks are the Phillies of the American. It’s not exactly a secret; the Phillies are that good. If there’s any curse on the Phillies it’s simply this: they’re on the front cover of SI, which might mean that their coming campaign will fizzle. But I don’t see how. The core of Halladay, Hamels, Happ, Howard, Utley and Werth (and the addition of an admittedly overpriced Placido Polanco) makes them the odds-on favorites in the NL Least, with the Tomahawks, Fish, Nats and Apples finishing as also-rans. It won’t be close.

What’s interesting about “the Least” is not the fight for first or even second (which will go, almost by default, to Atlanta), but the fight for third. Don’t laugh. The Marlins always seem to play over their heads, as they did for a time last year — when they were all the rage for fans who think that April matters. They’ll come back to reality in 2010 (or, being the Fish, they’ll take a bunch of mugs and win the World Series). Outside of Josh Johnson (as good a pitcher as there is in baseball) and Ricky Nolasco, their front four is shakey. They’ll have to count on Burke Badenhop to step up (how likely is that?), and outfielder Chris Coughlan will have to dodge the sophomore jinx. He won’t. True: the Fish have a power infield, with one of the strongest up-the-middle combos (with Ramirez and Uggla) in the MLB. But the Nats have their own power players, and if Stephen Strasburg arrives fully ready in June (or earlier), the front four of Strasburg, Marquis, Lannan and Stammen (and Hernandez) will regularly outpitch the Fish. So, given a little luck (and a healthy and as-advertised Strasburg), the NL Least will be 1) Philadelphia, 2) Atlanta, 3) Washington, 4) Florida and 5) New York. Or it won’t — and the Nats will suffer through a not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year season, and finish fourth.

So here’s the question: what the hell is wrong with the Mets? Well . . . maybe nothing. If Jose Reyes can resurrect his best years, if Jason Bay can be in New York what he was in Boston, if David Wright can be the bopper he was in ’08, and if the New Yorkers can find someone who scares hitters even half-as-much as Johan Santana — then the “boys of slumber” can finish as high as second. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and a second act that features Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and a half-dozen question marks does not bode well for a team that, even when healthy, will have trouble winning 9-7 slugfests. This says it quite well: the Mets face “a rather inconvenient truth” — that even if healthy (which they’re not), they’re just not very good. So buckle your seat belts Mets’ fans: these are your daddy’s Mets.

As for the Nats — barring injury (there oughta be a default button for that phrase here somewhere), the Nats will bring the bats, and everything else will depend (as it always does) on pitching and defense. Both are better, but nowhere near where they should be. In our dreams Adam Dunn has a fantasy player year (of close to fifty dingers), Ryan Zimmerman becomes all-world (and finishes as a runner-up in the MVP voting), Adam Kennedy returns to form, Matt Capps becomes Joe Nathan (sans injury), and the platoon in right field is filled by someone like this guy. If that happens then anything is possible . . .

Since this is baseball, and anything is sometimes just not possible, the kind of season the Nats will have will be obvious for all to see within the season’s first twenty games. The bullpen is better, but it’s still iffy, and the team will need to find an early spark. I agree with the SI assessment: the early spark for the Nats will have to be Nyjer Morgan. A fast start for the fleet-footed center fielder will build confidence in a team that (after the 100-plus losses of ’09) sorely needs it. That means the pressure is on; Morgan will be expected to run the Nats into (instead of out of) games, and he’ll be expected to use his speed to make up for a shaky corner outfield defense. Which is simply to say: if Morgan proves to be the spark we expect, then the Nats will not only have a better 162-game outing this year than they did last, they’ll actually be a pleasure to watch. Especially when they play the Mets.

“The Heater” Vs. “Old Reliable”

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Bob Costas had Bob Feller on his baseball show last week and “the Heater from Van Meter” was as outspoken and irascible as always. And fascinating. Feller, the former Cleveland great is now 90, knows how to turn a phrase, loves baseball — and has little modesty when it comes to dropping names of the great and near-great. He spent time with the Babe (“he was the best to ever play the game,” he said) and Gehrig. The three of them would head out to the bars in New York and Ruth “would bend an elbow” and Gehrig would be drinking water and not saying very much. “We never talked about baseball,” Feller told Costas. Feller thought Ruth was a fascinating man and much beloved and never had a bad word to say about anyone.

Feller was proud that in that last great picture of Ruth (the one where he’s leaning on a bat with his head down and the crowd is around him), the bat he used was Feller’s. The Indians were playing the Yankees that day and Ruth grabbed a bat from the Cleveland dugout to steady himself and he stood there and he waved his hat and then he listened to the cheers come down and he leaned on Feller’s bat. Feller took the bat and saved it and it’s now in his museum, just off of I-81 in Van Meter, Iowa. “The Babe was a very sick man,” Feller said. “He was dead in five months.”

Like Ruth, Feller doesn’t give the impression of being very modest, but he knows the game and loves it and he has decided opinions on pitchers and hitters. He’s an admirer of Nolan Ryan (“he’s a very close friend of mine,” he told Costas) and believes Sandy Koufax (I tilted an ear to hear this and think I got it right) was the best lefty he’d ever seen and “for five years” the best pitcher in baseball. Feller should know, I suppose, but vaulting Koufax to the top of the lefty list puts him ahead of Warren Spahn and Lefty Gomez. Feller talked about his own vaunted speed, saying that he had been clocked at 107 mph — an amazing feat if true. But no one was faster than Johnson, he said. He talked about World War Two, with Costas noting that Feller’s three years off to fight the war probably cost him 300 wins — and perhaps as many as 350-360. Feller says he has no regrets. “That was one we had to win,” he said. “Studio 42” (the Costas program) showed Feller in the Navy. Feller was a part of “The Great Mariana Turkey Shoot” in the Philippine Sea in June of 1944.  “If you were killed you were a hero,” Feller said. “If you didn’t you were a survivor.”  

Feller said that the champion 1948 Indians team (on which he played) was a good team, but not nearly as good as the 1954 team that lost four straight to the New York Giants. In ’48, Feller lost a first game nail biter to Braves’ pitcher Johnny Sain and then an 11-5 blow-out to Warren Spahn. Satchell Paige relieved Feller in the blow-out and Feller talked about him. “He was 44 at the time,” he said. “He claimed he was 42 but he was 44,” and then went on to talk about the barnstorming white teams that he had put together to play the Negro Leaguers prior to baseball’s integration. Paige, he said, had a wicked fastball “but not much of a curve.” The 1954 series, a 4-0 New York Giants sweep. Feller cited Willie Mays’ catch in the first game and Giants’ pitcher Johnny Antonelli’s pitching as the reasons for the sweep. “Antonelli never pitched better in his life,” he said.

Feller’s most interesting comments, however, had to do with hitters. He was particularly outspoken — blunt really — when talking about his success against great hitters. “Gehrig couldn’t hit me,” he said, “not at all.” During the last games of 1938, Feller recounted, he put Greenberg down in order to kill whatever chance the Detroit first sacker had of breaking Ruth’s home run record. Greenberg had 58 round-trippers that year, in addition to 146 RBIs. He walked 119 times. But he couldn’t solve Feller, who issued one of the best baseball one-liners I’ve ever heard: “Hank Greenberg couldn’t hit me with an ironing board,” he said. Rapid Robert’s answer to Costa’s question about who hit him well came as something of a surprise: “Tommy Henrich,” he said, and there was an edge of defiance in his voice. The great ones couldn’t hit Feller — one of the few who mastered Gehrig — but Tommy Henrich sprayed him to all fields.

Tommy Henrich is one of those Yankees who played in the shadow of Gehrig and Ruth and DiMaggio — but he was beloved by his teammates: in part because he seemed to play harder when the Yankees were behind. He had four World Series rings with a lifetime batting average of .282 with 183 home runs. Like Feller, he took three years away from baseball during World War II. He hit .308 with 25 HRs and 100 RBI in 1948, arguably his best season. But “Old Reliable” is probably best known for his heads-up play in the 1941 Series that might have saved the series for the Yankees. With Brooklyn set to tie the series at two games apiece and leading 4-3 with two outs in the ninth, Henrich came to the plate. With the count at 3-2 he swung at strike three. But Trolley catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t handle the ball and Henrich was safe at first. Joe DiMaggio then singled, and Charlie Keller doubled to score both runners and take the lead. Joe Gordon later doubled to bring in two more runs, and the Yankees had a 7-4 victory and a 3-1 Series lead. And the Yankees went on to win the series.

Henrich was a fine ball player and a good man. He was known for his glove in the outfield, his mentoring of younger players, his deep voice and good sense of humor — and his ability to hit the heck out of Bob Feller. Feller still can’t figure it out. “It’s just one of those things.” Oddly, a mere two weeks before the Costas-Feller interview was aired, Henrich died in Dayton, Ohio. He was 96. 

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.”

Harmonica Phil

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Back in July, I took a friend – a lifelong Yankee fan — to a Nats game and we sat reminiscing about all the games we had seen as kids. My friend had grown up in New York when the Trolleys, Giants and Yankees were all the rage in baseball, so he had lots of stories: about Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Tom Tresh and the games he had seen them play. As it turned out, the game we attended resulted in one of those unlikely Nats’ victories, and near the end of the game my friend issued this judgment: “There are two good things about being here,” he said. “The first is that that Nats are winning and the second is that we haven’t heard “Sweet Caroline.” I laughed and shook my head: “I’m not a big fan of Neil Diamond,” he added, “and that song drives me nuts.” The other thing that he said that struck me came in about the 7th inning, when we were trading stories: “Remember the harmonica incident?” he asked. I blinked, trying to remember. Harmonica incident? And then it hit me: “Oh yeah, geez. Sure, I remember,” I said. “What in the hell was that guys’ name?” He smiled: “Phil Linz,” he said. And then he told me the story.

Back in the late summer of 1964, Phil Linz was a utility infielder with a Yankees team that was struggling to win its fifth consecutive pennant. Locked in pennant race with the pitching heavy White Sox and upstart Orioles, the Yankees were in chaos: Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Tony Kubek were battling injuries — and new Bombers’ manager Yogi Berra was having trouble in the clubhouse. The problems had started in spring training, when Berra (who was picked by Yankee owner Dan Topping to replace Ralph Houk — that icon, that marble man), decided that he would set down some rules for how he expected the Bombers to behave. Yogi laid out the rules during his first clubhouse meeting, but when he finished his talk the sound of a scraping chair came from the back of the room. Mantle got up, threw up his arms, and shouted: “I quit” and pretended to stalk from the room. His teammates roared with laughter and Yogi smiled — but the tone for the season was set. The Yankees played horribly and by the end of August they were four games behind the surging Orioles and Pale Hose.

In mid-August, the Yankees made a key midwest swing, traveling to Minnesota for a set against the Twins, before moving on to Chicago to play the Pale Hose. The Twins series would be tough, but there was every expectation the Yankees would triumph in Chicago: they had already beaten the White Sox in ten consecutive games during the season. As Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson would later tell it, in Minnesota he and Tony Kubek (two of the Yankees self proclaimed “milk shake boys”) visited the U.S. headquarters of Billy Graham’s ministries, where they were given a set of chorus books that Graham used in his “crusades.” Richardson (“the Right Reverend Richardson,” to his Yankee teammates) grabbed some of the chorus books and when he and Kubek returned to their Minneapolis hotel room they decided to sing some of the hymns. They were joined by Spud Murray, the batting practice pitcher — who brought his harmonica. The three sang for several hours and two days later, while the team was in Chicago, Kubek went out and bought four harmonicas — one for himself, one for Richardson and one for Tom Tresh. He gave the fourth one to Phil Linz.

As it turned out, the Yankees were swept by the Pale Hose in four games and seemed finished for the season. When the Bombers boarded their bus after the last loss, Berra (whose job was in danger), didn’t feel like celebrating. But in the back of the bus, Phil Linz broke out his harmonica and started to play. He was just learning and was following the instructions in a book that came with his instrument: “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” As Richardson later remembered: “So now we lost the four games in Chicago, and Phil — who didn’t play an inning of any of those games — was in the back of the bus and decided to choose this time to learn how to play the harmonica. When Yogi heard him, he jumped up and yelled: ‘Put that thing in your pocket.’ Unfortunately, Linz didn’t hear him and when he asked what Yogi had said, Mantle, who was sitting across the aisle, yelled: ‘He said to play it louder.’ So Phil kept playing and this time, Yogi jumped up and he was really mad. He grabbed the harmonica and threw it and it hit Pepitone, who started screaming for the trainer.” The bus broke out in gales of laughter — but Berra didn’t think it was funny. Enraged, he returned to his seat.

Inevitably, the incident reached the New York papers. It was a huge story and viewed as emblamatic of the Yankees’ troubles — and of Berra’s inability to handle the team. “In the end,” Richardson relates, “Yogi had the last laugh. The team got together after that and rallied to win the pennant. I think we went 22-6 in September to finish a game ahead of the White Sox.” The Yankees faced the Cardinals in the ’64 Series and lost in seven, but despite their late season success, Yogi was finished. The harmonica incident had convinced Yankees’ owner Dan Topping that Berra couldn’t handle the team and after the season he was fired — and replaced by Cardinals manager Johnny Keane.

After retiring from baseball, Kubek became a television broadcaster and active Wisconsin Democrat. In 1976, when his friend Bobby Richardson (who had become a minister) was a candidate for a Congressional seat in South Carolina, Kubek refused to campaign for him. Phil Linz did not have as nearly as good as a career in baseball as either Kubek or Richardson (.235 BA in seven years), but his dust-up with Berra made his reputation: after the incident was made public, Linz was offered offered $5000 by the Hohner Company to promote their harmonica and after the season he made so much money on the banquet circuit (telling the story) that he was able to open a successful New York bar. “Yogi never held it against me,” Linz says. “All my jobs have been because of that; people remember me because of that one incident. I only hit eleven home runs my whole career, you know, but I’m in all the books and all that.”

Nats Spear Marlins . . . Jeter, Ichiro and BBTN

Monday, September 14th, 2009

The Washington Nationals authored a decisive 7-2 spearing of the Florida Marlins on Sunday, through a combination of stellar starthing pitching and timely hitting. After a long rain delay, Nats’s starter John Lannan dominated the Marlins’ bats through five complete innings, holding the Miami Nine to six hits while striking out three. Reliever Tyler Clippard was, if anything, even more effective (holding the Marlins to one hit over two innings), before Jason Bergman closed out the game. Nats hitters accounted for five hits over unsteady Marlins’ starter Chris Volstad, with the big blows from the bats of Pete Orr and Elijah Dukes. The win boosted Lannan’s record to 9-11, while giving a needed infusion of confidence to Nationals’ hitters, whose bats wer unable to master Florida pitching on Saturday. The 7-2 win gave the Nats the series victory in Florida, three games to two.

Down On Half Street: Derek Jeter recorded his 2,722nd hit on Friday, passing Lou Gehrig for the most hits in Yankees franchise history. Jeter’s landmark hit was properly extolled in the New York and baseball media and we have to give credit where credit is due – there’s no doubt that the Yankees shortstop will end his career by being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and have a plaque dedicated to his accomplishments out in Yankee Stadium’s monument park. Even so, in the wake of Jeter’s accomplishment, “Baseball Tonight” commentator Steven Berthiaume felt compelled to ask his guests (Orestes Destrade, Eric Young and Buster Olney) whether BBTN was paying too much attention to the Jeter record “just because he’s a Yankee.” Absolutely not, the trio intoned: Jeter’s mark symbolizes his undisputed place in baseball history and puts him on “the Mt. Rushmore of Yankee greats . . .”  

Well, maybe. But, if you have to ask the question in the first place . . .

 

The Berthiaume question keeps coming up: is “Baseball Tonight” too much of a Boston and New York and east coast-oriented show, with too little focus on west coast teams and west coast match-ups? The producers at BBTN probably have something to say about this — and some of it might even make sense. New York probably provides the largest audience of ESPN viewers and “Baseball Tonight” often (but not always) ends too soon to do a report on west coast scores, particularly if those games run into extra innings. Then too, I’ll just bet that somewhere there’s an internal BBTN memo that says that when Berthiaume and crew lead the broadcast with news about the Padres or A’s, people change channels. Whether we like it or not, the Yankees are of abiding interest (even to fans outside of New York) and the Jeter record is probably more important to the average viewer than, say, the fact that Ryan Howard eclipsed the Phillies’ grand slam home run mark set by Mike Schmidt.  

But if the producers of “Baseball Tonight” are hammered for being “homers” for the Yanks and Red Sox (and the Mets, too, when they don’t stink), it’s only because they often deserve it. Last week the CFG brain trust was convinced that Ichiro would finally get the attention he deserves when he broke one of baseball’s nearly untouchable records: the number of consecutive seasons with 200 or more hits. But that’s not what happened. When Ichiro broke Wee Willie Keeler’s record on Sunday night, ESPN was busy covering the games of another sport while ESPN’s flagship sports reporting program, “SportsCenter,” barely mentioned the accomplishment. But while Baseball Tonight can thereby be excused for their seeming lack of interest, baseball’s pundit class took an “oh and by the way” attitude to Ichiro’s accomplishment in the days leading up to his record breaking infield single on Sunday night. Yankees fans might take umbrage at all of this: that Ichiro is not Jeter, that Ichiro’s record is hardly of the same class as Jeter’s and . . . and that you can’t really compare “Wee Willie” to the “The Iron Horse.” Some of this might be true, but not all of it. While Gehrig was a better ball player than Keeler, the two records are vastly different: Jeter’s record is a team record, while Ichiro’s will reside at Cooperstown.

Nats Defang Rattlers; Win Streak At 8

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

The Washington Nationals swept the three game series against the Diamondbacks, with a decisive 9-2 skinning of the rattlers on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park. The victory followed a thrilling 5-2 win on Saturday. The Nats have now won eight in a row and will get a day off before embarking on a semi-extended road trip. In both of the last two games an otherwise shakey starting rotation provided consistent outings — with Garrett Mock beating Dan Heren on Saturday and J.D. Martin besting Yusmeiro Petit on Sunday. It was both Mock and Martin’s first major league victories. Mock and Martin were not overpowering, but they were good enough to allow Nats’ interim manager Jim Riggleman to mix-and-match a bullpen that had been putting in extra innings. The Nats bats continue to heat up: Adam Dunn hit his 30th home run on Sunday, Ryan Zimmerman went 3-5, and Alberto Gonzalez seems to be rediscovering his swing — he went 2-4 on Sunday.

The bats of Dunn, Guzman, Zimmerman, Morgan and Willingham — at the heart of the Nats’ order — figured big in both games: accounting for six of Washington’s eight hits on Saturday and nine of 16 hits on Sunday. But the key to Washington’s sweep of the Diamondbacks may well have been Elijah Dukes, who notched ten RBIs of a total of 21 runs the ballclub scored. Dukes unlikely resurgence makes up, at least in part, for the departure of Nick Johnson to the Marlins. Equally impressive was the Nats’ newest find: reliever Jorge Sosa. The former Braves, Cardinals and Mets journeyman pitched 2.1 innings on Sunday, which followed a one inning no-hit-no-run relief effort on Saturday. It’s clear that the deceptive Sosa has found a place at the back of the Nats’ bullpen. He may even vie, at some point, with Mike MacDougal for the closers’ role.

Why are the Nats suddenly playing so well . . .? The answer seems obvious: good pitching, timely hitting, good defense. All that. For sure. But then, you know (and, I mean, this is just a suggestion) it’s pretty hard to ignore the role played by this guy:

Riggleman

Down On Half Street: The Boston Globe is reporting that the Boston Red Sox, reeling from their slapping at the hands of the New York Gothams, have reportedly put a claim in on Nationals’ shortstop Cristian Guzman, who has been placed on waivers. The Nats can either pull Guzman back, let him go, or work out a deal sometime in the next 48 hours. The Red Sox have had trouble filling their hole at short — Julio Lugo is gone to St. Louis and Jed Lowrie is on the DL . . . I haven’t met a Sox fan yet who isn’t absolutely ecstatic about getting rid of Lugo: “thank God he’s gone,” they say. And you can see why. I mean, his replacement (the aforementioned) is like “the second coming” of the second coming: except that he’s hitting .143. Oh no, what will they do without him? . . . Hey, maybe they should trade Clay “can miss” Buchholz (ERA: 5.33) and a boatload of other “can’t miss” players for Roy Halladay, who’s only the best pitcher in baseball . . ..  Nahhhhhh .   

We are pleased to announce that there’ll be a twenty minute special report on Lowrie’s status on Boston Red Sox “Baseball Tonight,” right after the fifteen minute special on David Ortiz (which follows the sixteen minutes on the Bosox vs. the Bronx series, which is the single most important baseball series this year — not counting the Angels-Rangers tilt going on right now too, of course), so be sure to stay tuned for that compelling report . . . and, oh yes, later on in the program, we’ll be presenting our special segment, “that’s not television, that’s boring”  . . . speaking of the DL. It could be bad news for Nats’ starter Jordan Zimmermann, who is experiencing continued elbow soreness. He is scheduled to have x-rays of the elbow examined further on Monday by the nation’s leading baseball orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. Andrews isn’t examing the elbow, mind you, he’s so good all he needs to do is look at the x-rays. In any event, this is not good news . . . but hey, here’s my question and it’s damned important: do you think that Joba Chamberlain should stay as a starter, or go back to the bullpen? huh? huh? huh? do ya? do ya? do ya? . . .

Blows Against The Empire . . .

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Was the name of a 1960s rock and roll album, but it has now been eclipsed by perhaps the best game played by the Nats this year, and that too against the Yankees. But wait, the near-perfect game was near-perfect in nearly every way: there was a rain delay (which is pure Nats), both the starting pitching and bullpen showed up on the same day, and instead of going long the Nats relied on timely hitting to plate runs when they needed them. For one game, at least, the Anacostia Boy looked like — well, they looked like the Yankees. The final, a 3-0 waxing, vindicated the faith that Manny has shown in Craig Stammen, who gave up six hits, but spaced them out enough to 6 1/3 and pitch a shutout. Then the miracle: four relievers, one hit, three holds and a save. The game ball goes to Stammen.

129699_pirates_nationals_baseball

You all — my fan favorites — should note that I received via special wire, updates on the game nearly hourly while traveling the globe. So here is what me droog, Tom, wrote of the game. ”It is a nearly perfect description: Check the internet for tonight’s box score from the Bronx. It is a beautiful thing. My god they looked really good tonight. Like a freaking team tht knows how to play. Five diving defensive plays and a shutout. Best of all, they didn’t look star struck as they were sticking it to the Yanks. They looked like ball players look when they’re good and they know they’re good Game faces all around and simple high fives and nods at the end of the game. Nothing over the top. They may have just saved Manny’s job.”