Posts Tagged ‘cincinnati reds’

Livan Tames Reds

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Backed by a ten hit and seven run attack, Livan Hernandez pitched his second complete game of the season, as the Washington Nationals notched a split of their four game series in Cincinnati. The Nats 7-1 victory compensated, at least in part, for the paucity of hits and runs the team suffered in both Miami and Cincinnati over the last seven games. Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina homered for the Nats, as Nyjer Morgan and Willie Harris finally seemed poised to break out of their respective slumps. But the story on Thursday was the work of Hernandez, who picked up five strikeouts while holding the Reds to just seven hits. Hernandez was masterful: he threw 102 pitches, 79 of them for strikes. The complete game gave the Nats’ bullpen a needed rest, as the team now heads into Milwaukee for a three game set against the suddenly average Brew Crew.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Ralph Houk, who died on Wednesday, was once one of the giants of the game. It’s not that Houk was that good a player — he appeared in only 91 games over eight seasons, but he managed the New York Yankees in 1961, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris made home run headlines. Houk steered the Yankees through some of their most successful campaigns. Under Houk’s leadership the Yankees won 109, 94 and 104 games — taking two world series (against the Red in ’61 and the Giants in ’62). He went on to manage the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox before becoming a vice president of the Minnesota Twins. He was renowned for his temper, though former Yankees’ testify that he knew how to handle a team. He had enormous influence on future managers Bobby Cox and Tommy Lasorda. “I remember what a tough guy he was,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said upon hearing of his death. But Houk was also a student of the game, showing up hours before the first pitch to study line-ups and statistics.

Houk’s tough guy demeanor was well earned. He had a fearsome temper and was called “the Major,” an affectionate term that also accurately described his wartime experiences. Houk was a minor league catcher in the South Atlantic League when World War Two began. He put down his mitt and was mustered into the army as a private in February of 1942. He was picked for officers’ candidate school at Fort Knox and was deployed to Europe with the 9th Armored Division. Houk was a better soldier than baseball player: he landed at Omaha Beach, served during the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the first American soldiers to cross the Remagen Bridge into Germany. “I sent him on three missions in April of 1945 and one day he returned with nine prisoners of war,” a senior American officer later recalled.  “His reports invariably had an undetermined number of enemy killed.” Houk earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart during the war. To the last day of his life he kept the helmut he had worn as a young lieutenant when he landed on Omaha Beach. It had a bullet hole in it. He died in Florida at the age of 90.

“One Long, Losing Slog”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The Nats 7-2 loss in Cincinnati on Monday night might have been averted — of only the Nats had hit, pitched and fielded like a major league team. The defeat stretched the Nats losing streak to three games and means that the Nats have now lost six of their last eight. Reaching the .500 mark, which might have been hoped for in April and even in May, now seems a distant and fantastical dream, as the team struggles to find its legs. The losing spiral sparked Washington Post sportswriter Adam Kilgore to describe the Nats season of hope as “one long, losing slog.” That seems about right. So too the team itself seems infected by frustration: “We do have a great lineup. We just can’t get everyone hot at the same time,” Adam Dunn said after he loss. “It seems like we haven’t had two guys hot at the same time. If Guzzie is hot, then me and Zim aren’t hot. And then if Zim is hot, we are not. It’s bad timing, really. I don’t know how else to put it.” Luis Atilano is set to face Cincinnati rookie sensation Mike Leake tonight at The Great American Ballpark.

It’s Not A Motorcycle Baby, It’s A Chopper: On this day in 1958, Tiger’s ace Jim Bunning threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox, clinching a victory in a 3-0 contest. Bunning seemed to have Boston’s number — he once struck out Ted Williams three times in one game (also in 1958), spurring “The Splendid Splinter” to rip off his jersey (buttons popping) and throw it to the clubhouse floor: “I’ll get you Bunning,” he said and began searching for a schedule to determine when he’d face him again. Baseball legend has it that Williams hated Bunning so much that he would use him as a foil during batting practice, leaning into the ball and swinging as he yelled “here comes Jim Bunning. Jim F — ing Bunning and that little shit slider of his.” Williams little trick didn’t seem to work: Bunning struck out Williams more than any other player.

The key to Bunning’s success was a sidearm slider, a pitch he could control from nearly any angle. It fooled Williams, as it did nearly everyone else. Bunning led the league in strikeouts in 1959 and 1960 (with 201 each year), while gaining a reputation as one of the most durable pitchers around (he was regularly in the top five in the A.L in innings pitched). He never seemed to get injured. The oddest thing about Bunning’s career came after his greatest success: in 1963, the Tigers trades Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran outfielder Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton, a fireballing reliever with a lot of promise. It was a forgettable trade, one of the worst in Detroit history. Demeter was just okay, while Hamilton was slowed by arm injuries. While never living up to his promise, Hamilton became a kind of legend: in 1967 he threw a pitch to Boston’s Tony Conigliaro that shattered the upper left side of Conigliaro’s face and ended his career. It also ended Hamilton’s. The fireballer lost his speed after the incident, as well as his willingness to pitch inside. He left baseball and now runs a restaurant in Missouri.

Bunning’s fate was quite different. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1964 as the great new hope — the pitcher who would put the perennial losers at the top of the National League. He damn near did. The Phillies had a great line-up in ’64, led by power hitters Dick Allen and Johnny Callison and a slick defense centered on catcher Clay Dalrymple, second sacker Tony Taylor and slap hitting expert Bobby Wine (another one of those obnoxious little “pepper pots”). Bunning was complemented by starter Chris Short (a pitcher of almost unbelievable promise), Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp. The Tigers might have gotten a hint of the mistake they’d made when Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets on June 21, and the big righty went on to notch a remarkable 19-8 record.

But if Bunning was a success, his team wasn’t. 1964 was the year of “The Foldin’ Phillies” — as the ponies lost ten in a row and a seven game lead with 17 games to play. Phillies manager Gene Mauch panicked in the midst of this debacle — pitching Bunning in three games in seven days: Bunning lost all of them. Philadelphia dog-paddled its way into second place, while St. Louis passed them at a full sprint. It was the worst fold in major league history, until the Mets eclipsed it in 2007. The Phillies ’64 cataclysm seemed to unhinge the team in the years that followed, haunting Dick Allen’s successors who struggled, and struggled and struggled. But “Big Jim” Bunning continued to thrive, accounting for 70 wins over the next four years. Never mind: the Phils sputtered along, never quite putting it together again until 1980 — when they won a World Series. Their first.

After his stint in Philly, Bunning went on to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before ending up in the Hall of Fame (it was a vote of the veterans committee that finally confirmed his entry)  and the U.S. Senate, where he now serves as a controversial and conservative voice from Kentucky. He retains the reputation he gained from his years on the mound, as a head hunting foul-mouthed lug whose stock-in-trade was a quickie under the chin — he led the N.L. in hit batters all four of his years in Philadelphia and was widely loathed for his beanball habits. Bunning’s critics say he hasn’t changed: he remains a ramrod straight, if somewhat embarrassing figure. When asked to describe Bunning’s legislative prowess, the late Senator Robert Byrd thought for a minute before issuing his praise: “a great baseball man.” But the people of Kentucky seem to love him, voting him back to his Senate seat every six years. Then too, even if Bunning is as controversial now as he was in Detroit and Philly, there is little doubt that he once threw one of the best, if not the best, slider in the game. At least that’s what Ted Williams thought.

John, Paul, George, Ringo . . . And Jim

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Oddly (but not unreasonably), the name Jim Maloney has always been associated in my mind with “The Dave Clark Five” — the North London rock band that, for a short time, gave “The Beatles” a run for their money. The DC5, as they were called, had a number of hits (“Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces,” “Anyway You Want It”) and a solid following, particularly among those (and there were some) who thought “The Beatles” were over hyped, over exposed, foppish and a tad too popular. Maloney was that way: the big Cincinnati right hander was one of the best pitchers in baseball during the same year (1964) that the DC5 reached the peak of their popularity, though he was bound to be left out among all the oohing and ahhing reserved for the big four of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. History is the best judge: Big Jim could never compete for space against Sandy, Don, Bob and Juan any more than Dave Clark could garner the same attention as John, Paul, George and Ringo. Tsk. Tsk.

I remember watching Maloney pitch the front end of a double header in Milwaukee in the deep summer of ’64. It was the week following the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in the Congress, and two weeks after the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered in Mississippi. But while at least some of the country was focused on war and civil rights, a large number of people in Milwaukee were focused on the August Braves-Reds match-up. The Braves-Reds tilt, it was thought, would determine whether the Braves would contend for the pennant. All of Milwaukee was atwitter with talk about how the Braves front four would match-up perfectly against the mighty Reds — and for good reason. The Braves front four consisted of a legend (Warren Spahn) and three savvy nose-in-the-dirt youngsters: Tony Cloninger, Denny LeMaster and Hank Fischer. Spahn was faltering then, but never mind: Wade Blasingame could come in to spell him in odd starts, and the 20-year-old was something to behold.

The only problem was that Cincinnati’s front four was even more formidable. Jim Maloney anchored the staff, which consisted of Jim O’Toole, Bob Purkey and Joey Jay. If that wasn’t enough, Joe Nuxhall was still kicking around (at the age of 35) and Sammy Ellis was an intimidating presence in the bullpen. The Redlegs’ starting nine was a terrifying mix of heavy lumber and hit-em-to-all-fields stars that included the underrated Vada Pinson, the man-for-all-seasons Frank Robinson and a young Pete Rose. But the real deal on the mound for the Reds was Jim Maloney, a brute of a pitcher whose up-and-in 95-plus fastball was nearly unhittable. Maloney, then all of 24, had just come off a 23-win season, with a sparkling ERA of 2.77. His ’64 season looked like much the same, though he wasn’t as well-supported as he had been the year before. While Maloney’s best games were still a year away (he pitched three no hitters in his career — and won only two of them), he was the one guy who could sink the Braves’ hopes for a World Series match-up. Which is exactly what he did.

But not with his arm.

Memories are strange things, allowing us snapshots of the past — and rarely a comprehensive account, or anything resembling a “film.” So it is that I recall that back in the deep summer of 1964 (and as I sat on the first base side of Milwaukee County Stadium) the great Cloninger-Maloney duel to decide the National League Pennant wasn’t a duel at all. It was an artillery barrage, led by none other than Maloney, a hulking presence, a converted Fresno, California shortstop whom the Reds transformed into a fastball ace because he couldn’t hit a lick. Except (of course) for that day in Milwaukee. And here’s the snapshot: in the sixth inning of the first game, with the bases loaded, Maloney came to the plate (a sure out) and swung his bat through the strike zone (click) and sent the ball sailing high and deep (I can see it still) into the bleachers in left field. It was a Jim Maloney grand slam — the only home run he hit that year and it sent all of Milwaukee into mourning (I swear, I thought Cloninger was going to have a stroke). Suddenly (but certainly, for that is how these things are) and though it was only the first game of the double header, the Braves were d-e-a-d Dead, Dead, Dead for 1964. The second game (as I recall) was all Vada Pinson and ended up a Reds win, but it hardly mattered. By then, Milwaukee fans knew for sure that at least for 1964 (which saw a legendary Phillies collapse) the Braves would not win the pennant.

Jim Maloney is one of those great forgotten pitchers. In June of 1965 he threw a ten inning no hitter and lost, giving up a home run in the 11th. He struck out 18 — still a Reds record — but he took the loss. In August of 1965, Maloney did it again, throwing another 10 inning no hitter, while striking out eight. This time he won. He wasn’t finished; after successive one hitters through ’65, ’66 and ’67 — years in which he battled an increasingly sore arm — he pitched a no hitter on May 13 of 1969 against the Astros. It might have been his best game. In 1970, Sparky Anderson took over as Cincinnati’s manager and inaugurated an era of Red baseball victories. But by then Maloney’s shoulder (and achilles tendon) had exploded. He was shipped to California, in an attempt to revive his career as an Angel, but it was too late, and in 1971 he retired. Maloney — the Dave Clark of pitchers — was only 31.

Nats Drop 2 of 3; Stammen Demoted

Monday, June 7th, 2010

The Washington Nationals dropped an ten inning contest to the Cincinnati Reds 5-4 on Sunday, losing two of three to the surging Concepcions. The Nats have now lost ten of their last fourteen and have dropped to four games under .500. The Sunday loss was particularly painful, as usually reliable Nats reliever Matt Capps dropped a winnable save in the ninth, while Doug Slaten gave up two unnecessary singles in the tenth to provide an exclamation to the collapse. Nats starter Craig Stammen pitched well, hurling six-and-two-thirds innings, while allowing one run. But Stammen’s effort was not enough to save his job with the big club: after the game he was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse to make room for Stephen Strasburg, who will start on Tuesday against the Pirates.

Stammen was philosophical about his demotion. “The proof is in the pudding. I knew I was kind of one of the guys in line for [the demotion],” he said after hearing the news. “I haven’t been very consistent and it’s just the way it is. To pitch in the big leagues, you can’t really worry about if you are going to get sent down or staying or going or eating cheese for lunch. You have to be able to get guys out.” It has been known for some time that Strasburg’s arrival would mean the demotion of someone in the starting rotation — and the decision came down to one between Stammen, J.D. Martin or Luis Atilano. Outside of Stammen, the continuing big story of the Nats is the inability of Matt Capps to get out of the ninth with a win. Once again on Sunday, Capps found himself in a save situation that he couldn’t complete. Capps entered the contest with one out in the ninth, but gave up successive doubles to account for the blown save, his fourth of the year. “I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t very good,” Capps said following the contest.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Bill Ladson has the Nats “leaning” towards drafting big bat catcher/outfielder Bryce Harper with the first pick in today’s first year player draft. While Harper is only 17, his bat is so good that he’s become the prohibitive favorite — and has been called “the greatest amateur player of all time.” So, as most Nats blogs agree, Harper is the pick: Nationals Farm Authority (who are good at predicting these kinds of things) says that Harper is “a lead pipe cinch,” while detailing the top ten prospects in the lottery. Meanwhile, back on June 3, Nationals Enquirer published a video of Harper’s ejection from a recent junior college game. The rap on Harper has been that he has a bad attitude, but the report seems more rumor than fact. Then too, if being ejected from a game were cause to question a person’s character, there wouldn’t be many draftees eligible. Even so, over at Capital Punishment they’re worried about the attitude question and meticulously rework worries about Harper’s swing. CP says that Harper is no “sure thing.” Too true.

The Nats-Reds “Scrum”

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

In the long history of a full season, Saturday’s loss will go down as just another statistical digit — but the 5-1 struggle that pitted the Washington Nationals against the central division-leading Cincinnati Reds may well mark a turning point in the Nats season. Or, at least, that’s the hope. Following the game (which featured enough oddities to ensure endless entertainment for the 25,000 souls who watched it at Nationals Park), Nats skipper Jim Riggleman seemed oddly upbeat, stressing that the pure gamesmanship of the Anacostia Nine provided convincing evidence that the Nats can play with — and beat — any team in the majors. That wasn’t true last year.

The facts of the game are this: Nats starter Luis Atilano pitched well enough to raise the argument that when “the phenom” arrives, he should stay (seven complete, six hits, one earned), Washington hitters battled hard (seven hits in all and numerous scoring opportunities) against a rising Reds star who seemed oddly masterful on the mound, and the team successfully scrummed through a puzzling interference call on Ian Desmond and a bone-crushing collision between Cincinnati second sacker Brandon Phillips and D.C. backstop Wil Nieves, that left Phillips to fist pump his courageous ability to elbow a player caught flat-footed and undefended. It was the response to that among Nats fans that finally seemed to congeal the kind of loyalty that Riggleman & Company so prize: Miguel Batista got a high sign from Ivan Rodriguez on the bench (a raised eyebrow and then a nod) and plunked the more-than-deserving Phillips with a 89 mph fastball. (We once doubted Miguel’s abilities: now he can do no wrong.) As Phillips slogged to first, Batista walked proudly from the mound — even before he was tossed by the inimitable (and unstable) Joe West.

Nats fans, who awaited the moment with patience, rose to cheer.

Following the game, the back-and-forth between the Nats and Reds (the interference call, the subsequent ejection of Riggleman, the Phillips-Nieves collision and subsequent fist-pumping — and then the Batista retaliation) elicited enough interest to anesthetize an elephant. This was all, well, par for the course. At least in baseball. “I just go out there and play the game of baseball the way I know how,” Phillips said. “I just play with a lot of excitement. I didn’t see anything wrong with what I did. If people think I did something wrong, I apologize to whoever thinks so, but it’s baseball.” Batista shrugged:  “It was just playing baseball,” he said. “Everyone who knows Phillips, you have to go way in and way out.” Perhaps, but Nats fans filing past the Navy Yard Metro could at least salve their 5-1 feelings with this palliative: if Dusty’s talented boys think they can win through intimidation, the likes of Miguel Batista will show them otherwise.

Nats Return After Dropping Five

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

John Lannan held the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs in six innings (one of his most solid outings of the season), but it wasn’t enough as the punchless Nats lost their fifth straight on the road. The Nats return to Washington today to face the Metropolitans in a two game set, which will be followed by the “Battle of the Beltways” — a three game series against the league poorest Baltimore Orioles. Despite the loss, Lannan’s outing against the Redbirds must have brought a sigh of relief to the Nats brain trust, as the young lefty is a mainstay of the Washington rotation. With Jason Marquis down for at least the next several weeks (and with Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano still finding their way in the majors), Livan Hernandez and a revived Scott Olsen would have been the only two absolutely dependable starters in the Nats’ rotation if Lannan had continued to struggle.

In spite of the five game skid, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman focused on Lannan’s positives. “He pitched good,” Riggleman said. “I’m really encouraged that he was out there and pitched in that 100-pitch range pain-free. He’s kind of had an issue or two. We bumped him a start and all that kind of stuff and that’s one of the better games he has thrown this year for us.” Lannan was also upbeat. “We haven’t hit our stride with hitting or with pitching and we’re still battling,” he said after the Cardinals loss. “We’re in every ballgame, and that’s all you can ask for when we’re kind of struggling. We have to get out there tomorrow and win as many as we can at home.”

Cincinnati Rising: If the Nats call up Stephen Strasburg during anything that even looks like a major skid, the expectations for him will be too high. But if they’re winning, well then Strasburg’s arrival will be seen as a move that can put them over the top. There’s no way for the Nats front office to win this “why not now” battle; which is probably one of the reasons why Mike Rizzo is sticking to his original schedule, despite the young phenom’s spectacular showing in the minors and in spite of what the Nats might be doing on the field. Then too, there’s the model being followed by the rising young starter in Cincinnati — Mike Leake. Leake has powered a surprising Cincinnati (where arms go to die) squad to first place in the Central Division. Due to Leake (whose role at the center of the Reds starting rotation is key) the Reds are giving the Cardinals fits and making the Cubs look mediocre.

So why aren’t the Nats doing the same thing?

Tom Verducci unpacks this issue in a recent SI column. The heart of the Verducci column is a comparison of the way the Reds are handling first round draft pick Mike Leake vs. the way that Rizzo & Co. are handling Strasburg. “What is most interesting about the Strasburg Plan,” Verducci writes, “is that concurrently the Cincinnati Reds are running an entirely different development plan with Mike Leake , their base model of Strasburg. Leake, 22, and Strasburg, who turns 22 in July, both pitched in major college programs, both were drafted last year in the first round, both signed too late to pitch in affiliated pro baseball last year and both went through their first spring training this year. They were born only eight months apart.” And then Verducci goes on to note that Leake’s pitch count this year add up to 691 pitches in nine MLB games as compared to Strasburg’s 469 pitches in the minor leagues. So who’s being smarter — Dusty Baker’s playoff hungry Cincinnati Reds, or Jim Riggleman’s build-for-the-future Nationals?

Verducci notes that Jim Riggleman was the manager of the Cubs in the year that then-phenom Kerry Wood was overpitched and that (as a result), he’ll be extra careful when Strasburg arrives. But the temptation is certainly there. We might imagine a resurgent Nats Nine that, in mid-September, is just two games out of the Wild Card race. With Lannan, Strasburg, Hernandez, Stammen and Olsen as the starting five and Strasburg on the mound against (say) the surging Braves, Riggleman will want to leave him right where he is — despite his pitch count. It’s not everyday you get into the playoffs. But then again, why would you rely on Strasburg in September if you know that your next day’s starter is not Craig Stammen or Scott Olsen, but Roy Oswalt? Which is not only why Jim and Mike will stick with their plan (no matter what), it’s also why it’s likely that come the trade deadline, the Baker Boys of Cincinnati will do the right thing by Mike Leake: they’ll get him some help.

Jimenez Outduels Livan

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Ubaldo Jimenez and Livan Hernandez held a master class in pitching on Thursday with Jimenez coming out on top — at least in terms of the score. Supported by two solo home runs (one each from catcher Miguel Olivo and third baseman Ian Stewart), Jimenez shut down the Nationals when it counted, wracking up his fourth win of the season in an itchy-close pitchers’ duel at Nationals Park. In spite of the score, Hernandez was (arguably), the more impressive pitcher, mixing a fastball (which topped out at 87 mph), with a slider and change-up. Hernandez changed speeds so effectively that he most often fooled Colorado’s heavy hitting lineup. Jimenez, on the other hand, relied on an overpowering fastball that topped out at 97 mph — his slowest offering was Livan’s fastest. So while the Rockies won, the result of the duel between speed and finesse was clear: Livan was the more cerebral pitcher, Jimenez the rocket.

In the end, the brilliantly pitched 2-0 contest came down to this: the Rockies could hit a hanging slider (which is what  Hernandez threw to Ian Stewart), while the Nationals most often could not catch-up to the Jimenez fastball. The contrast between Hernandez and Jimenez was most marked in the first inning. Behind in the count 3-1 against Willie Harris, Jimenez attempted to play catch-up by throwing Harris his best pitch — a 97 mph fastball in the upper part of the zone. The pitch was predictable and, in most cases, would be unhittable. But Willie was ready and put the offering over the head of the centerfielder. “The guy throws a million miles an hour,” Harris said, talking about the at bat. “He has really good offspeed pitches as well. He keeps you off balance. You get in an 2-0 count, you are definitely thinking the fastball. He drops in a changeup or a slider on you. That’s what the good pitchers do now.” It was one of the few mistakes that Jimenez made.

There are enough good third basemen in the NL to stock a separate league: David Wright, Ian Stewart, Placido Polanco, the fading Chipper Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Arizona’s wiff-or-wack Mark Reynolds and, of course, “our very own” Ryan Zimmerman. Among others. Cincinnati fans would clamor that new Reds third sacker Scott Rolen should be added to the list of the elite: and they have a point. Rolen, who once crossed swords with Tony La Russa,  is leading a Cincinnati team that could be the surprise champ in the NL Central, despite their early 7-9 record. Rolen is playing like he did in 2002, when he came over to the Redbirds from the Ponies and won a Silver Slugger Award. The often hobbled Rolen is hitting .289 with four homers and Cincinnati (where arms go to die) is responding. They took two of three in Los Angeles, notching an impressive 8-5 victory yesterday against the Trolleys that was sparked by Rolen’s cannon-shot double in the bottom of the seventh. Dusty’s Baker Boys were ecstatic. This is the way that Baker and the Cincinnati front office had planned things at the start of the season.

Rolen, who has a problem with authority figures, fits well in Cincinnati — where (very often), no one seems to be in charge. The slick-leather-big-bat third baseman was a 2nd round draft pick for Philadelphia back in 1993, but took four years to get to the majors. It was worth the wait. Beginning in 1997, Rolen began a five year run that had Phillies fans comparing him with Philadelphia legend Mike Schmidt: Rolen hit 21, 31, 26, 26 and 25 dingers before being shipped (via Toronto), to St. Louis where he battled injuries and fought with the manager. St. Louis cut him loose, shipping Rolen to Toronto (which, believe it or not, actually has a baseball team) for Rolen clone Troy Glaus, who had once hit 47 home runs for the Angels. The trade seemed an even-up; Rolen and Glaus sported big bats and tweeky shoulders — Rolen had shoulder surgery in May of 2005 (after a collision at first with Dodger fill-in and former North Side Drama Queen draft pick Hee Seop Choi), while the suddenly under-performing Glaus had shoulder surgery in January of 2009.

By the end of last year, both Rolen and Glaus not only needed to get healthy, they needed a new start. Glaus got his when he signed this last off season with the Atlanta Braves, while Rolen was traded from Toronto to Cincinnati in a move that had Reds’ fans scratching their heads: the swap seemed an expensive and questionable last-gasp effort to fill a hole at third, while the Cincy front office searched for a more permanent replacement. But Rolen has been a surprise: a solid citizen in the clubhouse (that’s the surprise) and a formidable bat in Cincinnati’s fifth hole (which, frankly, is not) Rolen is now teamed with veteran Brandon Phillips and big lumber youngsters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide mashers in the middle of the Cincy order. Once Bruce and Phillips get past their early season slumps (and they will), the Reds are likely to surge past the Cubs and Brewers, giving St. Louis a run for the division title. It’s too bad Rolen can’t pitch — it took Cincinnati starters sixteen games to notch their first victory, which came yesterday against Los Angeles.

Rolen would agree — Aroldis Chapman can’t arrive soon enough.

Defending “Charlie Hustle”

Monday, August 17th, 2009
Andy Warhol's rendition of Pete Rose was shown at the Cincinnati Art Museum in July of 2008

Andy Warhol's rendition of Pete RoseÂ

Pete Rose has never done himself any favors. Arguably one of baseball’s greatest players — and inarguably the greatest player to ever put on the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds – the inimitable “Charlie Hustle” bet on baseball games. And he lied about it for fifteen years. Coming clean in his autobiography My Prison Without Bars (intended as an apology to baseball for his actions), didn’t seem to help: Bud Selig refused to remove Rose’s name from the ineligible list. Of course, for some this is old business. The punishment is set, the man is banned — let it go. He bet on games and that’s all we need to know. But the continued punishment of Pete Rose is of moment now, particularly after recent reports that Bud Selig was considering reinstating Rose — and letting bygones be bygones.

There’s been some piling on: Rose agreed to be put on the ineligible list in 1989, with the apparent understanding that he could apply for reinstatement the following year. There was a wink-and-nod appearance, it was said, that Rose would be punished, but that the punishment wouldn’t be permanent. Rose apparently believed that (having served his time on the list), he might be soon forgiven. It didn’t happen. In 1999, Rose was named to the MLB All Century Team, and his name is there still — on the MLB website — just above Babe Ruth’s. But after appearing at a ceremony marking the naming of the team, Major League Baseball refused to allow him to participate in 25th anniversary ceremonies celebrating Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine,” he was barred from a ceremony marking the closing of Cinergy Field and then from a ceremony marking the opening of the Great American Ballpark. Rose is also barred from entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that decision came after Rose was declared ineligible, as if to emphasize the stain that marked him. The punishments never seemed to cease.

Did Rose have it coming? There are those who argue that Pete Rose’s sin is equal to that of the “eight men out” of Black Sox fame. They gambled and they were barred. But those who make that claim nearly always fail to add that there’s no evidence that Rose actually attempted to throw games. That’s not true of Joe Jackson and Company, despite the recent romance surrounding “Shoeless Joe.” Joe Jackson, his defenders say, didn’t set out to enrich himself. He did not know that what he was doing might destroy the game. And that’s right. Joe Jackson didn’t set out to enrich himself and harm to the game, but his buddies did and he was a part of it. And they damn near succeeded.

That’s not true of Pete Rose.

The Black Sox of 1919

There’s a case to be made for reinstating Rose, but it comes with some caveats. The first is that the vast majority of baseball fans (according to any number of polls) want him reinstated. Critics might respond that the argument carries no weight because baseball isn’t a popularity contest. They’d be wrong. Of course it’s a popularity contest. That’s what makes it America’s game. And that’s what makes Rose is a fan favorite. He always has been. The second reason Commissioner Selig might reinstate Rose is that he’s done his penance to baseball — as demanded. Penance does not require rehabilitation, but forgiveness seems well within the American tradition. “This is America, you’re supposed to be given a second chance,” Rose said in January of 2006. “But a lot of people don’t want me to have that.” He’s right. It’s hard to forgive. But we might remember, while Pete Rose bet on baseball, he didn’t kill dogs.

Finally, while the argument that Pete Rose should be reinstated simply because he was a great ballplayer remains  suspect — even intellectually dishonest — there’s something to it. Especially for diehard fans. There has been only one other player like Pete Rose in baseball history, and that’s Ty Cobb. For decades Cobb’s record of most hits by a major league baseball player was never in peril. It stood, like a great marble column, over all of baseball. It was the record that could never be broken. Cobb’s record of 4,190 hits, it was said, could never be matched. Rose shattered it, in Cincinnati, on September 11, 1985. 

What is most poignant about Cobb’s record is that it was broken by a player most like him. Cobb was fast, tough, was a choke-it-up and bang-it-out singles hitter who played the game hard and was deeply disliked by his fellow players. That true for Rose: he was a roll-in-the-dirt ballplayer who made few friends and a lot of enemies. “He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s one of the greatest two-strike hitters I’ve ever seen,” pitcher Bill Lee once said. And there’s this, also. Like Rose, Ty Cobb bet on baseball games. He did so in 1919 with his boon buddy and fellow Hall of Famer (and one of my very favorites) Tris Speaker. The allegation was made by pitcher Dutch Leonard who said that he and Cobb and Speaker and “Smokey” Joe Wood bet on a baseball game in 1919 that they knew was fixed. Kennesaw Mountain Landis investigated the charges and exonerated Cobb and Speaker.

And there it stands — though not exactly. It’s still hard for baseball historians to believe that Leonard, in implicating Cobb, would also implicate himself. Then too, Landis knew that in 1925, when the allegations were first aired, baseball could not stand another gambling scandal. And finally, any number of baseball scholars have been through the evidence, and weighed in with their own views: Cobb and Speaker were exonerated, but probably guilty. So it is: Cobb and Speaker (and Leonard and Smokey Joe) are dead, their records are in the books. And Ty and Tris, two of the greatest players of all time, are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Which is where they belong. So too does Pete Rose. Swallow hard and listen to Hank Aaron: “I would like to see Pete in. He belongs there.”

Dunn and Done

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

The Washington Nationals finished their four game series with the Cincinnati Reds with a bang on Sunday — with a home run by Josh Willingham, two doubles by former Red Adam Dunn and a miscue by a rookie second sacker that was the difference between victory and defeat. Willingham and Dunn accounted for all five of the Nats’ runs in the 5-4 victory. Willingham was three for four and drove in three, while Dunn was 2 for 2 and scored three runs. Over the last three games, Dunn was 3 for 6 and walked five times, while Willingham was 5 for 9 with four RBIs. After a stellar start, the Reds seemed hardly in the series — fielding a young and inexperienced team that is second to last in hitting in the National League. The Nats took advantage of the listless Baker Boys by banging out a barrage of extra base hits and home runs, accompanied by snappy mound work from an ever-improving relief corps. On Sunday, Mike “Heart Attack” MacDonald earned his thirteenth save, working 1.1 innings.

Despite the bombs away feel of the series, the decisive blow in the Sunday matchup was Ryan Zimmerman’s eighth inning pinch hit single, which drove in two runs — the last by Willingham. Willingham upended Reds’ catcher Ryan Hanigan after Reds’ rookie second baseman Drew Sutton nonchalanted the ball back into the infield. Sutton’s non-play marked the first time during the four game series that ever-patient Reds’ manager Dusty Baker came close to the only known instance of spontaneous combustion by a human in history. The Nats took three of four from the Redlegs after dropping two straight to Atlanta. The Anacostia Nine return home to Nationals Park for a series against the Colorado Rockies that begins on Tuesday.

Zim's eighth inning pinch hit was clutch for the Nats (AP/David Kohl)
Zim’s eighth inning pinch hit was clutch for the Nats (AP/David Kohl)


Nats’ Cannons Shell Reds

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Baker and Cueto

While Nats fans focus on the shelling Nats’ bats are capable of imposing — evidence of which was on full display at Cincy’s Great American Ballpark on Saturday – victims of the Anacostia Nine wonder how their team can lose to a club that is “a joke” and “one of the worst teams in baseball history.” Reds fans are the latest such whiners, trodding ground already worn by the footsteps of bloggers from Miami. “This year I haven’t really considered the Washington Nationals a real team. They’re just so bad, it’s hard to take them seriously,” Cincinnati blogger Red Hot Mama writes in the wake of the Nats pasting of the Reds. “I mean, they’ve consistently been winning only a third of the team [their games] for most of the year. In the world of bad teams, that’s truly atrocious.”

Red Hot Mama (the most interesting of all Reds’ blogs — in my humble opinion) is not alone in underestimating the Nats. For baseball beat reporter John Fay, it’s not so much that the Nats are good, it’s that the Reds are bad. This path is also well-worn: when the Nats beat up on Dan Haren at Nationals Park last week, “Baseball Tonight”  commentators attributed the loss not to the Nats ability to hit, but to Haren’s unusally poor outing. When the Nats are bad it’s because they’re bad, when the Nats are good it’s because they’re lucky. Of course, not only are the Nats not even close to being the worst team in baseball history, if they continue to win games at the current rate they may well catch the other “worst” teams in the MLB: The Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres. It’s even possible to make the argument that the Nats post-July 4 record is not only pretty good — it’s a lot better than the other “atrocious teams” in the majors. The Nationals have played forty games since Independence Day, and they’re 20-20. That’s enough to vault them out of last place in the ESPN power rankings — ahead of the Monarchs, Ahoys and Friars. That hasn’t happened yet, but it should. And just think, this from “a joke” and “one of the worst teams in baseball history.”

It’s no secret: the Nats’ revival is more due to their ability to swing the wood than throw the horsehide. This was on full display in the ballpark beside the Ohio yesterday. When the Reds came to bat in the fourth, the Nats were leading 7-0 and starter Johnny Cueto was sitting on the bench next to a shell-shocked Dusty Baker. By the time the game had ended (with Nats’ smiles all around), our Anacostia boys had pulled out a 10-6 victory. The Nats’ attack included fourteen hits and an Adam Dunn home run. Morgan, Belliard (Belliard!!), Zimmerman, Dukes, Gonzalez and Nats’ starter J.D. Martin had two hits each — the nail-in-the-coffin stroke coming from a still struggling Alberto Gonzalez, who scorched a double just inside the bag at third, scoring three. The Nats needed all the hits they could get. Starter Martin was game, but not that effective (the Reds threatened in nearly every inning), while reliever Logan Kensing (usually effective — after being recalled from Syracus), gave up four earned runs and lasted less than an inning.

It’s true: the Nats have been “truly atrocious” — as Reds bloggers would have it. They’ve won only 42 games. They’re 33 games under .500. They’ve “struggled” all year. But hope springs eternal: they could catch the Padres, Pirates and Royals in the standings. Why, they could even catch the Reds. In the world of bad teams (teams like, ah . . . the Cincinnati Reds), that’s really amazing. Or maybe it isn’t.