Posts Tagged ‘New York Yankees’

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.

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.

Nats Skid Now At Four

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Ian Desmond went 4-4 and Drew Storen made a solid debut, but the Washington Nationals fell to the Cardinals 6-2 on Monday night in St. Louis. The Nats were victimized by a tough first inning from starter Craig Stammen, who surrendered four runs against a hitting heavy Cards line-up.  Stammen pitched well the rest of the way, but Washington’s suddenly quiet bats could not get to the Redbirds. “He got settled in and pitched really good,” Riggleman said of Stammen after the game. “He really made a lot of great pitches and gave us a chance. He kept us in there. Their guy did a good job, too. Lohse did a nice job. He kind of kept us off.” Drew Storen came on in the 7th inning with a man on and one out to face former Nats infielder Felipe Lopez (who fouled out), Redbirds outfielder Ryan Ludwick (who he hit) and big bopper Matt Holliday, whom he struck out. It was an impressive first outing for the 22-year-old reliever. “He closed the inning. He did good. He threw strikes,” Ivan Rodriguez said. “He threw the three pitches out of four that he has. He threw the sinker, the breaking ball and the slider, and he did great. He did a great job.” The Nats losing streak now stands at four — with a second game against the Cardinals in St. Louis tonight.

Those Are The Details And Now For The Headlines: It looks like one of those seasons for the Bosox, who are mired in fourth place in the AL East, a full 8.5 games behind the surging Tampa Bay Rays. The sound and fury from Boston is deafening, as fans of “the Nation” have begun to take themselves apart about the deplorable state of their lovable Yazstremskis. Over The Monster is particularly puzzled, pointing out the “surprising teams” that have better records than the heroes of Fenway: the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. The head scratching in the Fens is interesting to watch, particularly for a franchise whose fans suffer from attention deficit disorder. If you had claimed back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that the Sox would one day be viewed as one of the game’s sure-to-win franchises, your claim would have been greeted with jaw-dropping disbelief.

While Sabermetric gurus are able to point to a welter of statistics reflecting the Red Sox woes, the simple truth is that the once proud pounders who thrilled the nation (and “The Nation”), with two world championships are an aging, punchless, poor-pitching and injured group of Back Bayers who play their worst against their deadliest foes. The Red Sox lost two of three in New York one week into the season, lost four in Tampa Bay a week later and two of three against the Yankees in New York in May. That doesn’t count losses to teams they should dominate. For instance, the over-confident Sox lost three to Baltimore’s wadda-we-gonna-do Triple-A Orioles . . .  for God’s Sake . (Spontaneous demonstrations broke out on Eutaw Street and Dave Trembley was given the keys to the city.)

The problem is pitching (ain’t it always). The Red Sox rank 27th in runs allowed and 27th in team ERA. While the Red Sox can put runs on the board (they’re near the top in runs scored), they can’t keep others from scoring even more: Clay Buchholz (with four wins) is their steadiest starter, Josh Beckett is a mess and Daisuke Matsuzaka (just back from the DL) can’t get anyone out. Their roster is a doctor’s dream. Beckett has back spasms, J.D. Drew suffers from vertigo (and an inability to hit an inside slider), Mike Cameron has kidney stones (the poor sot), Jacoby Ellsbury has a chest contusion, Dice-K had a neck strain (and probably still has), Jed Lowrie has suffered from mono and (OLAS) Justin Pedroia continues to battle wrist issues. And now (following last night’s game against the hated Yankees) the entire team probably needs scream therapy.

For those who like tragedy (and walk offs), last night’s Red Sox tilt against the Yankees was fun to watch (you could switch over, just in time to see this disaster, following the Nats post game wrap-up). With a man on in the bottom of the ninth and the Sox ahead 9-7, super reliever Jonathan Papelbon collapsed. He gave up a game-tying homer to Alex Rodriguez (who hit it wicked faaaaah …), then plunked Francisco Cervelli with a fastball. With Cervelli on first, Papelbon missed his spot with Marcus Thames, who cranked Mr. P’s wheelhouse fastball into the lower left field seats. As Papelbon walked from the field, it was hard to shake the feeling that the Yankees have Boston’s number. So here’s the deal: after a season of success at Fenway the current standings in the AL East are, in fact, an accurate reflection of Red Sox reality. We can be surprised by the early season success of the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. But no one should be surprised by the Red Sox. It’s not that they’re a bad team, because they’re not. For Red Sox fans, it’s  worse. They’re mediocre.

Fish Fall, Nats Take Series

Monday, May 10th, 2010

The Washington Nationals nudged out yet another victory against the Florida Marlins, defeating the Fish at Nats Park on Sunday, 3-2. The game clinched the series for the Nationals, who took two of three. The hero of the game was Josh Willingham, whose home run in the eighth inning was the difference in the win. Livan Hernandez, who is now the ace of the staff, pitched seven solid innings, giving up only one earned run. But Hernandez didn’t notch the win: reliever Tyler Clippard (usually perfect in such relief situations) gave up the tying run to the Marlins in the top of the eighth. So while Clippard was assessed a blown save (his fourth), he was credited with the win — bringing his record to an unlikely 6-0. After Willingham’s homer put the Nats ahead, Matt Capps came on (in the ninth), to get his 13th save in as many tries. The Nats are starting to learn how to win one-run games. “I think our players feel like if we’re close, we’ve got a chance to win the ballgame,” said manager Jim Riggleman. “We’ve got some real pros in there.”

Tyler Clippard’s sixth win without a loss (all in relief) reminded MASN baseball analyst Rob Dibble of the careers of two MLB relief specialists: Ahoy legend Elroy Face and Red Sox boxcar Dick Radatz. Though only time will tell, the comparison is fair for Face (spindly and bespectacled, like Clippard) much less so for Radatz. Face was 18-1 for the ’59 Pirates (the team finished only two games over .500), while Radatz (who lasted all of six years in the majors) was 15-6 for the ’63 Red Sox. Both were relief specialists, wracking up unlikely victories for average clubs. Otherwise the two were entirely different. Face was a legend, setting the standard for what a closer can be in fifteen stellar seasons for the Clementes. He led all of baseball in relief pitching numbers for nearly two decades. In 1960, Face saved three games in the Pirates series against the Yankees (won by the Pirates in a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski). “The Moose” Radatz’s short career was meteoric — he won two Fireman of the Year awards and was feared for his 95 mph fastball. In a game in 1963 he came in with the bases loaded and struck out (in order), Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Elston Howard. But in 1965 he injured his shoulder and lost the edge on his fastball. After retiring, Face became a carpenter in Pennsylvania. Radatz lived at his home in Easton, Massachusetts where, in 2005, he fell down a stairway and suffered a life-ending concussion.

What My Buddies Said During Friday Night’s Game: Me Droogs, Willy and Mikey (here they are), were my row-mates during the Nats Friday night loss to the Marlins, commenting on the team and baseball. “God, these guys  stink,” Willy said in the bottom of the third. I was offended: “what the hell are you talking about? They’re young, they’re tough, Stammen is a comer. For God Sakes Man, give-em-a-chance.” I tried to move away from him. He rolled his eyes: “No, not these guys,” he said. “Those guys . . .” and he gestured towards the out-of-town scoreboard, where the Yankees had just posted a nine-spot against his beloved Red Sox. I shrugged: “Oh yeah,” I said. “God, that’s awful. I feel terrible.” The Red Sox are 16-16 on the year. The Nats are 17-14. Enjoy it while you can . . . The scintillating conversation continued. “How many balls do you think they use during a game?” Mikey asked. I thought for a minute: “I hear they start with  72.” He nodded: “That’s six dozen.” Mikey’s no slouch: he graduated from college. After the game he sent me a link, which quoted a Pirates clubhouse assistant as saying the Pirates go through about 120 baseballs per game. The league office, I subsequently learned, asks each team to provide 90 new balls for each game. According to Major League Baseball, between five and six dozen balls are used during a game . . .

“Who’s this guy?” Willy asked during the 8th. I looked out at the Florida reliever. “Renyel Pinto,” I said. “Sneaky quick with a fastball that comes up in the zone. He’s not bad.” Willy nodded: “He looks like Sid Fernandez.” Mikey shook his head. “Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in awhile.” Willy referenced The Book Of Bad Baseball Memories he keeps in his head: “He pitched the seventh game of the ’86 Series,” he said. “When the Red Sox lost to the Mets.” I harumphed: my God, these Sox fans. It’s like listening to a Believer talk about Lourdes. “I’m right,” he said. “Look it up.” I did. Charles Sidney Fernandez pitched ten years for the Apples, before moving on to Philadelphia, Houston and Baltimore. He developed arm problems after his stint in New York and, after a valiant effort spent at resuscitating his career, retired from the game in 1997. He posted a career 114-96 record — almost all of his games in New York. Fernandez pitched games five and seven of the ’86 Series (an afterthought for “The Nation,” which regularly relives Bill Buckner’s through-the-legs error of Game Six) but the game seven winner was Roger McDowell. Here was the Mets starting staff for the series: Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Roger McDowell, Bob Ojeda and Sid Fernandez. Don’t kid yourself, the Chokes wish they had them now . . .

From time to time I get seats in Section 128, just behind the Nats dugout and just to the right of the netting that protects the fans (or, “potential victims” as I all them) from foul balls. We were in the fourth row. Our usher says the same thing at the beginning of every game. “Pay attention Section 128, these foul balls come mighty fast. You have to watch every single pitch.” And then he adds: “Enjoy the game.” In the seventh inning a man and his son (who must have been about 13) moved down to the row in front of us. You could just tell, this kid was thrilled. I leaned forward: “If one of these balls comes streaking this way at about 125 mph, I expect you to catch it,” I said. “Because I’m not going to.” The boy looked at his father, who laughed. “He’s kidding,” he said.

No, actually, I wasn’t.

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. 

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.

The Revenge of the Whiz Kids?

Monday, October 26th, 2009

The 1950 Phillies were one of baseball’s memorable teams: a great pitching staff and heavy long-bomb hitters. And they arrived at the Fall Classic in a similar fashion to their 2009 version: having humbled the Brooklyn version of the Dodgers in the season’s final game. Then, as now, their nemesis was the Yankees, as memorable a team as the Phillies — packed with prodigious power and strong arms.  Del Ennis, Dick Sisler and Richie Ashburn were the keys to the Phillies’ line up: Ennis because of his towering bombs (31 in all in 1950) and Sisler and Ashburn because of their nose-in-the-dirt style of play. We’ve forgotten just how good Ennis was — playing for sixteen years, eleven of them with Philadelphia. In 1950 he had 126 RBIs to lead the team. Ashburn didn’t have Ennis’s power, but his career ended in the Hall of Fame: with a lifetime batting average of .308, three different years with over 200 hits – and a skyscraping OBP. There’s a statue of him now, outside of Citizens Bank Park, in Philadelphia. But 1950 was far from Ashburn’s best year and the team needed the likes of Ennis to get into the series.

“The Whiz Kids” took the N.L. by surprise. No one even knew who they were. The left side of their infield was under 25 and their two best players were kids — Ashburn was 23 and Ennis was 24. Even so, if you knew only a little bit about baseball, you’d have easily picked the Phillies to best the Yankees in the ’50 Series. Their pitching was the class of the National League. The starting rotation was led by Robin Roberts, then in his third year in Philadelphia. He’d gone 20-11 with a 3.02 ERA and he’d thrown 21 complete games. Roberts threw the last game of the season against the Trolleys, and it was a gem: he pitched ten innings of one run ball before Philly won it all in the 10th. Curt Simmon followed Roberts in the rotation — and he looked (at 20) like he was eleven. Like Ennis, he is remembered best by baseball afficiandos. He had very good, but not great years. 1950 was one of his best: he was 17-8 with a 3.40 ERA. The third arm in the rotation belonged to Bob Miller, whose 11-6 record was a surprise to everyone (including Miller). It was the best year he ever had, but Philly needed him desperately — as the war in Korea was culling the N.L. of some of their best pitchers. By the time the series rolled around, the Phillies had lost stalwart Simmons and fireballer Bubba Church to the service.

The Yankees had won the series in ’49, but they knew the Phillies would be tough. To win, they had to get past their pitching. Their line-up was good, even very good, but these were not the Bronx Bombers of the 1920s. Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio were their power hitters, with Phil Rizutto the sparkplug in the middle of the order. Still, Phillies’ fans would be right to wonder why Phil is in the Hall of Fame and not Ennis. “I never thought I deserved to be in the Hall of Fame,” Rizutto once said. “The Hall of Fame is for the big guys.” That’s right, Scooter. The Yankees’ strength was their pitching staff. Vic Raschi (The Springfield Rifle) was the Yanks best starter (he was 21-8 that year), followed by Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat. Formidable, sure, but against the Roberts and Ashburn-led Phillies the Yankees knew they were in for a tussle.

Sadly for Phillies’ fans, that’s not how it turned out. In what has to be considered one of the best-pitched and closest World Series ever, the Phillies lost in four — by a combined 11–5 run total. The first game was the surprise, with Phillie closer Jim Konstanty pitching eight innings of one run ball. That how it ended: 1-0. Game 2 was a Robin Roberts’ gem, but he lost the game in the 10th on a DiMaggio home run. The pattern for the series was now well-established, with the Yankees matching the Phillies pitch-for-pitch. The third game ended 3-2, with the Yankees scoring their third run in a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth. The only game that wasn’t close was the fourth — with the Phillie’s nose-diving, 5-2. The Phillies should have won that fourth game: they were up against a young Yankee hurler by the name of Whitey Ford who’d had only a so-so year.

It seems unlikely that 2009 will see a repeat of the head-to-head pitchers’ duels of 1950. Philadelphia doesn’t have a Robin Roberts or Richie Ashburn or Curt Simmons. In fact, they’re better: with a loaded line-up that makes Ennis and Sisler and Ashburn look like spray hitters (which is, in fact, what they were). Then too, while the current Bronx crew lacks the power and presence of “The Yankee Clipper,” Jeter, Rodriguez and Teixeira hit more like Murderers’ Row than their 1950 ancestors. It will be a real surprise if this is a four-and-out series: and it seems very unlikely to be won by 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2 scores. That said, the 2009 Fall Classic has this one thing in common with the Whiz Kids vs. Empire match-up of 1950: in order for Philly to win, they have to hit Yankee pitching.

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.”