Friday, March 31, 2006

Moss Was Trimmed In Order To Hire Sparky

Les Moss as a White Sox player, circa the mid-1950's

If there is more of a human postscript in Tigers history than Les Moss, I'm dying to know who it is.

Moss was the man who had the audacity to not be Sparky Anderson, and thus was dispatched as Tigers manager in June 1979.

Moss, who managed the White Sox for 36 games in an interim capacity in 1968 (he went 12-24), was a manager in the Tigers' minor league system who was roundly credited with having a lot to do with the development of players such as Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Lou Whitaker, and Alan Trammell. They are names that are now cherished in Detroit. And Les Moss was the man, the Tigers said, that helped to mold them, so why not let him manage them at the major league level, too?

So after Ralph Houk "retired" following the 1978 season (he returned a few years later with the Red Sox), Moss was promoted after nary a search by General Manager Jim Campbell.

Trouble was -- for Moss -- Sparky Anderson had been let go by the Reds after the '78 campaign, and was sitting at home in Thousand Oaks, California, unemployed and doing some TV work for the Angels.

It was during a Tigers west coast swing in June that Campbell learned, thru TV announcer George Kell, that Sparky had been approached by the Cubs and was seriously considering managing the North Siders in Chicago in 1980.

Shortly after being made aware of this by Kell, Campbell began making phone calls to Sparky. At first, Anderson rebuffed Campbell, telling him that for the money he was seeking, the Tigers would want no part of him. But Campbell persisted, and eventually got Sparky to at least look at the Tigers' media guide, to scan the team's roster. Then, he got Sparky to say he would come, but not until 1980.

"But I couldn't look Les Moss in the eye for four more months, knowing I'd be firing him at the end of the season, no matter what he did," Campbell was quoted as saying in Anderson's book, They Call Me Sparky.

So Campbell all but begged Anderson to join the Tigers immediately.

Sparky, impressed with Campbell's dogged pursuit, agreed.

So Les Moss, despite righting the Tigers' ship after a rough start, was fired and replaced by the legendary Sparky Anderson. The Tigers' record was 27-26, making Moss 39-50 in his managing career. He never managed again, though he did resurface as an Astros coach several years later.

The funny thing was, the Tigers went 2-9 in their first 11 games under Sparky's guidance, undoing Moss' winning ways -- temporarily.

Campbell once said that firing Moss was one of the most difficult things he ever had to do in baseball. But, he reasoned, how often do you get a chance to hire a man with Sparky Anderson's resume?

Maybe even Les Moss would agree. He didn't say much when he was hired by the Tigers, didn't say much while he was here, and said even less after he left town.

But he will forever be a delicious trivia question, and a marvelous little postscript in Tigers history.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tigers' Skimpy TV Schedule Is Shameful And Wrong

The Tigers have taken a PR hit, and rightly so, for their rather anemic TV schedule for 2006.

As of the moment, only 112 of the 162 games are slated to be televised, and none on "free" TV -- i.e. broadcast channels in Detroit like 4, 20, 50, or 62. The 112 games are the fewest of any team in the major leagues.

Shame, shame.

My boss at MCS Magazine -- publisher Muneesh Jain -- and I were talking about this yesterday.

"There's no reason every single game shouldn't be on TV," he said, and I agreed.

The notion of "free" TV doesn't resonate as much with me, because most people have some sort of "pay TV" -- whether it's basic cable or satellite dish (I have DirecTV). But there are still some folks who can't afford pay TV, like seniors and others who are pinching pennies. So I am still cognizant of that fact. And for those people, the Tigers simply aren't accessible to them on television, and that's just plain wrong.

How the Tigers hoped to pass off a deal whereby 50 games -- nearly a third of the schedule -- weren't going to be seen except by customers with MLB Extra Innings or some other package, without any public backlash, is beyond me. Newspapermen like Lynn Henning of the Detroit News have been besieged with e-mails and letters decrying the paltry offering of Tigers baseball on television.

Henning correctly points out that the man who can change all this is Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. It would seem to me that the team can use all the positiveness it can muster, especially from their fans, who haven't seen winning baseball in 13 years. And Ilitch -- who I've praised and complimented in the past about his commitment to the city -- needs to step up to the plate, so to speak, and make something good happen here. He certainly has the power to place more games on TV, and he'd damn well better do it.

What's also distressing is the word from Fox Sports Detroit (FSD) that it was willing to televise 140 games, but that deal was somehow nixed by the Tigers. I confess to not knowing all the details of this part of the story, so I will acknowledge that I also don't know the Tigers' official stance on this. But I do know that the team is keeping mum, which sends red flags up. The last thing the Detroit Tigers need to be doing right now is to be elusive about anything that affects their shrinking fan base. Yet they aren't talking -- at least not now.

In this harried world, it's almost impossible to set aside three-plus hours of time to watch a ballgame in its entirety. But that's irrelevant. Just having the Tigers on the tube, knowing they're there if you have a moment to check out the score and maybe watch an inning or two, shouldn't be a privilege in this day and age. And for a ballclub that has been mostly putrid for more than a decade, the fans' rights should come way ahead of any perceived privilege that the team chooses to bestow upon them.

Or are the Tigers afraid of the product they'll be fielding in 2006?

Give us our Tigers baseball on TV. And let US decide whether they're worth watching. Don't make that decision for us.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Curt Gowdy: His Voice Screamed Baseball

It happened several weeks ago, but a few words now about Curt Gowdy, the broadcaster who passed away at age 86.

One of my coziest memories was watching those edited World Series videos -- they were films back then -- with Gowdy at the mike, doing the narration. The very 1960's and '70's-ish music would groove in the background as Gowdy recapped each game. They were the filler pieces Tigers broadcasts would show whenever there was a rain delay.

In between Games 2 and 3, there'd be a shot of a jetliner, airborn.

"As the teams flew to Baltimore...," Gowdy would say, adding a tidbit.

Or there'd be an image of a vendor selling souvenirs outside the ballpark prior to a game.

Gowdy: "Tiger pride was on full display outside the stadium..."

Two managers talking during batting practice, and here was Gowdy: "Earl Weaver of the Orioles and Sparky Anderson of the Reds no doubt talked about what a great matchup this was between two great teams."

And so on.

Those videos were wonderfully comfortable and fit like your favorite slippers. I still enjoy watching them today. ESPN Classic shows them from time to time.

The funny thing is, I don't recall MLB ever making ALCS or NLCS videos. Did they? Regardless, it was the World Series videos, narrated by Curt Gowdy, that hold a special place in my baseball heart. Even knowing the series outcome took nothing away from the enjoyment of the moving pictures before me. All the outstanding, key plays were shown -- often times in "super slow motion" -- along with that gloriously phony crowd noise the editors would run in the background.

Speaking of production values, even the cheesy edits were forgiven. I remember the 1968 video, and even though the game being featured at that moment was one of the contests played in St. Louis, the editors inserted a shot of Willie Horton in the batter's box -- in his home Tigers white uniform. How that got approved, I don't know. But it somehow added to the charm. You got the feeling those videos were done on a budget and on a tight deadline -- like two days after the series completion, honestly.

Somewhere in the 1980's, I think, Gowdy was replaced as the finished products got more hoity-toity and a different voice was desired by the producers, apparently. That's also when I started losing interest in them, not coincidentally.

Curt Gowdy was also the regular play-by-play man for the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons, usually teamed with either Tony Kubek or Joe Garagiola. That was when you could sit and watch an entire nine innings while the grass grew. Of course, it was also pre-marriage, so there you go.

Gowdy wasn't just a baseball man, of course. He was also a pretty darn good football announcer, and I remember him being part of NBC's #1 team, along with a guy named Al DeRogatis, who many folks reading this may not even know. When Don Meredith fled Monday Night Football for three seasons, he was paired with Gowdy to form the #1 team on NBC, from 1974-76.

But it's baseball that I will always link with Curt Gowdy. Whether it was the cheesy World Series videos or the Game of the Week, Gowdy's down-home voice was as much of the national pastime as hot dogs and peanuts.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Don't Fret If Tigers Lose, Because Leyland Will Entertain Us

I think we're in for a real treat this summer.

Listen to Jim Leyland, the new Tigers manager, speak, or read his verbal gems in the newspaper, and tell me if we don't have another Sparky Anderson in our midst.

I have read Leyland's offerings and have laughed out loud, more than once.

There was this about a youngster who was playing outfield for the first time last week, and his adventure in catching a flyball:

"He ran a down and out pattern. He went back, then to the right, then over. I smoked two Marlboros before he ever caught it."

Can you imagine Alan Trammell, or Luis Pujols, or Larry Parrish, or Phil Garner, or Buddy Bell uttering such a thing?

No, not since Sparky have we had a manager who will provide the ink-stained wretches with glorious copy all year. And I, for one, am looking forward to it.

It's been awhile since "Pain don't hurt," or "There ain't enough perfume to make that one smell good," or "You haven't got nothing to talk about until you reach .500." Sparky's words, and they kept us interested, even when the team wasn't much to talk about.

The only thing worse than losing is losing boring. And that could have been a Sparky-ism right there.

Baseball, with its 162-game season and six months worth of time, more than any other sport needs spicy words between quotation marks. It's especially true for cities like Detroit, which hasn't seen winning baseball since 1993, and only once before that since 1988. That's two winning seasons in 17 -- and counting, if you're counting.

So what else has there been to do when it comes to the Tigers?

But with Jim Leyland, at least the summer promises to be fun even if the baseball isn't so hot. In fact, that may be when we get Leyland's best stuff. Losing coaches and managers seem to have more to talk about in a sardonic fashion.

"We didn't block," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John McKay said when the expansion team was losing with monotonous regularity, "but we made up for it by not tackling."

"We lost a home game, which means we have now proven we cannot win on the road OR at home. So what we need now is a neutral site."

McKay was asked about his team's execution.

"I'm all for it," he replied.

Such beauties aren't generally spoken when the team is winning. Sarcasm works for more than just newspaper reporters, or bloggers, and such riffraff.

So if the Tigers stumble, and start losing, just know that it should be easier to absorb with Jim Leyland around to provide the colorful commentary.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Year I Was On Top Of The Baseball World

Manager quits mid-season. Troubled coach takes over, his son on the team, and leads the team to a city championship. Aspiring sports reporter catches the final out.

No, this isn't a script pitch to an independent filmmaker.

It happened in 1977, when I played for a team sponsored by a company called Bra-Con Industries, which is funny because here, 29 years later, I still have no idea who Bra-Con Industries were or are. But it was my first little league team that had full uniforms -- pants, stirrups, the whole shebang. We wore white with blue pinstripes, and the words "BRA-CON" across the front in block text. Those were the days when the big league players wore high stirrups, so naturally I pulled mine as far as they could go to simulate that cool MLB look.

But there was more to my ensemble. 1977 was the season that Tito Fuentes was signed to play second base for the Tigers, who were in need of one more season so Sweet Lou Whitaker would be ready by '78. Tito was one of baseball's all-time greatest hot dogs, and author of one of the game's best quotes.

"They shouldn't throw at me," Tito once said as a Giant after being brushed back with a pitch. "I have seven or eight kids."

Tito Fuentes did a lot of goofy, hot doggy-things, like tap his bat at the plate and flip it, catching it in his hand as he smoothed away the chalk of the batter's box with his spikes. But he also wore a headband beneath his cap. So, naturally, guess which player for Bra-Con Industries took to wearing a headband? Mine was red, white, and blue -- to match my wristbands.

I wore #11 -- Bill Freehan's number -- and played mostly second base. I also pitched some.

Our manager, a roly-poly older guy that looked like a poor man's Don Zimmer, quit in midseason. I can't remember his name, but he had this affinity for wanting to pack up the bats and batting helmets before the game ended. So there we would be, in the bottom of the seventh -- the games were seven innings long -- trying to rally, and we'd look over and Mr. So-and-so was gathering the bats and helmets and putting them in their canvas bags. Real inspiring.

Anyhow, he quit -- I can't remember why -- and his coach, a troubled man named Mr. Nadratowski, took over. His son, John, was our catcher. I think Mr. Nad drank a bit, and he was estranged from his wife. After he took control, and tinkering with the lineup, we went on a winning streak that placed us in some sort of Livonia city championship. It must have been a runners-up thing, because the winner of our league -- Don Massey Cadillac -- went on to bigger and better things. But it was still a championship, and you still won a trophy, and you still got to play at the good field in the city, so what the hell?

It was a tight game, and I remember the other team's runner getting thrown out at the plate on a sacrifice fly attempt. I also remember myself hitting a sac fly to drive in what ended up being the winning run. But the coup de grace was the final out. They were threatening -- a man on second and we only had a one-run lead. The batter swung and hit a popup just beyond the infield dirt behind and to the right of second base.

My ball.

I waved everyone off like there was no tomorrow, and thought, "Don't drop this, dummy!"

I squeezed it as hard as I've squeezed any baseball, and within seconds the team was mobbing me. We had won! It was the greatest moment in my seven-year Little League career -- such as it was.

But the tear-jerking part came at the postseason team party. It was at a pizzeria, and when Mr. Nad took his trophy and started talking about how much managing the team meant to him, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Because everyone knew what he was going through personally.

I don't know whatever happened to John Nadratowski and his dad -- our manager. But I still have that little trophy in my basement. It just says "City Champs - 1977." It's rather small and not all that impressive.

But it means a whole bunch.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Bubble Gum Is Back! But So Is The Rate Of Inflation

I see where Topps is coming out, once again, with packs of baseball cards that include a stick of cardboard bubble gum.

It retails for $2.99. I didn't even bother to see how many cards come inside.

I remember going to old Cunningham's Drugs, on my bike with my pals -- baseball glove hooked over one of the handlebars -- and plunking down 15 cents -- yes, 15 cents -- and getting 10 cards and the gum. Or, if they had the machine in the front of the store, you put in a quarter, pushed the sliding thingie, pulled it out, and cards would come out. The number varied, and we were convinced it had to do with how you jammed the thingie in and how you pulled it out. Of course, you didn't get any gum with that method. And I always liked the gum, and the stain of sugar it left on the card lucky/unlucky enough to to be placed against it.

Oh, we would buy the cards back then! We'd stand in front of Cunningham's, straddling our bikes, cheeks full of gum like hamsters, going through our haul and calling out the star players.

"Freehan! I got a Carew! Expos team card!"

Sometimes trades were made right there, on the spot -- impetuous deals designed to get rid of as many "doubles" as possible. Some cards just gravitated toward you. Triples, or quadruples of a certain card were not unusual in those days. And you could only trade so many Bert Blylevens before you had to suck it up and keep them.

I lost interest in card collecting -- I did all the four major sports, not just baseball -- when I moved away to college in 1981. But that's okay; I don't think I've missed much, because I don't think card collecting is anything remotely like it used to be back in the days.

It's too much of a business for my liking nowadays, and thus it's lost almost all of its romanticism. I hate to come off like an old fogie here, but we collected cards for the fun of it, and to see how close we could come to gathering the entire set, which we never did. I remember all the little things, like how the good players were given card numbers that ended in "5" or "0", and the scrubs got card numbers like 178.

Anyhow, the point being, we had no interest in going to the store, and buying an entire set at one shot -- even if we had the dough that required. The thrill was in the collecting -- not the buying and selling like so many commodities. And as for keeping them in pristine, mint condition? Pleeease. Not only did we not keep them in excellent condition, we placed them in the spokes of our bicycle wheels, rubber-banded them together, and shoved them in our pockets when we played baseball.

We shopped for baseball cards for the same reasons shotgun-toters venture into the woods: for the hunt. We had no conception of what they might actually be worth one day on the open market. Which explains why, sadly, none of my cards made it through my adult years. My mother tossed them in the garbage, but don't be angry at her. She wasn't told otherwise. Nor did she foresee any sort of thing called the Internet or eBay.

Our 12 year-old daughter and I started collecting basketball cards a couple years ago. We have them neatly organized in a large three-ring binder designed for such purposes, complete with clear plastic card sleeves that fit into the binder. Maybe we'll keep at it, who knows.

But at $2.99 -- or more -- per pack, it might be a long time before we come anywhere near to completing a set.

Friday, March 24, 2006

It Was Finally Time To Party When Gibby Cooked Gossage's Goose

First, let me put you folks on to a wonderful Detroit Tigers blog, Detroit Tiger Tales, run by Lee Panas, a Tigers fan based in Massachusetts. Currently Lee is previewing the 2006 Tigers with heavily-researched numbers and projections for each player. Check it out. It's good stuff.
I have only been in attendance once when a Detroit team captured a championship, and that was Game 5 of the 1984 World Series -- Tigers and Padres. The "Kirk Gibson game." I went to Game 4, too -- the "Alan Trammell game."


I have been blessed to have been there, in person, at some wonderful games and/or to witness spectacular performances: Isiah Thomas scoring 16 points in 90 seconds in a playoff game against the Knicks in '84; the last Red Wings game ever played at Olympia Stadium in 1979; the Wings' first win ever at the Joe, also in '79; Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals; and the Lions' 45-3 destruction of the Steelers on Thanksgiving Day in 1983, to name but a few.

But when Gibson launched his three-run homer in the eighth inning off Goose Gossage -- turning a precarious 5-4 lead into an 8-4 comfy one -- I swear I could feel the city exhale.

We hadn't had a champ of any sort since the '68 team, of course, and not only that, Detroit teams were never even real contenders in any sport. The decade of the 70's, to show you, was practically a washout. The Lions were stumbling, as usual; the Red Wings became known as the Dead Things in the 70's; the Pistons made the playoffs a few times but never went deep; and the Tigers had an AL East crown in 1972 and nary anything else to cheer about, except Mark Fidrych in 1976.

So when Gibson connected off Gossage -- and you know the story: first base open and Goose talks manager Dick Williams out of walking Gibby -- and that ball sailed DEEP into the upper deck in rightfield, Tigers fans everywhere knew the championship was theirs. I can still see Larry Herndon in leftfield, running in to snag Tony Gwynn's lazy flyball to seal the Series, and how he kept running -- directly to the pitching mound, where the whole team mobbed closer Willie Hernandez.

We were in the centerfield bleachers -- upper deck -- and the place was so loud and crazy and then chunks of sod appeared over the railing from somewhere below -- being tossed by someone, obviously -- and it was the darndest thing you've ever seen.

Then, of course, we ventured outside the stadium and it was a little scary, to be honest. I was ten feet away from the now-legendary burning Detroit police car, scurrying away with all the others as the cops approached. Nobody wanted to be blamed for that one.

But we were happy -- Lord, were we happy! My friends and I had planned ahead and kept a case of champagne, on ice, in the trunk of the car, and after we finally made it there -- we were parked on Abbot street not far from Rosa Parks Boulevard -- we opened the bottles up and poured the contents all over ourselves, just as we'd seen on TV in countless lockerrooms.

And that's what was so special: Those scenes had always been played out in other lockerrooms, in other cities. Not in 16 years had anything happened in Detroit sports worth opening a beer over, let alone a case of bubbly. But on October 14, 1984, it was Detroit's turn to celebrate. Our time to call ourselves champions.

That's why I wrote a column about 18 months ago extolling Gibby's homer as the greatest moment in Detroit sports history -- mainly because of the "We Win!" feeling it elicited, before the game ended. But beyond that, it sealed a championship that the city had needed for quite some time, and deserved. Detroit is a blue-collar city -- a shot-and-beer town -- and for years fans had put in their 8-10 hours of hard work at the factory, or the office, and plunked down some cash to watch their teams play in person, or at least settled down on the sofa to watch them on television. And for years all they got from it was losing records and coaching changes and team dissension and nary a sniff of true championship contention.

Until Gibby smoked Gossage's fastball into the upper deck seats in right.

I can see the ball now, as I type this, sailing into the stands. For a glimmering moment, we all hopped onto that baseball and rode it into the night sky.

Oh Tigers baseball, will you ever thrill me so again?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Norm Cash Made Baseball Fun

It was my birthday, 1974, yet I wept.

I cried like a baby, the morning of the day in which I would celebrate my 11th year on earth.

August 6, 1974: a dark, dark day for me -- and the Tigers, as far as I'm concerned.

That was the day the team released Norm Cash. They just cut him -- letting him go rather unceremoniously. Only 11 years old, and I was already wondering if baseball would be so good again.

That same day, the Tigers traded Jim Northrup to the Expos.

Stormin' Norman Cash: a Tiger from 1960-74

But it was the -- ahem -- cashiering of Cash that brought on the tears. Stormin' Norman Cash -- the power-hitting first baseman -- was my first favorite baseball player. I liked him for the same reason I liked Alex Karras of the Lions and, eventually, Harold Snepsts of the Red Wings: For some reason I always gravitated to the loopy, off-center, fun-loving player. And Cash was the first Tiger who fit that bill. Come to think of it, he may be the only one. For surely nobody exuded as much sardonic behavior as Norm Cash did.

Oh, where do I begin? There were the windshield-wiper sunglasses he wore during spring training. The Texan drawl. The moonshots into the upper deck in rightfield -- sometimes over the roof. Once, when Cash was spiked by the catcher sliding into home and in terrible pain, he still managed to doff his cap to the adoring crowd as he was being carried off on a stretcher. He also used to, ocasionally, playfully loop his finger inside the belt loop of the runner on first base in a joking move to keep him from taking much of a lead. He had his own TV show for awhile, which was awful but it was his so naturally I watched it. Against righthanded pitchers, Cash wouldn't wear a helmet -- just a protective plastic liner inside his cap. I always thought that was the coolest thing.

Cash was acquired from the Indians for Steve Demeter between the 1959 and 1960 seasons, and if you just said, "Who's Steve Demeter?," you'll agree that it was one of the best trades the Tigers ever made.

Cash was also the main protagonist in one of the goofiest -- frankly, dumbest -- plays I've ever seen on a big league baseball diamond. The Royals' Ed Kirkpatrick was at the plate -- this was 1970 -- and Joe Sparma was pitching. Kirkpatrick hit a chopper that Cash fielded between the
mound and the first base line. Kirkpatrick slowed to a stop as he approached Cash, who was holding the ball near the base line. It figured to be an easy out. Yet Cash clumsily and lazily waved the ball toward Kirkpatrick and ... missed him. Kirkpatrick immediately knew Cash had whiffed, and he hustled toward the vacant first base bag. He made it easily as Norman stood there sheepishly with the ball before handing it even more sheepishly to Sparma. That was my Norman.

But Cash wasn't a real baseball goofball -- not by a long shot. He hit nearly 400 homers as a Tiger, and was a pretty darn good fielding first sacker. He also had that monster year in 1961, when he hit .361 with 41 HR and 132 RBI. I must add that I just typed those stats without looking them up, because I know them by heart. The next season, Cash's BA fell -- free-falled, really -- to .243. Years later, Cash admitted that he used a corked bat in that '61 season, which makes sense because he never came close to those numbers again. But at age 36, Cash cracked 32 dingers, nipping on the heels of the White Sox' Bill Melton all year for the homerun crown
(Melton hit 33).

One of the last homeruns Cash hit, I was there to see. It was against Boston, and the pitch before it happened, a couple fans in front of us shouted, "WHO NEEDS CREDIT? WE HAVE CASH!"


Cash was cut, at age 39, with just seven homers in 140+ at-bats in '74. He was clearly not in the team's plans, as the Tigers had let their 1968 and 1972 World Series and AL East-winning teams grow old with few capable young replacements. Hence the trade of Northrup. The Tigers' inability to groom farm talent led to an awful spiral downward, culminating in last place finishes in 1974 and 1975. They wouldn't have another winning season until 1978.

Unfortunately, life after baseball wasn't as kind to Norm Cash as life was during it. He suffered a stroke sometime in the late 70's, early 80's while he was a TV analyst for the Tigers on the old ON TV channel (remember THAT?). Then, in October 1986, in Beaver Island, Michigan, Cash slipped off a dock and drowned. Tests done on his body indicated he may have been inebriated when he fell.

I cried that time, too -- inside.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Bet YOUR Favorite Player List Doesn't Include THIS Guy.....

One of my favorite players of all-time in baseball is probably a guy you've never heard of, and that's okay. I'm not even quite sure why I latched onto him like a barnacle, but I did.

Ken Phelps was a lefthanded-hitting first baseman/DH who played mainly for the Seattle Mariners, and a few years with the Yankees toward the end. He was no Hall of Famer, no All-Star, but I thought he was the bee's knees.

Phelps: A fellow August 6 baby

Phelps fascinated me because he was, without question, one of the most efficient homerun hitters the game has ever seen. Here are some of his yearly stats, courtesy of

1984 SEA 290 AB 24 HR .241 BA
1986 SEA 344 AB 24 HR .247 BA
1987 SEA 332 AB 27 HR .259 BA
1988 SEA/NYY 297 AB 24 HR .263 BA

Now, those are some awesome HR/AB ratios, don't you think? The batting averages are mediocre, and he struck out a TON, but Ken Phelps was this hidden power gem that nobody ever mentioned, it seemed.

And, we shared the same birthday (August 6), so that made him even more cool in my book.

I'm not sure how I found out about Phelps' power spikes, considering he was playing for the Mariners when I first was made aware of him. Regardless, once I unearthed him, I was careful to keep him to myself. I realized that the one thing more cool than Ken Phelps himself was not telling anyone about him, as if I was the only one who knew who he was.

I always wondered why, with those power numbers, Phelps wasn't more of a full-time player -- even as a DH, for his glove work was unsightly. Maybe he couldn't hit lefty pitchers. But Phelps lasted about a dozen years in the majors, almost always with lousy teams. Even the Yankees were subpar when Phelps played for them in 1989-90.

Projected over 600 at-bats, Phelps would have consistently hit 50+ homers every season in those years indicated above. And I don't think he was a steroid user, either.

Ken Phelps: the greatest homerun hitter you (probably) never heard of.

TOP TEN LIST: Day IX (and final day)

Okay, guys, I'm kind of wimping out here. I realized how difficult picking just ten closers would be, so let me just name a few that struck my fancy:

Lee Smith (Cubs and St. Louis)
Rollie Fingers (Oakland, Milwaukee)
Bruce Sutter (St. Louis)
Goose Gossage (Yankees, Seattle)
Mariano Rivera (Yankees)
John Hiller (Detroit)
Jeff Reardon (Boston/Minnesota)

To name a few.

Picking these Top Ten lists was a whole lot more nerve-wracking than I thought. That's mainly because of what happened: Cal Ripken, Jr. being omitted from shortstops, and Paul Molitor from first base/third basemen.

My apologies, gentlemen.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Home Run Derby: Chicken Soup For The Baseball Soul

Hey, does anyone remember Home Run Derby?

I'm not talking about the ham-handed version that occurs during All-Star week. I'm referring to a TV show from the early 1960's (or late 1950's) that was videotaped at old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, where the Angels used to play before moving into the Big A in Anaheim.

I can't recall the name of the host (I think it was Mark Something), but he would sit at a table in the dugout, interviewing each contestant between at-bats. Basically, the player would join Mark in the dugout, and they'd chat briefly while the other slugger played out his half of the inning.

Here's how it worked:

The "game" consisted of nine innings, and there was a batting practice-type pitcher, and he'd toss the gopher balls. There was also a catcher and a home plate umpire. Any pitch not swung at that was called a strike was an "out." Any batted ball that was NOT a homerun was also an "out." Three outs and your half inning was done. The game continued like this through nine innings -- ten or more if the game was tied.

Some of the players I remember seeing on ESPN's replays a few years ago were Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon, Norm Siebern, Hank Bauer, Al Kaline, and Ernie Banks, to name several. It was a cozy, comfortable show with little fanfare or high production values. Each "game" lasted about as long as a half hour, so it was neatly packaged for TV, too.

I wonder if the old episodes of Home Run Derby have been put onto DVD and boxed.

That would make for some relaxing viewing this summer.

Starting pitchers

10. Bret Saberhagen (Kansas City). From the time he stymied the '84 Tigers early in his rookie season to the day he retired, Sabes was a wonderfully reliable, efficient pitcher. Had that almost-sidearm delivery that was rough on righthanded hitters.
9. Phil Niekro (Atlanta/NY Yanks/Cleveland). Mr. Longevity. Pitched into his late-40's, and effectively. The old knuckleballer never tried to be anything else, and for 20+ years, hitters couldn't really figure him out.
8. Bert Blyleven (Minnesota/Pittsburgh). One of the best curve balls of his time. Blyleven gave up a ton of dingers, but he was still one of the best because he was durable and made hitters swing at HIS pitch.
7. Tom Seaver (NY Mets/ Cincinnati). Tom Terrific excelled for nearly 20 years, and won over 300 games. Powerful legwork made his pitches jump and rise. Nasty breaking ball.
6. Ron Guidry (NY Yankees). Louisiana Lightning. Guidry was brilliant in 1978, going 25-3 with an ERA under 2.00. Didn't have a very big window of high performance years, but when he did, he was dominant.
5. Jack Morris (Detroit/Minnesota). Winningest pitcher of the 1980's, and a legendary performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series: 10 innings of shutout ball -- in the Metrodome. Snarly attitude, mean split-fingered fastball. I saw him pitch a one-hitter in 1990 and not walk anyone. His only hit -- a first-inning single -- was erased on a DP, so he faced the minimum 27 hitters.
4. Greg Maddux (Atlanta). Maddux was so unassuming, and had such a simple windup, but his placement and command was almost matchless. Authored an incredible run in the mid-1990's and into the 2000's.
3. Roger Clemens (Boston/Yankees/Houston). Clemens struck out 20 Mariners in a game in 1986, and 20 Tigers ten years later. Now, ten years after THAT, he's still doing it. Wonderfully simple windup, menacingly explosive fastball.
2. Randy Johnson (Seattle/Arizona). The lefthanded Nolan Ryan -- in both style and longevity. Hard to imagine any pitcher being more intimidating than the 6'10" Johnson -- in the history of the game. Explosive fastball, and his awkward leg kick and motion made him even MORE difficult to handle.
1. Nolan Ryan (Houston/Texas/Calif). He's #1 because of the skill level he maintained well into his 40's. Plus, all those no-hitters didn't hurt. Ryan was a freak of nature, let's face it, but he was as dominant as any pitcher I've seen.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bunting Seems Now To Be An Expensive Option On Today's Ballplayers

Does anyone know how to bunt anymore?

I mean, anyone older than Little League-aged, that is.

People who know me will tell you I sound like a broken record -- or a scratched CD for the youngens -- when it comes to this rant. I am continuously appalled by the lack of bunting ability at the major league level, which must mean there's a lack of bunting ability in all levels of ball, because if you cannot bunt by the time you get to the big leagues, that means you couldn't bunt in amateur ball, the low minors, or AAA, either. Because if you COULD, you'd be a good bunter in the majors.

I don't know if players aren't being taught bunting properly, or if they simply don't retain it, or if the teachers themselves are starting to come from the non-bunting generation. Regardless, it's becoming so bad -- all this lack of bunting skill -- that it's practically accepted.

"Well, here comes Johnson to the plate, and you can forget about the bunt with him up there," an announcer might say about some slugger who steps to the plate in the late innings with a man on first base with no outs -- a prototypical bunting situation.

Say what? "Forget about the bunt"? Simply because slugger Johnson doesn't "do" bunting?

Well, yeah -- that's what we're asked to abide.

I don't think any ballplayer should be above bunting, nor be excused from it. Some situations simply don't call for swinging for the fence. Yet when certain players -- and that list is growing exponentially, unfortunately -- come to the plate, the defense doesn't even pretend to play for a bunt. Infielders stay resolute in their "deep" positions. Even the third basemen, for these hitters, think nothing of practically playing in shallow left field, let alone sneaking in for a bunt.

Rare is it that a batter will actually bunt at all, and when he does, he's likely to look like it's his first bunt attempt since ... Little League: bat awkwardly placed at the wrong angle; hands positioned bizarrely on the bat; poor technique as the pitch arrives -- like he's trying to smush a bug on the kitchen table rather than actually bunting. It gets so bad sometimes that I find myself hoping I never see that batter try to bunt again.

On the other hand, a fine bunter -- a deft handler of the bat -- is pure joy to behold. The fine bunter keeps his bat parallel to the ground, allows the ball to hit the bat rather than the other way around -- in order to deaden the ball, and knows how to drop it down the third base line or drag it toward first. The fine bunter is not a walk in the park to retire - even though his goal is sacrifice rather than base hit -- because his bunt is so well-placed and so well-executed, it needs a good, solid defensive play to throw him out. Yes, the fine bunter I can live with -- and with enthusiasm. The Goofus bunter, I haven't much use for.

But the Goofuses seem to be outnumbering the Gallants, and that's not a good thing.

I also wonder why today's manager isn't expressing more outrage over the fact that most likely less than 50% of his players can bunt properly. I mean, doesn't that take away a good portion of
his late-inning strategical options? Maybe today's manager realizes he's fighting a losing battle, with so many players being non-bunters.

Hey, you can send for me, coach -- I was a pretty good bunter back in the day.


10. Rick Monday (Cubs/Los Angeles). Struck out a lot, but a good clutch hitter who caught just about everything.
9. Willie Wilson (Kansas City). Fleet of foot, gifted with the glove. Wilson was a rarity in that he played good centerfield well into his 30's. Crashed and burned in the 1980 World Series (.154 with 12 strikeouts), but made up for it with solid play in the '85 Series that the Royals won (.367 with 11 hits).
8. Chet Lemon (Detroit). Chester Lemon may have been one of the game's worst baserunners, but he made up for it with stellar centerfield play. He handled the largess of Tiger Stadium's Death Valley brilliantly. Not possessed with a rifle arm, but he could hold his own in that department. A rather steady hitter with some pop.
7. Mickey Stanley (Detroit). Stanley, at his best, was one of the best fielding CFs ever. But his versatility enslaved him, and he drifted away from centerfield in order to play different positions -- especially later in his career. Slightly inconsistent with the bat, however.
6. Fred Lynn (Boston/California). Lynn was great at making circus catches, but that wasn't all to his game. He positioned himself nicely, which meant he was always ready to catch and throw. Who can forget his grand slam in the 1983 All-Star game that helped the AL break an 11-year losing streak?
5. Andy Van Slyke (St. Louis/Pittsburgh). For all his self-effacing humor, Van Slyke was a wonderful ballplayer -- and a terrific centerfielder. He was a tall, lanky guy who could chase down flyballs with the best of them.
4. Dale Murphy (Atlanta). Murphy was an underrated player whose consistency worked against him, when it came to accolades. He just came to the ballpark, did his job, and went home. But, at one time, several GMs would have built an expansion team around him.
3. Kirby Puckett (Minnesota). The late Puckett was not your quintessential centerfielder. He was roly-poly, stocky, and not terribly gifted with speed. But he made up for it all with effort, hustle, and smarts. Deadly, at times, with the bat. Hall of Famer.
2. Paul Blair (Baltimore). There was a reason Paul Blair played some of the most shallow centerfield ever: he was good enough to get away with it. Blair patrolled CF as if he was born to do it. A good hitter, too -- who could hit some homers, which was mandatory when you played for Earl Weaver's Orioles teams.
1. Robin Yount (Milwaukee). Yount started as a shortstop -- and was a pretty good one, too -- before becoming entrenched as a centerfielder. He made the move almost seamlessly. Yount, for my money, was one of the ten best players I've ever seen -- regardless of position.

Tomorrow: Starting pitchers

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Triple Or Homerun? I'll Take A Three-Bagger For Excitement

What is more exciting to you: a homerun, or a triple?

Actually, I'd cheat and say an inside-the-park homerun, but that's defeating the purpose of my question.

Just thought I'd ask, because I think a triple is one of the most exciting plays in sports. It's not quite up there with a penalty shot in hockey, but it does okay for the heart palpitations just the same.

Perhaps it's because triples are far rarer than homeruns. And you have to beat a throw. And the outfielders almost have to go into panic mode to chase the ball down and fire it back toward the cutoff man to prevent said triple.

I also like that slight uptick in the crowd noise when the runner makes the turn around second base and keeps going, full speed ahead, with the intention of trying to stretch it into a three-bagger. The announcers get excited, too; their voices go up an octave. It was that crowd noise that helped Louis Whitaker nail Kurt Bevacqua in the 1984 World Series.

It was Game 1, in San Diego*, and Bevacqua -- who had himself a pretty decent series -- hit a gapper to right-center. Whitaker, the cut-off man, had his back to the play, waiting for the throw from the outfield. He had no idea if Bevacqua was going to try for three -- until he heard the crowd pick it up a notch with their roar.

"I heard the crowd, so I just turned and threw it," Whitaker explained.

The throw from Whitaker was a perfect strike to Tommy Brookens, and Bevacqua was cut down at third base.

I suppose that's another reason I like the triple: the risk-taking. Just as a triple can be a great way to gain momentum and get the home crowd into the game, it's also a good way to kill an inning if you get thrown out at third. Because then, it's most likely just another out. But it comes with a healthy dose of "What if he had stopped at second?" -- read: the complexion of the inning changes.

And, to be honest, I've always liked the idea of players running around the bases like a carousel. Whenever you start running, you cause throws to be made. And whenever you cause throws to be made, you create an opportunity for your opponent to make a bad one. Get 'em to throw the ball around, I always say. Good things can happen.

Just don't get thrown out.

(BTW, you can vote in my WHYGJG poll -- to the right -- about triples and homers).

*It occurred to me that in every Tigers playoff series that I can remember, the team started on the road: The 1968 World Series; the 1972 ALCS; the 1984 ALCS; the 1984 World Series; and the 1987 ALCS. Their record in those series? 3-2.
Corner outfielders

10. Lou Piniella (Yankees). Sleeper pick, I know, but Piniella was a very underrated baseball player. He was a solid .300 hitter, and his fielding skills were superb. One of the worst tempers of all-time, however.
9. Paul O'Neill (Cincy/Yankees). O'Neill was silky smooth. One of the best swings of his time. Rifle arm and a good clutch hitter -- and fielder. And he was a winner: played on World Series championship teams with the Reds and the Yankees.
8. Harold Baines (White Sox). Baines was just a good, dependable ballplayer. He seemed to always come through in the clutch. Above-average with the glove.
7. George Bell (Toronto). While I disdain the fact that he won the 1987 AL MVP instead of Alan Trammell, Bell was still one of the best players of his time. He was explosive; he hit homers in bunches. Not a great outfielder, but better than average and not a bad arm for a leftfielder.
6. Jim Rice (Boston). A beast. Rice didn't just hit the ball -- he crushed it. Playing left field in Boston is no cakewalk, with the Green Monster and the fans, but Rice was equal to the task. Teamed with Fred Lynn in 1975 to give baseball one of its all-time greatest rookie duos.
5. Andre Dawson (Montreal/Cubs). The Hawk used those long legs to increase his range. At the plate, he was menacing with an ultra-quick bat. Playing on the artificial surface in Montreal damaged his legs, however -- robbing him of his earlier base-stealing speed.
4. Dwight Evans (Boston). Dewey Evans had one of baseball's all-time greatest arms. His was a cannon -- plain and simple. Not bad at the plate, either. I once saw him hit Jack Morris' first pitch of the 1986 season into the stands for a season-opening homerun, because the Tigers' game was the first one of the day that year.
3. Tony Gwynn (San Diego). One of the best hitters of all-time. Not dazzling in the outfield, but didn't hurt you, either. Great attitude and appreciation for the game. Not surprised that he became a college baseball coach.
2. Dave Winfield (Yankees). HATED seeing him at the plate in the late innings, as a Tigers fan. Great clutch hitter and marvelous range defensively. Frequently battled with George Steinbrenner, and that's a shame. Mostly, he was defending himself in New York under The Boss.
1. Reggie Jackson (Yankees/Oakland). Not a brilliant fielder, but a decent arm and his bat is legendary -- especially in the postseason. Mr. October, indeed. A Reggie Jackson at-bat was one you always stopped what you were doing to see. Almost Ruthian in his presence -- in his prime.

Tomorrow: Centerfielders

Friday, March 17, 2006

It's Always A Laugh Riot When Players And Managers Go Batty

Years ago, I asked the old cowboy -- the late umpire Durwood Merrill -- what it took for him to toss a manager or player out of a game.

"Greg, you can swear at me up and down," Merrill told me, "but as soon as it gets personal, you're gone."

I asked him to be more specific.

"Don't use the word 'you'," Merrill said. "You can say, 'We're getting screwed out here.' But if you say, 'YOU'RE screwing us,' then that's the magic word."

Merrill: "Don't make it personal"

Merrill -- for you trivia fans -- was Lions running back Billy Sims' high school football coach in Texas. When I conversed with him, he was in town umpiring the 1987 ALCS between the Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. That was the year the Twinkies came out of nowhere and swiped the AL flag and World Series, mainly because they lucked into home field advantage in both playoff series. They went undefeated in the God-awful Metrodome that postseason.

Anyhow, I was interested in the ejection thing because I wanted to know if most umpires were consistent in that area. And Merrill told me that there was a general consensus about the "you" or "you're" thing. Although, he admitted, some umps had quicker trigger fingers than others.

One of the funniest pieces of video I ever saw was a "discussion" between Orioles manager Earl Weaver and umpire Tom Haller, who happened to be miked up for a feature. Weaver, as was his wont, was directly in Haller's face. But Haller, about six inches taller than Weaver, stood his ground. They called each other liars, before Haller finally tossed Weaver, who promptly turned his baseball cap around so he could get his face as close to Haller's as possible. The exchange itself was priceless, but unfortunately I don't remember enough of it to share it with you here. I just remember the calling each other liars, but the rest is fuzzy. But I do know it was hilarious.

Weaver, in typical repose

Manager-umpire flare-ups entertain me greatly. A really good, animated argument -- arms flailing, dirt being kicked, the two combatants going jaw-to-jaw -- is a riot, and I am always eager to see what the manager or player will do once he's actually ejected: kick a water cooler; toss bats onto the field; or literally steal a base from the infield -- like current Tigers coach Lloyd McClendon did as a Pirates manager -- and carry it off the field with him.

Players and managers are comical when they lose sense of their maturity and act like spoiled brats in front of tens of thousands of fans and hundreds of thousands (or millions) of TV viewers. But if it's the home team's guy, few things get a crowd fired up more than watching their skipper or player lose it in a very physically demonstrative manner.

Sometimes managers will get themselves ejected to light a fire under their team. I tried it once in slow-pitch softball, and it didn't work.

I was managing a co-ed team, and one of our male players made what I thought was a circus catch in the outfield in the final inning. The umpire ruled it a hit. From the bench, I chided him and was very verbal in my protest of his call.

"You better keep quiet," he warned me.
"Oh yeah? And what are you gonna do about it?" I asked cockily.

"You're gone," he said.

He had kicked me out -- of a freaking co-ed slow-pitch softball game.

So I trudged off, hoping my ejection might wake up my team and that we might rally to win. I looked over my shoulder at the proceedings occasionally. By the time I got to my car, we had already lost. So much for my tactic.

So the next time you see a manager or a player giving it to an umpire, you can be sure that once you see the umpire's right hand pointing skyward in a violent manner, indicating an ejection, it probably got personal somehow.

Rest in peace, Durwood.

10. Ed Brinkman (Detroit). Set a shortstop record for consecutive games without an error. Steady Eddie couldn't hit a lick, but he wasn't in the lineup for his bat. Came to Detroit in the famous Denny McLain trade.
9. Mark Belanger (Baltimore). Quintessential good field, little hit guy -- typical shortstop of his day. Belanger was durable if not a good hitter. Despite his meager bat, doubtless the O's would have had a much harder time winning all those pennants and World Series without Mark Belanger's play at shortstop. I always thought he'd make a good manager. Unfortunately, he died young.
8. Shawon Dunston (Chicago Cubs). Maybe not a popular pick, but I'm including him because early in his career, Dunston was not a very good fielder at all, but by the time his career was in full swing, he had made himself a ton better. Had nearly 1,600 base hits, and struck out exactly 1,000 times. Funny.
7. Rick Burleson (Bos/Calif). Burleson was unheralded but got the job done. Played on a lot of winning teams, but never got a lot of notoriety. Until now!
6. Tony Fernandez (Toronto). Wonderful bat handler and a marvelous shortstop in the field. Amazingly strong wrists enabled him to flick the ball to first base from long distances with deadly accuracy.
5. Manny Trillo (Cleveland). Sleeper pick, because he played on so many bad teams, but Trillo was a very competent ballplayer who wouldn't hurt you in the field or at the plate.
4. Ozzie Guillen (Chicago Whote Sox). Guillen was scrappy and tough - pugnacious. He still is. A brilliant fielder and a great contact hitter.
3. Dave Concepcion (Cincinnati). So many great players on the Big Red Machine! Concepcion was one of them. He caught everything, and rarely struck out at the plate. Formed a great double-play combination with Joe Morgan.
2. Ozzie Smith (St. Louis). The Wizard could dazzle you in the field, of course, and even though he had little or no power, he was still a pain in the keister to opposing pitchers. A great arm to go with his defensive acrobatics.
1. Alan Trammell (Detroit). So sue me - I went for the Detroit guy. But Tram was, to me, the perfect shortstop: adept in the field, a good handler of the bat who could hit for power, and a fine teammate. He wuz robbed, in my mind, of the 1987 AL MVP Award, losing out to George Bell of Toronto, whose team blew the division to the Tigers in the final week of the season. One of the reasons the Jays folded was because Bell went into the tank. However, Trammell was the MVP of the 1984 World Series.

Sunday: corner outfielders.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

TV Director Coyle Changed The Way Viewers Watched Baseball

The next time you watch a baseball game on TV, say thank you to Harry Coyle.

Coyle, an oldtime TV director from the 1950's, was the first to use what is now a staple for all baseball telecasts: the centerfield camera.

Think about it. Imagine watching a game today without the comfortable pitcher-batter-catcher shot that is so wonderfully captured by the centerfield camera -- with its long, zoom lens. How disconcerting that would be!

Prior to Coyle's idea, baseball games were shot -- whether on TV or in newsreels -- from behind the plate, in the press box. Not a bad angle, actually. And since you rarely miss something you never had, it's doubtful baseball fans in the '50's clamored for a centerfield camera.

But Coyle fell in love with the idea. His video eye immediately appreciated the neatness of the shot's image. All you needed to see was in one frame: the pitcher, the batter, the catcher, and the home plate umpire. And while you could see those principals from behind home plate, there was one thing you could see with Coyle's centerfield camera that you couldn't from behind home plate: the ball's path after it left the pitcher's hand -- including seeing, for the first time, a curve ball curving, or a knuckleball dancing.

However, he had a difficult time getting permission from baseball to use the camera, for two reasons: The leagues feared teams could steal the catcher's signs if they merely kept a television in the dugout, and umpires didn't like the notion of viewers at home being able to legitimately argue their ball/strike calls. But after much persistence, and backing from his network -- NBC --Coyle's centerfield camera was granted the green light.

Coyle was also the director who placed a camera inside the Green Monster at Fenway Park during the 1975 World Series. Thus, he was able to capture the image of Carlton Fisk waving his homerun fair in Game 6.

Harry Coyle died a few years ago, but his centerfield camera is still very much alive.

Let's face it: we can't do without it now.
Third Basemen

10. Aurelio Rodriguez (Detroit). Okay -- a homer pick. But Aurelio was a brilliant fielder with a rifle arm. Just not much with the bat. I know he must have committed errors, but I don't remember any of them.
9. Graig Nettles (NY Yankees). Nettles put on quite a show in the 1977 World Series, but it was overshadowed by Reggie Jackson's three homers in the clinching sixth game. Nettles, though, put on a fielding clinic. One of the better homerun hitters in the 1970's.
8. Buddy Bell (Texas). Bell is a sleeper, but he had a cannon arm and had nifty glove work. No slouch at the plate, either. Played on a lot of bad teams, however.
7. Ron Cey (Los Angeles). The Penguin. Kind of a funny-looking guy, when you compare him to other third sackers of his time, but Cey waddled just well enough at third to get to most balls hit his way. Lots of pop in his bat.
6. Doug DeCinces (Balt/Calif). Power, arm, range -- but not a hit-for-average guy. Still, a competent third baseman. Supplanted Brooks Robinson in Baltimore.
5. Bill Madlock (Cubs/Giants). Not here for his glove, but "Mad Dog" was a terrific hitter. Provided spark to the '87 Tigers in their improbable run to capture the AL East flag. Later became the Tigers' hitting coach.
4. Pete Rose (Cincinnati). Wasn't sure where to put Rose, because he played so many positions. But I settled on third because it's the toughest one that he played. His hitting prowess speaks for itself. Better-than-average fielder at third, playing a lot of games on artificial turf.
3. George Brett (Kansas City). Brett batted .390 in 1980. That alone should put him this high, but Brett was a reliable fielder and, of course, a dynamite hitter. He took the teachings of hitting guru Charley Lau to the nth degree, and many of the Royals hitters became disciples.
2. Brooks Robinson (Baltimore). He barely makes the list because I only saw the last six years of his career. But he belongs because when you think of third base, you think of Brooks Robinson. Maybe the best fielding third basemen ever. Probably played a few years too long -- his last three averages were .201, .211, and .149 -- and not terribly consistent at the plate, but would you NOT want him as your third baseman?
1. Mike Schmidt (Philadelphia). Third baseman extraordinaire: he could hit with power, drive in runs, and he fielded admirably. With apologies to Robinson fans, I place Schmidt at #1. In the 1970's and '80's, Schmidt was one of the very best players in the game. Ended up with 548 career homers and 1,595 RBI.

Tomorrow: shortstops.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Stengel, Ruth Almost Became Tigers Managers

Stengel and Ruth: Their pinstripes almost became Tigers stripes

If Jim Campbell and John Fetzer had their way, Casey Stengel wouldn't have been subjected to the "Amazin' Mets" after all.

The Tigers made a heavy push for Stengel to manage their club, between the 1960 and '61 seasons. And if it wasn't for Stengel's wife, Edna, they just may have pulled it off.

The Tigers were coming off a 71-83 season, in which they actually traded managers with the Indians: Jimmie Dykes for Joe Gordon. And maybe a third base coach to be named later. Regardless, 1960 was disappointing, and with Gordon locking his apartment and fleeing town shortly after the season, the Tigers were in the market for a manager.

That's when owner Fetzer set his sights on Stengel, the former Yankees skipper.

The more Fetzer and Campbell and Rick Ferrell -- another front office man -- talked to Stengel about managing the Tigers, the more Casey liked the idea. He even went so far as to name the coaching staff he'd like to have join him in Detroit.

But when Edna Stengel intervened and insisted on a doctor's physical examination, things were put on hold. And, after the exam, Stengel's doctor advised against managing at that time.

Deeply disappointed, the Tigers ending up hiring Bob Scheffing. And, a year later, Stengel's health must have had a miracle turnaround, because he was managing a New York Mets team that was certainly not a prescription for anyone in any sort of questionable physical condition -- or mental.

But that wasn't the first time the Tigers went after a famed Yankee to manage their team.

Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1934, the Tigers dangled their manager job in front of Babe Ruth. Owner Frank Navin received permission from the Yankees to talk to Ruth, who was at the tail end of his brilliant career. Ruth had set his sights on managing years before retiring, and it was his fervent desire to do so that caused him to eventually enter into a fool's agreement with the Boston Braves. The Braves led Ruth to believe he would manage the team if he would only join them as a player for the 1935 season. They led him astray, only signing him for cheap publicity and a temporary attendance boost.

But this was 1934, and the Tigers wanted Ruth to make a decision prior to him traveling to Hawaii for some exhibition games after the 1933 season was concluded.

"I'll call you when I get back," Ruth told Navin.

"I can't wait," Navin said. The talks broke down. So the Tigers turned to Philadelphia A's catcher Mickey Cochrane, hiring him as player-manager. Nice call -- the Tigers won the American League pennant in '34.

Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel as part of the Tigers' manager roster? It wasn't as far-fetched as you think.

Resource for this post: "Fifty Years With the Tigers," by Fred T. Smith

10. Bobby Grich (Baltimore/California). Grich was one of the first second basemen to turn the position into one where power was a part of the makeup. He had an MVP-type year for the division-winning Angels in 1979: 30 HR, 101 RBI, .294 BA, .984 (only 13 errors).
9. Dave Cash (Pit/Phil). Cash was as durable as they come -- amassing 650+ at-bats five years in a row at one point. He could steal bases, field a little bit, and got on base A LOT. Not usually included among the great second basemen of his era, but Cash had a career .283 BA and .984 fielding percentage. Not bad.
8. Davey Lopes (Los Angeles). Lopes had some of the biggest thighs I'd ever seen on an infielder. And he could fly; an exceptional base stealer. Not known for his glove work, but he wasn't bad, either. More than sufficient power for a second baseman. Often the man who got Dodgers rallies started with his hitting and speed.
7. Willie Randolph (NY Yankees). Consistent, smart, and quiet -- when the Yankees usually had a storm brewing around him. The Yanks robbed the Pirates to get Randolph, who was so steady and reliable, he wasn't good copy for the New York scribes. But he was a darned good second baseman.
6. Frank White (Kansas City). Not flashy, not gaudy, but Frank White was as solid as they come at second base. He learned to add some pop to his bat, which meant he wasn't just a #9 hitter anymore.
5. Rod Carew (Minn/Calif). You can say I cheated by placing him among second basemen, because of all the years he played first base, but Carew started as a second basemen and played several years there. As a hitter, he had few equals. Glove work was not his calling card, but he was above average. His hitting, however, places him this high.
4. Joe Morgan (Cincinnati). You could put him at #1 and I wouldn't quibble. But Morgan is #4 because he benefitted from being in a powerful Reds lineup that probably added to his production. Still, in the 1975-77 range, Joe Morgan may have very well been the best player in all of baseball -- someone you might build an expansion team around. Slick with the glove and his diminuitive size didn't preclude him from holding his ground during double plays.
3. Ryne Sandberg (Chicago Cubs). Ryno embodied the Cubs after being stolen in a trade with the Phillies. Smooth as silk with the glove, Sandberg could be poison at the plate, too. He was taller than most second sackers, but that didn't compromise his mobility or range. With the bat, he thrived in cozy Wrigley Field.
2. Lou Whitaker (Detroit). Okay, so maybe if I lived in Cincinnati I'd put Morgan #2. Or Sandberg, if I was from Chicago. But Sweet Lou Whitaker trumps them both because of hs versatility in the batting order. He was a marvelous leadoff hitter. He could bat #2 or #3 and not look out of place. He even batted cleanup, in 1989. He had some of the quickest wrists I've seen. Defensively, one of the strongest arms of his time -- if not THE strongest. The rap on Whitaker was that he played like it came too easily for him, re: he didn't hustle. I just think he was that good, he made it look easy.
1. Roberto Alomar (Toronto). An even .300 career hitter with over 2,700 hits. Nine seasons of batting .300+. Alomar had power, speed, and could drive in runs. He fielded the position quite competently. Probably, at his peak, one of the top five players in the game. A sure Hall of Famer.

Tomorrow: third basemen.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Announcers Score With Me If They Give It On The Air -- A LOT

Ernie Harwell once told me that he learned this trick from oldtime baseball announcer Red Barber when it came to giving the score on the air: Red would take one of those egg timers -- with the grains of sand, hour-glass shaped -- and flip it to start it. When the grains of sand ran out, he gave the score, and flipped the timer. So listeners were guaranteed the score every three minutes. And, Harwell said, he stole the technique. Worked wonders, he told me.

I can't disagree. Ernie was one of the most reliable announcers when it came to giving the score. His longtime partner -- Paul Carey -- wasn't as trustworthy, but he is forgiven. How can you not give a pass to a man with the voice of God?

I don't listen to baseball much on the radio anymore, mainly because I'm not in my car all that often. I work at home, and before that I had a very short commute. I'll still tune the game in occasionally if I'm working outside or swimming in the pool, but with a small family and a couple of dogs, the game-listening kind of gets shoved wayyyy in the background. But that's okay.

Harwell (left), thankfully stole a trick from the great Red Barber

Regardless, when I do listen -- and especially when I was more avid -- hearing the score for me is sort of like insulin for a diabetic. I start to get the shakes if it doesn't come within a minute or two. The Tigers' current radio guy -- Dan Dickerson -- does a pretty good job in that department. He seems to get it. While baseball is still a wonderfully lazy game practically made for radio, its listeners still want the game score. For if we don't get it, it's like stepping into a conversation where everyone is interested in the topic and nobody will tell you what they're talking about. Very annoying.

I guess what makes me crazy about announcers who won't tell the score is, it takes two freaking seconds to say it! Ken Kal, the Red Wings' radio announcer, does a marvelous job. He blends it into his play-by-play:

"Lidstrom with the puck. Flips it into the Colorado zone. Red Wings changing on the fly -- 2-0 Detroit -- and the puck is picked up by Smith...."


Basketball is great for score fans because it's changing constantly. All you have to do is listen for the next basket or free throw, and the announcer can't help but give the score. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if you heard:

"Billups spots up for a's through! Chauncey Billups triples! Now here come the Nets..."

No way Jose.

Football is a toughie. You might have to listen a little while for the score, although Mark Champion of the Lions was pretty reliable. Dan Miller, who took over for Champion last season, does alright. But for some reason I don't break into palpatations if I don't get the football score right away. Maybe because with the Lions, I'm actually afraid of what the score is.

Television solved this problem years ago with the addition of their eternal scoreboards burned into your screen throughout the game. All you have to do is click the channel, and look for the darned thing -- because it's located differently everytime. But at least it's there, and that's a good thing.

I wonder what the radio equivalent of that might be?

Too bad we don't have the technology yet where, everytime you tuned the game in on the radio, the announcer gets a small electrical jolt, which causes him to give the score immediately.

Come on, techies -- get with the program.
Top Ten List - Day II

10. Kent Hrbek (Minnesota). Maybe his numbers were inflated by the Metrodome, but Herbie was a player. Not the most limber of men, but he didn't drop the ball. Menacing at the plate, Hrbek thrived on the low, inside fastball.
9. Chris Chambliss (New York Yankees). Solid, unspectacular, easy to overlook. Of course, hit the dramatic, walk-off HR that won the 1976 ALCS. But Chambliss could hit for average, a little power, and didn't hurt you defensively.
8. Mike Hargrove (Cleveland/Texas). A sleeper pick. "The Human Rain Delay" (named such because of his annoying routines between every pitch) was a masterful fielder and a .290 career hitter. Unfortunately, played on some bad teams.
7. Tony Perez (Cincinnati). If you needed an RBI, you'd send for Perez. He had amazing consistency in that department. Not a bad fielder, and he was an absolute integral cog in the Big Red Machine.
6. Cecil Fielder (Detroit). Big Daddy, in my mind, never got his props for his defense. True, he didn't possess a lot of range, but the balls he got to -- were caught. The power numbers speak for themselves. RBI king for several seasons beginning in the early 1990's. World Series champion in '96 with the Yanks.
5. Mark McGwire (Oakland/St. Louis). Oh, it pains me to put him here because of the steroid thing, but the truth is, Mac was a great first baseman even before the alleged doping. He could scoop out low throws with the best of them, and was one of the most feared sluggers of his time -- again, pre-steroids.
4. Steve Garvey (Los Angeles). Garvey once played an entire season -- 1984 -- without committing an error. He made plays look effortless. Deliberate at the plate, Garvey rarely struck out and hit with power. He excelled well into his late-30's because he kept himself in marvelous shape. Maybe one of the most reliable players -- overall -- of his era.
3. Don Mattingly (New York Yankees). Amazingly, Mattingly's career with the Yankees traversed a period that was mostly postseason-free. So he only played in one playoff series -- the 1995 ALDS (his last season), in which he batted .417 with a homer in 24 at-bats. But he is #3 because he fielded brilliantly, hit for power and average, and was lefty. Also a great leader on some not-so-hot Yankees teams of the 1980's.
2. Frank Thomas (Chicago White Sox). The Big Hurt. For that is exactly what he inflicted on opposing pitchers. Thomas was, at his best, a monster at the plate -- a feared beast. Pretty slick with the glove, too. Truly menacing, though, with the bat. Among the top ten players of his time.
1. Eddie Murray (Baltimore). A tough call, because Mattingly and Thomas were so gifted, but Murray was absolutely off the hook at the plate when runners were in scoring position in the late innings. Plus, he had over 3,000 hits and 500+ homers. He may not have been quite as adept with the glove as Mattingly and some others, but he was no slouch defensively. Ultimately, his reliability for ribbies (over 1,900) puts him at the top of the heap. Plus, being a deadeye switch-hitter means something. He played the game a bit angry -- and I like that.

Tomorrow: second basemen.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Top Ten Lists: They're Not Just For Letterman, You Know

Baseball, to me, creates the best barroom debates of any team sport:

Do Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Who was the greater homerun hitter -- Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron?

Who deserved the MVP more in 1941: Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams?

And so on.

You know what they say about opinions. They're like ... well, they're like eyes -- everyone has them.

Starting today, I will serve up to you my Top Ten players at every one of the nine positions. For pitchers, I will choose ten starters and ten relievers. But I'm not going to be one of these guys who pretends he knows Tris Speaker or Walter Johnson. After all, I may be old, but ...

Instead, these will be guys I actually saw play -- and not in newsreel footage. So basically, we're talking since 1971 -- the last 35 seasons. You won't see too many active players, because part of greatness is doing it over a long period of time, and having history kind of place you where you belong.

Here's the schedule:

Today - Catchers
Tuesday - First basemen
Wednesday - Second basemen
Thursday - Third basemen
Friday - Shortstops
Sunday - Corner outfielders
Monday, March 20 - Centerfielders
Tuesday, March 21 - Starting pitchers
Wednesday, March 22 - Relief pitchers

CATCHERS (main team played for in parentheses)

10. Jim Sundberg (Texas). "Sunny" Sundberg is here because he was one of the best defensive backstops of his time -- maybe THE best. He wasn't much at the plate, but he played all those games in the Texas heat and was consistently among the leaders in fielding percentage, and he had an above average arm.
9. Tony Pena (Pittsburgh). Pena had that unusual crouch behind the plate, with his right leg extended as he sort of rocked on it. But from that cockeyed position he threw potential base stealers out at a high rate of success. At the plate, Pena held his own, though he was a tad inconsistent. But he makes it mainly for his defense, a la Sundberg.
8. Bob Boone (Phillies/Royals). Methuselah. What did Boone do -- play till he was 50? Okay, maybe not quite that old, but Booney stuck around because he was a cerebral catcher -- a thinking man's guy who knew baseball inside and out. So-so with the bat, but one of the most respected catchers ever.
7. Gary Carter (Expos/Mets). Good, solid overall player. Didn't do anything mind-boggling well, but well enough to be a solid multi-tool player. Key member of the Mets' 1986 championship squad.
6. Lance Parrish (Detroit). If he had hit for a higher average -- or not struck out so much, I may have snuck him in the top three. But he sits at number five because few catchers were as complete as The Big Wheel for defense, power, and handling pitchers. His love/hate relationship with Jack Morris worked, especially in 1984 when Morris pouted midseason.
5. Bill Freehan (Detroit). I caught -- no pun intended -- Freehan toward the end of his career, but I saw enough to put him here, because defensively he had the highest career fielding percentage in history for catchers for the longest time. He was no slouch with the bat, either, though his power numbers were up and down.
4. Carlton Fisk (Red/White Sox). The original "Pudge." Fisk could be here simply because of his longevity, like Boone, but that would cheapen his career. Few were better signal-callers. Offensively, Fisk was a great "bad ball" hitter. Behind the mask, Fisk fielded the position with the smoothness of silk.
3. Ivan Rodriguez (Texas). When a catcher wins an MVP Award, as Pudge did in 1999, it's a real testament, because catchers rarely are hitting for high average. And when they flirt with a batting crown, as Rodriguez did in Detroit in 2004 -- at age 32 -- it's celestial. This will be an interesting season for Pudge, because we'll see if his 58-point drop in BA from '04 to '05 is a portend of things to come because of his age, or a fluke. One of the best arms of his time.
2. Mike Piazza (Dodgers/Mets). At his prime, Piazza may have been the best player in baseball, for the position he plays is so physically taxing. Combining power, defense, and hitting for average, Piazza was the most complete package at catcher since ...
1. Johnny Bench (Cincinnati). Bench WAS the catcher's position, as far as I'm concerned. There was really nothing he couldn't do -- including stealing bases. I'm not talking Rickey Henderson here, but Bench stole bases at a high percentage of success because he was smart and knew when to pick his spots. Defensively he had no peer. With the bat, he could be deadly. One of the top five best players of his era -- regardless of position.

How about that -- not a lefthanded-hitting one in the bunch. That wasn't intentional. Sorry, Ernie Whitt fans -- I'm not going to put a "token" lefty in there.

So break out the beer and pretzels, and let the name-calling begin.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

"Let's Play Two!" -- As Long As It's A Makeup, And Day/Night

I am purposely writing this on a Sunday, because today I talk about doubleheaders.

Remember those?

It's appropriate to get into a rant about DHs -- and not THOSE DHs -- on Sunday, because that's when most of them used to be played.

I know the labor agreement pretty much forbids them -- unless for makeup dates -- so my protests are pretty much like expectorating into a summer breeze. Still, this is a baseball blog, and today the subject is doubleheaders -- so there!

I was a baseball child of the 70's -- having been born in 1963 -- and every year that I got my handy-dandy, pocket-sized, tri-folded Tigers schedule from some local retail outlet that had them neatly placed on the counter by the cash register, I looked for the orange blocks (road game blocks were white) that had "DH" listed beneath the Tigers' opponents' names. We rarely attended DHs when I was a kid, but I still wanted to know when they were scheduled. As if I had to clear my busy, pre-adolescent calendar or something.

If you were lucky, you also saw THIS lovely abbreviation on the schedule: "TN". That meant a twi-night doubleheader, and I can already sense I'm losing readers under the age of 30 here. But a TNDH rocked. It meant a game at 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening, followed immediately by another game. And they were actually on the schedule that way!

Today, even when a rainout or some other calamity requires a makeup DH, the owners employ that money-grubbing thing called a "day/night doubleheader." This is exactly what it indicates: a game in the day, another game that night -- or however long it takes to clear the stadium so another crowd of paying customers can come in and buy hot dogs and beer. Let's face it: a day/night DH is a way for the owners to avoid offering two games for the price of one, like the old-time DHs. Forget the fact that ticket prices are now more than twice that of the days when DHs were scheduled.

Typically, baseball DHs were scheduled on Sunday afternoons, save the TNs. In fact, in pre-1970's baseball, you could almost count on a Sunday doubleheader; it was just accepted. Then clubs started sprinkling the TNs in there after everyone had stadium lights installed.

We rarely went out of our way to attend DHs, because my folks' mantra was, "That's a LOT of baseball." Of course, my mantra volleyed back was, "Yeah -- and your point is...?"

But I did manage to get to a DH here and there -- whether from coming upon free tickets or cajoling my folks into a TN. And yes -- it WAS a lot of baseball. But you were getting a two-fer, basically, so who cares if you left a tad early or arrived a little late?

We'll never see the return of the DH to the baseball schedule -- pre-determined DHs, that is -- I am sad to acknowledge. They look to have gone the way of another viewing pleasure: the drive-in movie.

Hey, how about opening a drive-in where you can watch televised DHs in your car?

You'd go to such a place, wouldn't you?

Friday, March 10, 2006

"When It Was A Game": Required Viewing For All Baseball Fans

Get your hands on this -- NOW

If you haven't already seen it, then I insist you rent -- or buy -- When It Was A Game. This is a marvelous video consisting of nothing but home movie footage of baseball in the 1940's and 1950's. They also came out with WIWAG II, and III. It was produced by Black Canyon, and originally aired on HBO some 15 years ago.

It's narrated throughout, and interspersed with guest narrators, ranging from actor Jason Robards to author Robert Creamer. There's also a cool music soundtrack that flits in the background -- all from that time period, of course.

But the moving images are what makes this an absolute must-see for baseball fans. You could watch this in complete silence and enjoy it, but the narration and the dubbed in sound effects, like the soft thud of baseballs hitting mitts and bats being tossed around, are spiffy.

What WIWAG tries to do is simply present baseball in the raw during those glorious decades. Most of the footage is, like I said, shot by amateurs and was contributed by ancestors. And, bonus: IT'S ALL IN COLOR.

Yes -- every inch of film, save a few, is presented in color. And REAL color -- not this Ted Turner/tinted jazz. HBO may have used computer technology to punch up the hues, but it's --for the most part -- original color film.

WIWAG doesn't try to present anything in any sort of chronological order. It touches on issues of the day, such as the lack of black ballplayers in the majors and the low salaries, etc., but the wonderful thing about this production is you can start or stop watching it at any point and not lose the luster. Because the allure is the color footage, and there's tons of it, from beginning to end. I believe it runs about 60-90 minutes, if memory serves. It was so popular they came out with II and, I'm pretty sure, III.

And I learned a few things about baseball in those days. What stands out is the fact that ballplayers of that time period, when a half inning was complete, simply tossed their gloves into the shallow outfield. They didn't take them into the dugout! And there's some great footage of players jogging out to the infield to take their positions, but not before ambling out to the outfield grass to retrieve their gloves. Beautiful. Also makes you wonder how or why that routine ceased in favor of carrying the gloves to the dugout.

The other cool thing about WIWAG is trying to identify the players who appear in the film. I'm a pretty historian-type guy, as you probably have guessed, so I might recognize more dudes than the average shmoe, but it's still a kick to see guys like Johnny Mize and Bill Dickey and Dom DiMaggio in living color.

Also, the special promotional events that teams put on, especially during the war years, are interesting. Foot races around the basepaths, comedy sketches before games -- that players participated in -- were all a part of major league baseball in order to help sell war bonds, etc.

Do me a favor and rent WIWAG immediately. Or, if you've already seen it, perhaps you have the itch to see it again? I have my videotaped copy in the basement. I taped it the first night it aired, in July 1991.

No, you cannot have it -- or even borrow it.

As the Cheez-Its people would say, "Get your OWN copy."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Time Spent In Other Ballparks Feels Slightly Naughty

I've seen major league baseball in seven venues: Tiger Stadium; Comerica Park; Wrigley Field; the original Comiskey Park; the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland; Exhibition Stadium in Toronto; and Shea Stadium.

It's always odd, to me, to watch professional sports in stadiums/buildings other than the ones in your hometown. It sounds weird, but you almost get a little homesick; I did, anyway. That feeling didn't take away from the experience, but it was there. Maybe it wasn't so much homesickness as ... like you were cheating on your wife.

"Oh, I'm watching MLB in Comiskey Park -- I hope I don't get found out."

Of course, a lot of the game is spent simply looking around you, taking in your environs. I found myself studying everything: the scoreboards; the types of seats the ballpark had; the sight lines; and of course the concession stands, to name a few. The game itself was almost secondary. I think I've only kept score once in another park, and that was in Wrigley Field, when I went by myself. I'm usually a "keep score" kind of guy, but sitting my fanny in somewhere other than Tiger Stadium just felt exciting enough that scorekeeping would have taken away from the experience.

I have a few memorable moments that occurred in foreign MLB stadiums. To wit:
  • Shea Stadium, 1991: I was working in local cable downriver, and our sister company was located in New Jersey. So during a business-related trip in May 1991, one of the employees from the NJ company treated me to the Mets game. Along about the fifth inning, out of nowhere, a thick, pea soup-like fog drifted in. It was a night game. The fog got so bad the game was delayed. Eventually the umpires had players and coaches return to the field and hit fungoes to each other, to test the visibility. It was very surreal. I was then allowed into the Mets TV control room, where I heard Tim McCarver talking to the crew about whether he thought the game should continue. We ended up leaving. Turns out the game was continued, I believe. Regardless, it was the only time a game at Shea was delayed by fog. And I was there.
  • Exhibition Stadium, 1978: Before the Skydome, the Blue Jays played in Exhibition Stadium, a horrible, converted football stadium that was ill-suited for baseball. It was so bad it made the Skydome desirable -- and I hate artificial turf parks. Anyhow, when I was 15, my friend Steve Hall -- whose family was from Canada -- let me tag along on a visit to his aunt and uncle's home in suburban Toronto. We went to two Jays games that week -- vs. Chicago and Baltimore. The Jays were in their second year of existence and were awful, of course. One of the reasons we wanted to go was because they were so bad, we wanted to see them stumble all over themselves trying to play baseball. Well, darned if they didn't win both games that we saw! I remember we took the subway -- two 15 year-old kids by ourselves -- to the Orioles game and we were late. Hall asked me what I thought the score was. "4-0 Baltimore," I said. We entered the game in the bottom of the first, and the scoreboard had "4" in the first inning for the O's. I cackled. But the Jays came back and won. In the White Sox game, Ralph Garr of Chicago swung and lost control of his bat. It twirled into the crowd, striking a child in the head. A few innings later, the child returned to his seat, head bandaged, carrying the bat. The crowd went wild. The Jays won again.
  • Municipal Stadium, 1985: The Indians were God-awful in '85, and the Tigers were defending champs. My friends Cory Bergen, John Nixon, and I went to the Friday night and Saturday night games of a weekend series between the Tigers and the Tribe. The Tigers lost Friday, and it was made worse because we were seated behind these annoying Italian kids -- probably late teens, early 20's -- and they kept ripping on the Tigers, saying the only reason Detroit won in '84 was because of their 35-5 start. They knew little about baseball and they were really getting under our skin. The Indians rallied in the ninth to tie the game and then won in extra innings, all while the Italian kids said obnoxious things like, "The Indians are TOUGH with two outs!" Dude, your team sucks! But they kept at it. I still wish I was pounding their melons. After the game we went to a spaghetti joint (how ironic, after our experience with those kids), and the waitress asked where we'd been. "The Indians game," we said. "Oh," she said, "did they lose again?" That was insult to injury.
  • Wrigley Field, 1989: The Cubs were playing the Expos, and I was there by myself, in Chicago on business. The Expos' leadoff man, Dave Martinez, opened the game by fouling off at least seven or eight pitches. It was like that at-bat Dave Bergman had for the Tigers in '84 on a Monday night against Toronto's Roy Lee Jackson. Martinez kept fouling off pitches, and the count ran full. Then he ALMOST strikes out, but the catcher drops the foul tip. Then he fouled off ANOTHER pitch before ending the at-bat with a homerun. It was the greatest leadoff at-bat I'd ever seen.

By the way, one of the cool things I remember about Exhibition Stadium was that some guy was selling banana splits outside the stadium after the game, from one of those portable vendor thingies on wheels. I always thought that rocked.

No, I didn't order one.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My First Brush With Tigers Greatness

This blog is named after Johnny Grubb, but the first Tiger I met in person was Bill Freehan, and I couldn't have been more dumbstruck.

It was in 1976, and somehow my mother knew someone at Ford Motor Company who knew Freehan, who was in his last year as a player. It was arranged that we would have tickets behind the Tigers dugout, and for a bonus, I'd get a chance to meet Freehan -- catcher extraordinaire -- before the game.

Freehan, a Tiger from 1963-76

My friend Steve Hall and I, and my parents, were instructed to go to the Tigers clubhouse entrance and ask for someone in particular, who was to fetch Freehan for us. It seemed like we waited by that big green door forever.

Finally, it slid open, and there stood Freehan, his over six-foot frame seemingly taking up the entire doorway. He was in his baseball pants, and a sleeveless warmup top that made my mother swoon. He had a broad smile.

"Hi, fellas," he said to Steve and me.

And the two of us, who jabbered all the way to the stadium in the car about what we'd say to Freehan, stood mute. Maybe we managed a weak "Hi."

He said a few things -- no, I don't remember what they were -- and chatted with my folks for a bit. Then he told us he'd wave to us before the game.

The green door slid closed.

Sure enough, before the game, Freehan popped his head out of the dugout, located us, and waved. We waved back, and I took great pleasure in knowing others around us were wondering how we rated, getting waved to by Bill Freehan.

I just wish I had opened my big mouth and spoken to the man. Oh well -- what do you expect from a starstruck 13 year-old?

By the way, I ran into Freehan again, about 10 years ago, outside a restaurant in Petoskey. This time I said hi, even though he didn't know me from Adam.

Twenty years after our initial meeting, I found my voice.

Welcome! (And Why Johnny Grubb?)

A couple of months ago, I asked my colleague Ian Casselberry, "How can you do two blogs?"

Ian runs the highly entertaining Fried Rice Thoughts and the sports blog it spawned, Sweaty Men Endeavors.

"It's not easy," I think I remember him saying. "But I have some time on my hands."

But that was before I hired him as a contributor for Motor City Sports Magazine. So he doesn't have as much time anymore. Yet he still pumps out those blogs -- and still with panache.

This blog is going to be much less formal than Out of Bounds. It's going to be strictly about baseball, number one, which in of itself screams informality. Baseball is the laziest of games, but also the most picked apart and broken down and statisized (new word). Second, I'm going to write much more casually here; more of a personal journal-style. I'm going to ruminate about whatever strikes me that particular day: nostalgia, today's Tigers, my experiences -- you name it. Like the words beneath the title say, this will be a "cozy" place. I hope you'll find it comfortable and a nice departure from the cacophony going on in the rest of the sports world.

I'll try to post daily here. After all, baseball is an "everyday" sport, so why shouldn't this blog be that?

As for the Johnny Grubb name, I wanted to name this blog after a favorite Tiger of mine, and Grubb fit the bill. He had the smoothest swing I've ever seen, and he was absolutely deadly when ahead in the count 2-0 or 3-1. For those too young to know, Johnny Grubb picked the Tigers up and carried them for about a month -- in August -- during their unsuccessful run at the 1986 East Division flag. He was "The Gentleman from Virginia," according to Ernie Harwell.

Maybe we'll even really find out where Johnny Grubb is along the way.