Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Billy's Drinking Buddy Fowler Also A Decent Pitching Coach

Art Fowler has passed away, and so has the last tangential connection to Billy Martin.

Fowler, 84 when he died, was Martin's pitching coach everywhere he managed, which explains why the resume mirrors his boss's stops: Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, Oakland, New York.

Martin, who died on Christmas night in 1989, took Fowler along at every managerial stop, and not just for his skills at teaching the nuances of breaking balls and sliders. The manager needed someone to share a beverage with after the game, and Fowler was more than happy to fulfill that role. Art Fowler wasn't just Billy Martin's pitching coach; he was his drinking buddy.

Fowler in his playing days

There are still connections to Martin, but they have notoriety beyond Billy: George Steinbrenner, Whitey Ford, and Reggie Jackson, to name three, have lives and careers that are bigger than their respective laughs, tears, and blowups with the fiery #1.

But Art Fowler is gone, joining Mickey Mantle as another Martin crony that's passed. And joining Martin himself, of course.

But Fowler was no clown dressed up as a pitching coach. His staffs were usually pretty solid, and typically they improved after Fowler arrived. Often they faltered after he left, perhaps an even bigger tribute to his abilities. Fowler's staff in Detroit, in 1972, was supposed to be the weak link of a team that had the potential to contend. But it was the pitchers that carried the Tigers that season, while the hitters struggled. And the team won the AL East that year.

Fowler was a major league pitcher himself, and was a member of the 1959 Dodgers world championship ballclub. Also on that team was someone named Roger Craig, who turned out to be a pretty good pitching coach in his own right.

Art Fowler isn't on this earth anymore, but you can bet he's already hoisted a drink or two by the time you're reading this, with his old buddy and boss Billy Martin.

Just not sure if that's occurring above us, or below.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Despite New England Dialect, Fidrych A Detroiter At Heart

Talking to Mark Fidrych, you're immediately beamed into cozy New England territory. You halfway want to look around you for cranberry bushes and lobster.

Fidrych, 52, was on the other end of the phone, regaling me with stories about that magical 1976 season, for an upcoming piece in Motor City Sports Magazine, and the Massachusetts lilt was prevalent, as always. But despite the accent, Fidrych considers himself a Detroiter at heart.

"Oh, for sure," he said when I put the question to him. "I only spent six years there (in Detroit), but it's like a second home to me. The people have always been real nice."

What would you say, I asked, to the fans in Motown today?

"Thanks for sticking with me when I was up. Thanks for sticking with me when I was down. And thanks for sticking with me now."

That's all very nice, but I still think the thanks are owed by us, and not the other way around.

Fidrych created a spike in the interest in Tigers baseball at a time when we were smack in between two championship eras -- that of the '68 heroes and the 1984 squad. He was a convenient side show when the rest of them weren't much to look at.

Still, the Tigers sent three starters to the '76 All-Star game in Philadelphia: Fidrych, and outfielders Rusty Staub and Ron LeFlore.

Fidrych pitched in perhaps the most celebrated regular season game in team history, in terms of retrospect, when he faced the mighty Yankees on June 28, 1976. His record was 7-1, and by the time the night was over with, he was a national mini-icon. He shut down the Yanks on seven hits in a complete game, 5-1 victory.

When we spoke the other day, he recalled a conversation he had with teammate Tom Veryzer on the way to the ballpark the afternoon of that Yankees game.

"Tommy says to me, 'Well, Monday Night Baseball, kid. This is gonna be beamed into your hometown. Mine, too.'"

Upon arriving at the park, Fidrych was struck by the "tons of people" milling about.

"I went to warm up, and there were so many people, I was like, 'Wow.' But then I just told myself that it's baseball, like any other game. Let's go out and get 'em. And that's what we did."

Fidrych didn't make his first start that season until May 15. Yet, he ended up with an amazing 24 complete games.

"They told me, when I made the team, that I would observe for awhile and then when they needed a fifth starter, I'd get a shot," he said. Except that observe was "obsuv" and starter was "stahtah."

The following spring, Fidrych hurt his knee shagging flyballs. ("I came down hard and heard a pop and then felt something 'slushy' down there," he says). Staub, who had warned him of such shenanigans, told him to go see the trainer.

"That's when they told me I had popped some cartilage," Fidrych said. The knee injury caused a slight change in his delivery, which led to shoulder problems that would ultimately end his career by 1980.

I asked him if he ever gets tired of talking about that incredible season.

"No, you never get tired of it," he says. "That's what the people in Michigan want to talk about. They tell me about this game or that game they saw that year. And then, you know, you just get into conversations."

Thirty-one years later, those conversations are still going strong.

Friday, January 19, 2007

2007 Tigers Have Chance To Repeat Ancient History

The years roll off the tongue, when it comes to talking about Tigers baseball.

1968. Thrilling, come-from-behind victories. A hero every night. McLain and his 31 victories. A stunning comeback from a 1-3 hole in the World Series.

1972. Good pitch, no hit bunch who captured an improbable AL East flag on the season's final weekend, beating Boston in Detroit. A heartbreaking, 3-2 series loss to the A's in the ALCS.

1984. 35-5. Wire-to-wire lead. Willie Hernandez's unconscious season. Gibby's blast off Gossage to cap a 7-1 postseason. World champs again!

1987. An 11-19 start doesn't portend what is perhaps the most thrilling final week of baseball we'll ever see. A 3-1/2 game deficit with eight days to go. Then the Blue Jays go in the tank, and the Tigers win the division on the final day, behind Frank Tanana's crooked, creaky arm that manages a 1-0 win over Toronto. Then, a flameout in the ALCS -- probably because the team was emotionally spent.

These years are treasured by baseball fans in Detroit. And you can certainly now add 2006 to that list. But how does the following sound? The '69 Tigers. The Tigers of '73. The '85 Bengals. Those Tigers of 1988.

Not so magical.

The Tigers, 2007 version, have a chance to do something that hasn't been done since, well, 1935. And that is to win consecutive American League pennants. It's also the last time the Tigers qualified for the postseason in two straight seasons.

The winter caravan winds down today -- that bus full of Tigers players, coaches, and media interlopers -- and the reception at every stop for the two separate buses has been, as expected, quite audacious. The fans are still inebriated from last season's success, and they're treating their baseball heroes like ... heroes.

It wasn't always that way, of course. Even last year, despite the hiring of Jim Leyland as manager, skepticism reigned. Hope may have peeked out, like the groundhog on February 2nd, but instead of seeing his shadow and thus predicting more cold, dark winter, there was the feeling of a thaw perhaps happening.

"We won't cheat you," Leyland told one of the crowds yesterday. "We'll put on a show when you spend your hard earned money."

That, too, is different talk.

But this time the skipper has something with which to back up his words. He has a fine, talented team -- a nice blend of youth and experience. Heck, even the youth is experienced. And playoff-tested. He has all those young pitchers, plus the veteran Kenny Rogers. He has a brand new big bat -- the sometimes enigmatic Gary Sheffield. And he has more players coming, courtesy the suddenly prosperous farm system.

He has all these things, and more. The tools are in place for another playoff run.

But they were in place in 1969, when the Tigers returned just about everyone, including the ostentatious McLain, and finished 19 games behind the Orioles.

The Tigers of '73, another year older and with no young help on the way, kept things interesting until mid-August, when manager Billy Martin did his usual implosion and got the ziggy. The team limped home in third place.

The 1985 bunch, like their predecessors sixteen years earlier, pretty much returned the main cast of characters from the previous year's championship roster. But there was no magic, and the Tigers finished a distant 15 games behind the Blue Jays.

The 1988 Tigers, sans Kirk Gibson, who fled to Los Angeles, were actually part of a multi-team race that nobody seemed to want. But a late season swoon hurt them, and they finished a game behind the Red Sox.

So not since the 1934-35 Tigers has a Detroit baseball team done the back-to-back postseason shimmy.

It should be pointed out that the '34 team lost the World Series, too. To the Cardinals, too.

The 1935 team beat the Cubs in the World Series.

Will history repeat, some 72 years later?

Well, the Cubs were active this offseason ...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sheffield Will Ride The Bus, And It's Refreshing

Homerun hitters don't take the bus. They're Rolls Royce guys. Big-time RBI dudes aren't the Greyhound type.

Gary Sheffield, though, is on the bus, and that's the right place for him at this time, I do declare.

Sheffield, the Tigers' prized offseason acquisition and homerun hitter/RBI dude, is with several of his new teammates as the club's annual winter caravan makes its way across the state. He's on the bus, just like everyone else, as he gets his first taste of meet-and-greet as a Tiger.

It's nice to see Shef on the bus, because while most Tigers fans were joyous upon the news of his arrival back in November, the same ones, and the usual naysayers, tensed and held their breath a bit, too. This is because Sheffield has a reputation that precedes him as one who might start out warm and fuzzy, but who will inevitably turn bad, like cheese left out at room temperature. And often in Sheffield's case, the Cheese has stood alone. Often because it's smelled up the joint.

The annual caravan is a several-day tour in which Tigers players, coaches, newspaper reporters and other interlopers galavant across Michigan in big buses. In the past, it's been mostly like Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show, with various Tigers managers playing the part of the show's snake oil salesman. Hopeless drivel. Even last year it took on that feel, with new Tigers manager Jim Leyland on board as the snake oil salesman. Although, Leyland's snake oil pitch was far more subtle and far more free of blarney.

This year, the Tigers don't have to engage in Brother Love's Show. They have the histrionics of the 2o06 season to recall, and can use it as the best sales pitch since the bread slicer. No blarney needed. No snake oil to hawk. Just good, fundamental baseball to pump, and a brand new Rolls Royce guy to show off.

And the Rolls Royce guy will sit in the bus. Right up front, probably, but in the bus nonetheless. A good start to a new year, I'd say.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Overwhelming Rejection Of McGwire Stunning

There is no such thing, really, as "qualifying" for a Hall of Fame, in any sport. It's a misnomer, so don't let anyone use that word -- "qualifying" -- without challenge.

You can get elected into a Hall. You can be admitted. You can be enshrined. You can even be allowed.

But you cannot qualify.

There is no qualification, because there is no threshold -- no minimum accomplishments to achieve that mean automatic inclusion.

This has never been more true than today, when voters who cast the ballots for Baseball's Hall of Fame so overwhelmingly rejected the, ahem, "qualifications" of a man with 583 career homeruns, its effect should reverberate for years.

Mark McGwire is not a Hall of Famer today. Not even close. Only 23.5% of 545 ballots tabulated had his name on it. Seventy-five percent is needed to be elected, so he came over 50% shy of what was necessary to order his bronzed plaque in Cooperstown.

Normally, a ballplayer with almost 600 homeruns would cruise to election. He would be in the same percentile range as Cal Ripken, Jr. (98.5), and Tony Gwynn (97.6), both of whom were elected today. We would be talking about the dodos who left him off their ballots, rather than what we ARE talking about, which is how much this rejection is directly tied to the cloud of suspicion of steroid use that hovers around McGwire like that ball of dirt Pigpen from Peanuts comic strip fame walks among.

Cheater! Fraud! Lab experiment!

All those, and more, will be used to justify the dismissal of McGwire's Hall eligibility like so much lint off a coat. He got what he deserved, it will be said, written, and otherwise argued. We don't let cheaters into the Hall of Fame!

Yet Gaylord Perry is enshrined. And so overt was Perry's admission of doctoring baseballs, done with a wink and a smile, that doubtless some voters chuckled in recollection of his exploits as they filled in his name.

There are others, too, whose likeness resides in the Hall, who engaged in various other shenanigans, like sign-stealing, more baseball doctoring, and magic with the insides of their baseball bats.

Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

But McGwire's transgressions -- unproven, mind you -- are considered to be so heinous that not even one-quarter of the voters felt obligated to grant him induction, despite his 583 homeruns.

No liars. No cheaters.

Not this time, anyway.

Mark McGwire is not a Hall of Famer, not today. Not even close.

Barry Bonds, beware.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Book Review: Blunders Have Never Been So Fun

Been reading a terrific book that I picked up at Barnes and Noble the other day.

It's called The Big Book of Baseball Blunders, by Rob Neyer. In it, Neyer takes us through the 20th century chronologically, devoting several pages each to some of the bonehead moves, both on and off the field, in the game's history.

It's one of those books -- and I love these -- that you can open up wherever you want and start reading. It's light on pertinent photos, but that's OK, because the meat of the book is the text, the storytelling.

Neyer often uses a statistic, developed by Bill James, called Win Shares -- a pseudo-scientific method of determining how many wins a player is worth to his team. Three Win Shares is equal to one team win. He also likes to attach BA/OBP/SLG, in that order and with the slashes, to players' worth. But that's it for the number crunching, for the allure of Blunders is Neyer weaving his own opinions with historical fact, to tell us why the blunder in question is worthy of inclusion.

Some of the obvious ones are there, like Red Sox manager Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in too long in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS; Billy Martin overworking his 1980 Oakland A's starting rotation; and the Red Sox trading Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater. But there are so many that even the most fervent baseball afficionado probably isn't aware of. There are also delicious sections on managers that shouldn't have been managers; teams that missed a pennant by one game, and why; and other decisions that should never have been made.

Blunders retails for $16, and is an oversized paperback. I heartily recommend it!