Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mitts I've Worn And Wished I'd Worn

Do you remember your first baseball mitt?

I started my illustrious, six-year Little League career at age eight with something that had a Detroit Tigers logo on the strap. It was the typical children's-style glove. And I remember having done a horrible job of breaking it in, not being accustomed to such things. The glove had a skewed, uneven fold that makes me shudder just thinking about it.

Ahh, but then my second glove was more like the real deal. It was endorsed, first off. The steady but unspectacular second baseman Ted Sizemore had his signature burned into the thumb side. Years later, I found out that Sizemore grew up in the Detroit area, like me, so I guess that was fitting. Plus, I was mostly an infielder, so at least I had the right style of mitt. The glove was a Wilson make. I remember my mother springing for some special oil that was to go into the palm of the glove. It came in a small, tin container with a tapered nozzle. I think the stuff was called "Glovolium", or something like that.

Anyhow, I took good care of the Sizemore model. It was oiled, properly broken in, complete with a baseball and rubber band. The rubber band kept the mitt closed over the ball. I'm sure you know that trick, if you were ever once a 13-year-old boy.

That glove took me through my teen years, and it wasn't until I came out of retirement to play in an adult softball league when I was 24 that I bought my next glove -- a black Wilson that I still own, 20+ years later. Now THAT'S a mitt. It's perfectly broken in, with that lovely "snap" action that all trusty mitts have. It was broken in for softball, but I'd trust it with a hardball, too. The difference from my Sizemore model is that its webbing is made for outfield play, since that was what I played in softball.

I REALLY wanted to own a first baseman's glove, though. For whatever reason, I longed to be a first baseman. I think it's because all the cool superstar outfielders moonlighted as first basemen. So did a lot of the catchers. Guys like Bill Freehan, Johnny Bench, and countless other backstops would take a "day off" and don the first baseman's mitt. Freehan even spent one season (1974) at 1B more than he did catching, in terms of games played. Al Kaline, when he returned from a wrist injury in 1968, found the outfield crowded. With the DH still someone's bad dream, Kaline volunteered to play some first base, giving Norm Cash a rest against lefties.

This is what I REALLY wanted to wear

First base is just that position that almost every player finds himself at, at least once in his career. Remember Pudge Rodriguez's short stint there in 2006? I also recall Lance Parrish being forced into first base in 1980, as Tigers manager Sparky Anderson tried to make his All-Star catcher a serviceable backup at first. Didn't work.

I admit to getting a little excited when I see that there may be the need for a "bizarre" first baseman in a game, due to multiple moves, injuries, etc. Sometimes I wonder, "Who's gonna play first now?," and wait in anticipation to see who emerges from the dugout with someone else's first baseman's glove on his hand.

The funny thing is, for a position that supposedly anyone can play competently, there is actually quite a bit to playing first base. There's footwork, scooping balls out of the dirt, knowing when to cut-off an outfield throw and when not to, and that difficult 3-6-3 double play. Yet in a pinch, in small doses, first base really can be almost like a day off.

Of course, when we were kids, that position was right field. You always put the worst players out there.

Yes, I played right field too, on occasion.

Monday, October 20, 2008

World Series Must Suffer The Weight Of Its Participating Cities

Does the World Series champion really HAVE to be from either Tampa or Philadelphia? Is it too late to relocate the teams? Can't Commish Bud Selig step in with some sort of emergency injunction and stop this from happening?

Tampa or Philly. Liver or head cheese. Death or taxes. Plucked out toenails or an enema. Take your pick.

Tampa -- that city of Johnny-come-latelies who only were nudged awake a couple of weeks ago, and found out that a baseball season had broken out. A fan base that is scrambling to make it up to their team in the form of promising -- for sure -- to buy tickets next season. Cross our hearts.

Philadelphia -- a city with a chip the size of, well, Tampa on their shoulders. The City of Brotherly Love -- but the kind of brotherly love that involves wedgies and noogies and replacing little bro's candy bar with cat pooh. A fan base so cruel it once booed Santa Claus. And Mike Schmidt. Perhaps the most bitter of all the sports cities, because its teams constantly rise to OK and then sink back down to awful. Or worse, stay at OK and perpetually tease its followers. Ask any Eagles fan.

Or Phillies fan, for that matter. The Phils are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore -- at least I hope so, and that's why I'm picking them to swat these feisty little Rays for good, doing what the White and Red Sox couldn't do in the AL playoffs. The Phillies have been doing that Philadelphia sports thing for the last five or six years -- where you peak at OK-to-good and stay there for several years, never winning anything of note. Hey, ask any Flyers fan while you're at it.

The Rays, no doubt, are looking around their locker room and seeing a bunch of young, green talent and figuring that the World Series will be a fairly regular thing in Tampa for the next several years. So no biggie if they drop this one; there'll be others, and soon. The Phillies, on the other hand, have sore feet from kicking at the door and are poised to finally just bust the damn thing down.

But the cities, as far as being deserving? Meh.

It's a toss-up, really. Do you want your baseball champion to come from a town where they're still wiping the Sand Man from their eyes, or from one that's so mean-spirited and cranky, it makes John McCain look like Dale Carnegie? Have fun with that choice.

Selig needs to do something. Maybe arrange to have the games played at a neutral site. That way we can be spared the phony excitement of Tampa and the national anthem singer won't be booed in Philadelphia. The reason the Rays fans are so loud is because they've spent all summer resting up. You'd be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, too, if you hibernated from April to September.

So it's Tampa versus Philly. Golly-gee-whiz versus f*** you. Some choice.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Usually Reliable Glove Of Pena Messed Rays Up In Game 5

I was frustrated beyond belief with Carlos Pena in his final days as a Tiger. He, along with fellow under-achiever Eric Munson, were supposed to be two of the young building blocks around which the Tigers would construct a pennant contender. Each showed potential. But both sagged under the weight of expectations, to the point where I called for the removal of their Tiger stripes, and forthwith.

Munson was gone after the 2004 season, and Pena hung around through most of spring training in 2006, when new manager Jim Leyland had seen enough and released the slugging (at times) first baseman.

Pena's career looked dead. He hooked up with the Red Sox, but didn't really get any playing time. Then he ended up with Tampa Bay. Last season, he finally had that breakout season we had been waiting for in Detroit: 46 HR, 121 RBI.

Pena had himself another fine year in Tampa this season, too -- and by all accounts his glove was still above average. I didn't have much to complain about in that area when it came to Pena; I always thought he was a solid first baseman, defensively.

So it's ironic that it was Pena's glove that betrayed the Rays last night in the telltale ninth inning of Game 5 of the ALCS.

Most of the blame will be shoved toward rookie 3B Evan Longoria, though.

That's a shame, because it was Pena who screwed up, really. The play in question was a slow grounder that Kevin Youkilis hit with two out and nobody on base. Longoria raced in, fielded it cleanly, but threw low to Pena. The kind of short-hopped throw that first basemen see all the time. The kind that a 1B knows is low as soon as the thrower releases the ball.

In the many replays that were shown of the play --which started the Red Sox's game-winning rally -- if you looked at Pena's glove location as the ball skipped toward him, you saw how poorly positioned it was. It was as if Pena wasn't anticipating a skip at all. He positioned his glove low, scraping the dirt, instead of a few inches higher, in advance of the short hop that he surely must have known was coming. As a result, the ball bounced over Pena's glove arm, which because of its low positioning wasn't able to correct itself quick enough to either snare the ball or at least stop it from heading into the stands. Youkilis was awarded second base, and scored on J.D. Drew's drive to right field. Ballgame.

I don't pretend to be a baseball expert, but I did play the game as a youth and have followed it for 37 years. And the first time I saw the replay, I caught Pena's mistake. The play was scored as an infield single, and while some may argue that the hit was being kind to Longoria, the real culprit was Pena. Sometimes a first baseman has to bail his third baseman out. Not every throw is going to be perfect. Especially those made under duress, as Longoria's was on the Youkilis play.

Carlos Pena is a fine player -- now. He still strikes out too much, but his production is finally justifying some of those Ks. But he fouled up the Longoria play last night, and it cost his team the game. Let's see if he makes up for it in Game 6.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where's The Love For Rays -- In Tampa Bay?

I was talking the other day to a colleague of mine in television production. During a lull in our activity, the talk turned to the ongoing MLB playoffs -- specifically, the Cinderella Tampa Bay Rays. Neither of us are fans of theirs, it turns out. While he couldn't really pinpoint the reason why he's not on the TB bandwagon, I offered a suggestion.

"The fans there don't deserve a winner," I said. Plain and simple.

Taking a look at the 2008 MLB attendance figures, my crankiness is borne out.

Of the eight teams that qualified for the playoffs, the Rays are, by far, the worst in terms of home attendance. There they sit, 26th out of the 30 teams, with a hideous total of 1.8 million people. That's a paltry 22,259 per game.

Tampa -- the City That Never Woke Up.

What's that all about, anyway? The Rays had the second-best record in the American League, on the heels of 10 straight losing seasons. And not just losing seasons, but finishing south-of-the-equator kind of losing seasons. The Rays were a team that was routinely mathematically eliminated when the May flowers started blooming. You'd think that their breakout year of 2008 would have been like pure oxygen to an emphysema sufferer.

But, as Yogi Berra once said, "If people don't want to come to the ballpark, there's nothing stopping them."

Yet, there should have been something stopping them: the Rays provided thrills and chills all summer long -- not that their town noticed.

If that's how you support a first-place team, with barely 22,000 fans per game (less than 50% of its 45,000 capacity), then I say the Rays should pick up their spikes and go somewhere where they give a damn.

Less than half full, on an average? For a team that won 97 games? Past Rays teams would have needed a full season plus most of July of the next to win that many ballgames. Despite the lack of support, the Rays managed to win 57 home games -- over 70 percent. When your winning percentage is 20 points higher than your percent of fannies versus capacity, then something's not right.

I thought something was peculiar this summer when I watched Rays highlights on ESPN. In their home games, all I saw were empty seats in the background.

What was keeping the fans from showing up? Did all the losing make them apathetic? Didn't the local newspapers and TV stations clue folks in down there that something great was happening?

Twenty-two thousand fans per game is a figure reserved for the dregs of baseball. And sure enough, the spots 28-to-30 are occupied by perennial losers like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Florida. You can't blame those fans for staying home.

It's a travesty, the lack of support the Rays got in Tampa Bay. The city doesn't deserve big league baseball. Take the team away from them, as soon as the final out of their season is made. Their stadium, named after an orange juice, should be squished like a carton and eradicated. May as well put something else there, like a Wal-Mart or another retirement home.

Tampa is going to be a great city, once they clear out all the zombies.

Cities that stay home from first-place teams aren't worthy. There are 26 other teams in MLB that would love to be in the Rays' position right now; same with their fans.

Someone should nudge the Tampa Bayans awake and let them know that they're missing a helluva baseball season.

Shame on them, anyway.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Lolich's '68 World Series One For The Ages

It's been 40 years to the day, and I think it'll be 40 more, at least. In fact, it may not ever happen again.

"It" is what Mickey Lolich did for the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series.

On the surface, it might not seem like one of those unbreakable records that are so fun to debate over a cold one and some pretzels. But then you stop to think about it, and it becomes clear: it's doubtful that anyone will match what Lolich did in '68 for the Tigers.

1968 may have been Denny McLain's year -- in the regular season -- with his 31 victories and ERA below 2.00. But the WS belonged to Lolich. The portly lefty started three games, completed them all, won them all, and for good measure pitched Game 7 on two days' rest to save the Tigers' bacon.

Why is this so impressive? And why is it unlikely to ever happen again?

An enduring image: Lolich leaps into Bill Freehan's arms after registering the final out of the 1968 Series

First, how many pitchers even start three World Series games in this day and age of five-man rotations? Unless you have some rainouts in there, AND the series goes seven games, you're unlikely to see three starts by any one pitcher. Then, how many will throw three complete games? That's even less likely.

Lolich's numbers were mind-boggling: 27 IP, 20 H, 21 K, 6 BB, 1.67 ERA, 3-0 record. He only allowed two home runs, just one more than he himself hit. It was about the most no-brainer MVP win in Series history.

The story of how Lolich ended up going the distance in Game 7, just three days after throwing nine innings in Game 5, is legendary. Manager Mayo Smith asked Lolich if he could give the team "a few innings" in a Game 7 start. Lolich, with his famous rubber arm, said yes. Then after those "few innings", Smith asked Lolich, in the dugout, if he could go one more. Lolich said yes. After that inning, the game scoreless with Bob Gibson on the mound for the Cardinals, Smith again asked Lolich for one more inning. And Lolich obliged. Then the Tigers rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh inning, breaking the 0-0 tie. So Smith asked Lolich to finish the game. Lolich, of course, said yes, figuring he had all winter to rest. Lolich suspected that Smith never intended to lift him, and that the "few innings" thing was a ruse from the get-go, not that Lolich minded.

So what do YOU think? Will another pitcher ever match Mickey Lolich's 1968 World Series performance?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Dodgers-Phils NLCS: One Team HAS To Win, Right?

Where's Mike Schmidt? Rick Monday? Steve Carlton? Anyone see Davey Lopes running around anywhere?

Ahh, the Dodgers and the Phillies. For the National League Pennant. Just like they did when the disco balls were still spinning.

It's a battle now between two franchises who are both fragile and with chips on their shoulders. The Phillies haven't won the whole enchilada since 1980, and were World Series losers in 1983 and '93. The Dodgers were last world champs 20 years ago, and only just the other night won their first post-season series since then.

Two Rodney Dangerfields about to clash in the NLCS.

The Phillies and their fans are certainly used to this kind of a drought. Before the '80 championship, which is their only one in franchise history, the Phils hadn't been to a WS in 30 years. Their existence has been mostly pock-marked with stumbling and losing. The Dodgers, on the other hand, are having trouble abiding this 1988-2008 thing. Theirs was once an organization synonymous with winning -- even if it meant eventually losing in the WS to the Yankees.

I don't think Dodgers fans could have imagined that the Kirk Gibson-led team of 1988 would be the last one to sip champagne for two decades.

Yet the Dodgers still managed to trump the Lovable Losers, AKA the Chicago Cubs, in the NLDS. The baseball gods finally gave the Dodgers a team they could beat in October.

The Phillies have jobbed the Mets two years in a row in the NL East, but it still doesn't make up for blowing the 1964 pennant. You know, the year they lost ten in a row in the season's final days and committed the worst self-larceny in baseball history.

Someone once asked Gene Mauch, who managed the '64 Phils, if he ever thought about that blown pennant. This was decades later.

"Every day," was Mauch's reply.

Most of you know that I don't do predictions. Not my style. Plus, I'm usually pretty lousy at it. But SOMEONE has to win this thing. SOMEONE has to have a chance to exorcise their WS demons, representing the National League.

So, Dodgers in six. Or maybe the Phillies in seven. Dodgers in six-and-a-half? Phillies in eight? I have no idea. But one of these teams can't lose. And neither of them have been in that position in quite some time, if ever.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Yes, Virginia: There IS No Cubs World Series

"Billy Goat" Sianis isn't dead after all. Black cats are still prowling around. Steve Bartman's invasive, sticky fingers are still leaving prints.

The futility of Steve Swisher and Ernie Broglio and Larry Biittner have returned.

Charlie Brown still can't kick the football. Wile E. Coyote just fell off another cliff. The Italian Army still stinks. And so do the Cubs.

The Chicago "97 Wins" Cubs. The Chicago "Going to end the 100-year drought" Cubs. The Chicago "This is the year" Cubs.

No, The Same Old Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs are on the verge, again, of disappointing in the post-season. Check that. They've past the verge and are falling down an endless flight of stairs. I haven't seen a town's hopes dashed so quickly since the Redskins hired Steve Spurrier.

The Cubs are down 0-2 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the National League playoffs, also known as the NLDS -- which up to this point had stood for No LA Dodgers Success. Not only are the Cubs down 0-2, they're down 0-2 in bombastic fashion. They've laid ostrich-sized eggs two nights in a row in front of their tormented faithful: 7-2 and 10-3. This isn't a playoff series, it's a wake.

Oh, this wasn't supposed to happen, was it? Weren't the Cubs, those lovable losers, supposed to be shedding that label in 2008? Wasn't this group supposed to be different from all the other Cubs teams?

97 wins!

The best record in the National League. By far. Steamrolled to the Central Division title. The esteemed and battle-tested Lou Piniella as their manager.

Oops! Wait a minute.

About Piniella: wasn't he the skipper of the 2001 Seattle Mariners who won 116 games in the regular season and went poof in five games in the ALCS to the Yankees, who won but 95 -- and only after the M's squeaked by the Indians in the ALDS, who won just 91?

Yep, that's him.

The Cubs ended the regular season by clinching their division with more than a week to play. Piniella had all that time to get everything just the way he wanted it, from the pitching rotation to the lineup. And did I mention that the Dodgers won all of 84 games this season? See a trend here with Sweet Lou?

Now, I know Piniella didn't boot the ball around Wrigley Field, or throw all those gopher balls in Games 1 and 2. But, hey, who said life is fair? Lou won the 1990 World Series in upset fashion as manager of the Reds, and that's been his last hurrah in the dugout.

The Cubs are going down. Again. No World Series. Again. The championship-less drought starts a new century -- 101 years and counting.

Didn't they learn anything from the 2004 Boston Red Sox when it comes to smashing history into pieces?

I saw some images on the Internet of the looks of shock and sadness on the faces of Cubs fans in Wrigley from the past couple of nights. Shades of 2003. And of 1989, and 1984, and 1969. And might as well include 1945 and 1935 in there as well -- even though the Cubbies actually made it to the WS in those two years.

October, 1908 -- the Cubs' last WS victory.

Roosevelt was president -- Teddy Roosevelt. The first Model T had its last screw tightened just a couple weeks earlier. There wasn't even a World War I yet. Civil War vets were still living. Baseball fans would have included folks who remembered when Lincoln was president.

Just remember that, Lions fans -- next time you bellyache about not having an NFL champion since 1957. The Cubs' streak of futility makes the Lions' look like a two-week vacation in the Bahamas.

So the 2008 Cubs will soon be no more. It might happen tomorrow night in Game 3, or the next night in Game 4. Or, to REALLY put the icing on the cake, maybe the Cubs will fail miserably by WINNING Games 3 and 4 and succumbing in Game 5 in front of their straitjacket-ready fans.

So Lucy gets to keep pulling the ball away. The Roadrunner gets to keep "beep-beeping" and leaving the Coyote in the dust. And the Italian Army still stinks.

Cubs Lose! Cubs Lose!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Leyland's "Vote of Confidence" Is This: You Still Have A Job

Forgive me, because this is hardly the first time I've pulled this quote from the grab bag of the wayback machine, but it's just too good and too eternally relevant for me to retire it.

The Pistons, way back in 1971, announced that they had just given coach Butch van Breda Kolff a brand new contract extension. And the press wanted to know why VBK didn't look all that jazzed about it at the presser.

"Hell, they can always fire you," VBK explained of his faith in the written word, "and you can quit if you want to."

Is that statement any less true now than it was 37 years ago? Didn't think so.

There really are no guarantees in pro sports, except for guaranteed contracts, which often times only guarantee the insanity of the contract giver-outer.

Contracts, truthfully, are symbols. They are commitments, to a degree, of a team to a player or a coach. But they are mostly symbolic, and extensions are seen as the ultimate vote of confidence.

But, as VBK so succinctly said, they can always fire you. And you can quit if you want to.

At issue is Jim Leyland, and his contract status with the Tigers.

Leyland is signed through the 2009 season. And that's all. Not one pitch beyond.

Nothing says that a team has to continuously make sure that the coach is under contract for seasons beyond the one upcoming. Yet when they don't, that term "lame duck" starts to crop up.

You know, the players know that (insert name here) is only under contract for the year current, and so he may not be around much longer anyway, blah, blah, blah.

Leyland, according to Mitch Albom of the Free Press, is miffed that the Tigers aren't extending him beyond '09. President and GM Dave Dombrowski has chosen, apparently, to let next year play itself out before rendering a verdict as to whether Leyland will manage in Detroit beyond then.

But is that a lame duck thing, or a "prove to me that you deserve an extension" thing?

What was conveniently buried was that DD offered Leyland a contract through 2010 when the skipper was extended beyond the original limit of 2008. But Leyland chose instead to be extended only through '09. Oops. Now that offer is off the table, to hear Leyland tell it.

Some of you might remember Walter Alston. You would be the same folks who remember that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings. Or that there was a Dodgers manager before Tommy Lasorda.

Alston was that pre-Lasorda Dodgers manager. He skippered the team from 1954 through 1976. Twenty-three years. And do you know how many contracts Alston signed? Twenty-three.

That's right. Perhaps the greatest manager in franchise history worked on a year-by-year basis. He didn't seem to mind. Nor did the owner. And nor did the players, as the Dodgers did a whole lot of winning in those 23 years. The next person to call Walt Alston a lame duck will be the first.

In Leyland's defense, he wasn't overtly whiny or bitter about DD's decision not to extend. But Leyland was clearly hurt. Here's how he characterized his three years managing the Tigers.

“I think we had a great year, I think we had a good year and then we had one disastrous year. … I’ll take my share of the blame for it. ... But you can put several people up on a dart board and if you threw a dart, you’d probably hit the right guy. ... We were all guilty.”

Leyland, of course, wants to look at the big picture in all three years. But as I've bellyached here before, the Tigers have been a terrible second half team in all three of Leyland's years in Detroit. And I'm sorry, but that's troubling. Now we're not talking anymore about lame ducks, but about chokers, when you consider such second half nonsense.

Albom said that Leyland wanted a vote of confidence, and didn't get it.

Here's your "vote of confidence": you have another year left on the contract. And we're not firing you. Good luck in '09.

A manager, or a coach, shouldn't need any more vote of confidence than that.

But coaches want the purse string holders to put their money where their mouths are. Wrong. They already did that, when they hired you in the first place.

Leyland did make one astute observation: if this underachieving year had occurred in the last year of his contract, he may soon be the ex-manager of the Tigers. But it didn't, so he gets another year -- the year agreed upon by both parties.

If DD didn't have that so-called confidence in Leyland, then he would fire him. Simple as that. And he would do so, no matter how many years were left on the contract. It wouldn't be the first time a team paid a manager not to manage.

Jim Leyland has it all wrong. He's 1-1-1 in his three years in Detroit, but he likes to look at it as 2-1. In my book, he's 0-3 in second halves, for whatever my opinion is worth.

If the Tigers don't win in '09, he'll probably be out the door. And he would have been out the door, likely, even with an extension signed through 2010.

Butch van Breda Kolff isn't with us anymore, sadly. But his words are just as true now as they were in 1971 -- and even before then.