Friday, January 30, 2009

Casey At The Mike: The Mayor Will Now Don A Headset

The Mayor isn't seeking another term. Too bad.

But now, in his new role, everyone will get to hear what so many runners on first base and catchers behind home plate and reporters in clubhouses got to hear during Sean Casey's 12-year run as baseball's Mayor.

That was his nickname, The Mayor, due to Casey's affability and engaging personality. Count me among those whose experienced it, first hand. There was definitely no putting on; no hidden agenda. Casey was simply a nice guy. Period.

Casey retired as an active player this week, and immediately began his new role as a studio analyst for the fledgling MLB Network. If there was ever a ballplayer who was destined to be a chatterbox behind a microphone when he hung up his spikes, it was Sean Casey.

Casey, a Tiger in 2006 and 2007, was a career .300 hitter with average power and a mean glove at first base. His best years were in Cincinnati, but he was the only Tiger who hit a lick in the 2006 World Series loss to St. Louis. He finished up his career last season with the Red Sox.

Casey, we're told, will give us his two cents worth, and then some, on the Network's signature nightly show, MLB Tonight, during the regular season. He'll also appear this winter on The Hot Stove League.

MLB Network has signed itself a plethora of recently-retired players (and not-so-recently-retired) to function as baseball experts on TV. Casey should make the transition from player to broadcaster as easily as physically trading a bat for a microphone. He may, in fact, be another one of those guys who had to scrap and work for every ounce of success he enjoyed on the diamond, yet finds that broadcasting is as easy as turning on a faucet.

I was a little taken aback, frankly, that Casey retired at the relatively young age of 34. He's not the prototypical first sacker; you know, the one with the thunderous bat and the unmitigating power. But he's a .300 hitter who can gobble up baseballs defensively, and a left-handed stick. So I'm surprised there wasn't a market for his services, at least as a part-time player.

But the loss MLB suffers between the lines with Casey's retirement is a big gain for baseball fans with the MLB Network. I'm looking forward to listening to The Mayor's analysis.

At least this mayor wasn't impeached. He stepped down, with honor.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Forget Talk Of Competition; Lyon Tigers' New Closer

Beware the Tigers and the talk of competition at the closer job.

There is none.

Sorry to break it to Fernando Rodney, but the only way he emerges as the Tigers' closer out of spring training is if goons steal into the night at Lakeland, Fla. and abduct Brandon Lyon. And if that happens, check Rodney as your first suspect.

I was confident that the team's braintrust of GM Dave Dombrowski (some folks on message boards are calling him "Dumbrowski"; that's not very nice) and manager Jim Leyland wasn't about to place their job security in the hands of Rodney, who's about as trustworthy with the ninth inning as Congress is in handling your tax dollars wisely. Too much is at stake for both men.

So, as I thought, they didn't stand pat. The signing of Lyon to a one-year deal thrusts the 29-year-old immediately into the closer's role.

Oh, DD and Leyland said some nice things about Rodney -- much in the same way as you toss bouquets out to someone who's announced that they're leaving the company. Leyland said that Rodney, when healthy, can be quite a pitcher. DD said that Lyon is looking forward to the "competition" (that word again) and that was a big reason why he signed with the Tigers, when some other teams were courting him.

Don't be fooled by that nonsense.

The Tigers' closer for 2009 -- period.

Brandon Lyon is the closer, as much as Magglio Ordonez is the right fielder. As much as Gerald Laird is the catcher. And so on. And he should be.

Lyon has some history, and while it's not as extensive as the other big name closers who were available early in free agency, it's still more impressive than anything Rodney has done in stumbling through the ninth inning around here for the last couple of years.

Rodney cannot be trusted. There's really no other way to put it. If Todd Jones, who at least got the job done more often than not, was known as the human roller coaster, then Fernando Rodney is the human train wreck. At least with a roller coaster, you end up getting off safely.

DD's seat has warmed significantly after 2008's debacle. And, early reports here say that he's risen to the challenge. Catcher was taken care of, with the acquisition of Laird and the signing of backup Matt Treanor. A new shortstop -- the kind with some actual range -- was brought in (Adam Everett). A new starting pitcher was acquired (Edwin Jackson). And, after some hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing by the message board scrawlers and talk radio blabbermouths, the bullpen has been addressed. And don't forget about the low-profile signing of veteran righty Scott Williamson, who has the potential of being that unsung winter acquisition who pays off big time in the summer.

Now all that's left is to go to spring training and see how everything shakes out. No splashy arrivals of Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis. Just some smart, more vanilla-like additions to a team that had holes in the areas that were addressed.

DD isn't Dumbrowski. He knows which side his bread is buttered on. And he knew darned well what items should have been on his off-season shopping list. February isn't here yet, and those items have been pretty much crossed off.

That's not the work of a dumb-dumb.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tigers Need Another Tony Phillips Type

It's an oft-misquoted phrase, but the difference is mainly one of punctuation.

Leo Durocher -- Leo the Lip -- said it, but he didn't say it the way you might think.

"Nice guys finish last."

That's the way the quote is almost always presented. The truth is, Durocher didn't quite say it like that.

He was talking about the New York Giants, back when he managed the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a 1946 interview with Red Barber, Durocher was speaking about the theory that teams with good chemistry had a better chance at success than those who didn't. Leo didn't necessarily buy that. He noted that the Giants had themselves a bunch of nice guys on their team, but would nonetheless finish last, despite the harmony.

"They're some nice guys. Finish last, but nice guys."

That got morphed into "Nice guys finish last."

You can see where the meaning between the two quotes is considerable.

OK, so why all this slicing and dicing of Durocher's words?

Regardless of the misquote, I submit to you that the Tigers could use a pugnacious guy or two on their roster. They, too, are filled with nice guys.

Curtis Granderson, who's about as nice as they get. Placido Polanco, who's quiet and courteous. Brandon Inge, a real cutup but all told, a nice chap. Carlos Guillen is a fine gentleman. Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson: all great guys. And on and on. Don't forget that they once employed Sean Casey, whose nickname was The Mayor for all of his affability.

The Tigers, though, I think, could use some piss-and-vinegar dudes.

One player who comes to mind is Tony Phillips.

Phillips, a Tiger from 1990-94, was a bundle of energy and, some would say, even anger. He argued with the umpires a lot. He played often times with a scowl. He'd be one of the first to jump into any battle. He was frenetic.

Phillips reminded me a lot of former Pistons point guard Kevin Porter. There was always something nervous about KP, and he frequently seemed bothered by something. Porter didn't appear to trust anyone, truly.

Phillips was mainly a leadoff hitter for Sparky Anderson in Detroit, and being a switch-hitter, he was pretty much there everyday. He wasn't a great infielder, but he was serviceable. He would have fit in perfectly with the Gas House Gang, St. Louis Cardinals teams of the 1930s.

Leo Durocher, it should be noted, was a member of that Gang.

Phillips never met a jersey that he didn't love to dirty. He also never met an umpire with whom he agreed, especially when it came to balls and strikes in the batter's box. I don't think Tony Phillips ever took a pitch that he thought was a strike.

At times, Phillips' anger was counter-productive and maddening. I suspect the umps probably looked at him as the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and maybe even made some calls against him because of his excessive whining. But nobody could accuse Phillips of not caring, of not being a good teammate.

Looking at the Tigers' roster today, I don't see a Gas House Gang type player on it.

It leads one to surmise that maybe the Tigers lack some leadership. The self-policing types who'll keep everyone in line when Jim Leyland isn't looking. Maybe it was poor leadership that got the Tigers last year when they began to cave under the weight of high expectations.

What's more, I'm not sure there's a player the Tigers employ who could even give the Tony Phillips thing a whirl. It would seem so contrary to these players' personalities.

Performance, obviously, trumps all. But what to do when you need a jump start? Is there a Tigers player who can take the lead? Or are they simply destined to be known as a bunch of talented, nice guys?

They DID finish last in 2008, you know.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Trammell's Lack Of Hall Consideration Appalling

It's not a question, anymore, of whether Alan Trammell is a Hall of Famer. Sadly, that debate seems to be getting squashed with each passing year. His chances have pretty much drained away.

What's of more concern is why he's been so brutally ignored.

They had the yearly ballotting on Monday, and Rickey Henderson, as expected, was elected on the first try, gathering well over 90% of the votes. Understood. Henderson had over 3,000 hits, and is the all-time base stealer in MLB history.

Jim Rice made it -- on his 15th and final appearance on the ballot. Rice's next chance wouldn't have come until he was eligible to be voted on by the Veterans Committee.

Rice, it should be pointed out, didn't slug one more home run, drive in one more run, or gather one more base hit in those fifteen years. Yet he's a Hall of Famer in 2009, when he wasn't in 2008, or 2003, or 1999. I'll leave that one to you to figure out.

I have no problem with Rice, though his career numbers don't knock your Red Sox off. He was, in his time, one of the more feared hitters in baseball. His brute strength was legendary. This isn't a Hall prerequisite, but Jim Rice could club a golf ball some 400 yards off a tee. Easily.

You can debate Rice's qualifications till the cows come home. It would be a fun debate, too, because I believe you could make a strong case both ways.

But back to Trammell.

The former Tigers shortstop was again buried in the voting results, somewhere near the dudes who are clearly not Hall of Famers. It's getting worse now. It's almost mean-spirited, the lack of love Alan Trammell gets during Hall voting time.

Forget Lou Whitaker. Tram's double play partner vanished from the ballot a while ago. He, too, won't reappear until the Veterans have their crack at him. Whitaker is another who was tossed back into the ocean.

I've said it before: if those two played in New York, they'd be in Cooperstown by now. Or, at the very least, they'd be Jim Rice-like -- knocking on the door.

I'm torn on Trammell and Whitaker, truthfully. If you play the comparison game -- putting their numbers up against Hall members who played their positions -- you could make a strong case for induction. But if you play the Wow Factor -- that intangible feeling you get when you see a sure-fire Hall of Famer's name -- then I wonder. Then, it becomes more murky.

But as I said at the top, the debate about Trammell's Hall worthiness is the train that's left the station. Say goodbye to it, and get comfy while you wait for the Veterans car to come down the tracks.

Why is what Trammell (and Whitaker, for that matter) accomplished scorned so? Whose kid did he slay? Whose corn flakes got peed on?

It's embarrassing and despicable, what the Hall voters are doing to Trammell's legacy.

He's being treated as a commoner, like a Bobby Bonilla or Ron Gant type.

Ok, so Trammell wasn't Ozzie Smith, in terms of panache or flair. He didn't do back flips on the field, or have a catchy nickname like The Wizard of Oz. All Tram did was make all the right plays, at all the right times. Substance over style. Oh, and he could hit a bit, too. Before players like Trammell came along, shortstops were chained to the eighth spot in the batting order, just above pitcher. After the DH was enacted, the shortstops routinely took over the pitcher's no. 9 spot in the order. But after Trammell, and Cal Ripken Jr., and others, and after we saw that shortstops could hit (imagine!), suddenly they were batting cleanup and third and leadoff.

So you can say that Trammell was part of a contingent who changed the game.

But, that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee, and nothing else, I'm afraid. Alan Trammell won't be a Hall of Famer -- unless it happens many years hence.

It'll be up to the Veterans Committee to give him some overdue respect. Because he sure never got it from these jokers.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Henderson Goes Into Hall Despite Never Retiring

Rickey Henderson is going into the Hall of Fame. When he does, will he finally announce his retirement?

Henderson, 50, is as sure of a first-ballot HOFer as you're going to find nowadays. Over 3,000 hits, more than 1,400 stolen bases. Even though it was tough, for a time, to keep track of whether he was playing for Oakland or the Yankees.

But one thing was certain: Rickey WAS playing, somewhere. He started playing in the big leagues in 1979, and only stopped in 2003 because nobody else would hire him. After his MLB career, Rickey played in the minors. It didn't matter where, as long as he was playing baseball. And leading off. And stealing bases.

It's fairly safe to say that whatever mold was used to make Rickey Henderson, it's been crushed into pieces by now. Probably the moment he made his '79 debut, as a matter of fact (he doubled in his first at-bat, and stole his first base one plate appearance later).

Yet Rickey really never did officially retire; not that I know of, anyway. He only in 2007 spoke of it, finally admitting that he was "probably" finished playing.

He was 48 at the time.

I wasn't a huge Henderson fan, but I respect what he did. We get enraptured with the "walk-off home run", and rightly so. That wins games, after all. But Henderson became the artisan of the lead-off home run, and those were pretty important, too. They set the tone, and nobody did it better, or as often, as Rickey Henderson. Plus, he stole all those bases, even though everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be running. He was the thief who laughed at the Brinks Home Security sign on the front lawn.

Here's former big league pitcher Mike Flanagan: "He was, by far, the most dynamic leadoff hitter I've ever seen. If you got 2-0 on him, you were fearful of throwing it down the middle because he could hit a home run. But if you threw ball three, he was going to walk, and then he's on second base. We had many, many long discussions on our pitching staff about how we could control this guy. He was irritating, infuriating and great."

Irritating, infuriating, and great.

That might be the most apt summary of any player's career that I've ever read.

Welcome to the Hall, Rickey. Even if you never did retire.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Thirty Years Ago (gasp!), Sparky Changed Detroit Baseball

He bounded into town, talking about catching lightning in a bottle, raving at the young talent he was inheriting. He hadn't been out of the game even a year, but he was already chomping at the bit to don a uniform once more and monkey around with lineup cards, batting orders, and to speak in dramatic hyperbole about his players.

Then the Tigers started playing games under Sparky Anderson, and promptly fell flat on their faces.

It didn't last, though -- Sparky's initial wretched streak of games as Tigers manager. But you can look it up and see that the Tigers were 2-9 in their first 11 games under Sparky.

It was 1979 -- 30 years ago, believe it or not -- when Sparky Anderson changed baseball in Detroit forever.

I've told the story here before, but here goes again.

Sparky was all set to manage the Cubs in 1980, after having been fired by the Reds after the 1978 season. The firing surprised him so much, and left such an indelible mark on him, that Anderson even remembers the room number of the hotel in which he was given the ziggy.

So the Cubs had Sparky wrapped up -- or so they thought -- to take over in 1980.

But an innocent conversation in Anaheim changed all that.

Tigers announcer George Kell overheard Angels announcer Don Drysdale say that Sparky was looking to get back into managing, and that he had an agreement with the Cubs. Kell told Tigers GM Jim Campbell. The Tigers were being managed by Les Moss, and playing reasonably well for Moss in his first season. But this was Sparky Anderson, and once Campbell learned that Sparky was looking to manage again, Campbell got some ideas.

Several pestering phone calls later, Campbell managed to convince Sparky to ditch the Cubs and come to Detroit, forthwith. Within days, Sparky was announced as Tigers manager. It was June, 1979. He stayed for 16-plus years, winning a couple of divisional titles and one World Series.

And Detroit was introduced to Sparky-ese.

Sparky's Hall of Fame plaque; yes, that's a Reds cap

Kirk Gibson was "the next Mickey Mantle." The 1980 Tigers would "win 90 games, easily." Chris Pittaro would force Lou Whitaker, no less, to switch positions. Torey Luvollo was the best thing since sliced bread, or at least Cal Ripken, Jr.

Starting in June '79, pain wouldn't hurt, there wouldn't be enough perfume to make pigs smell good, and newly-acquired players would make their Tigers debut on their very first day.

It wouldn't be all fun and games, though. There was the bottoming out of the team in 1989, leading to Sparky taking a leave of absence, just to get away from it all. The relationship between he and the Tigers brass changed, for the worse, when Mike Ilitch bought the team. After the team canned Bo Schembechler as president, Sparky started playing out the string in Detroit. Hence his decision to depict himself in a Reds cap when his Hall of Fame plaque was chiseled. That was a real slap, considering how disappointed he had once been with the Reds.

Thirty years ago, this June. The calendar really won't stop for us, will it?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Grandy Somehow Has Avoided The All-Star Team; No Such Luck in 2009

Curtis Granderson will be an All-Star in 2009.

There -- at least THAT'S out of the way.

May as well declare it now. No sense waiting till spring training, much less Opening Day. Put him on the ballot or don't; one way or another, Grandy will be on the American League team. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who will select the AL reserves, will have no choice in the matter. Granderson's numbers will be too good to pass up.

I know -- file this under the "Tell me something I DON'T know" category. My telling you that Granderson, the Tigers' centerfielder, will be an AL All-Star this season is hardly earth-shattering news. It may not even be Detroit-shattering. But I wanted to be the first one to confirm it, some three months before they throw the first pitch that matters.

Granderson, first of all, is the artisan -- the only consistent artisan -- of the most exciting play in baseball, the triple. Getting a runner into scoring position is nice. But Granderson gets himself 90 feet away from home plate, and that is even better.

Yeah, he can go get it, too

He's not Mr. Base Stealer, as you would hope for from a leadoff hitter. But why bother with a single and a stolen base, when you can cut through all that red tape and land yourself on third base with one swing of the bat?

There's the defense, the just-right home run power. I don't have to tell you.

But I bring this up because it's amazing, to me, that Granderson has found himself on the outside looking in since 2006 when it comes to the All-Star team. His selection in 2009 will be his first. Hard to believe, but it's true. Of course, the flip side is that it will hardly be his only one; look for consistent appearances from no. 28.

If there was an All-Star team based on accessibility, niceness, and overall goodwill, Granderson would be perennial. He's one of the few players whose stellar play struggles to match his stellar persona. Usually it's the other way around.

I just hope that the baseball fans in Detroit realize and appreciate what they have in centerfield. That piece of real estate should be Curtis Granderson's, and his alone, for the next ten years. All-Star games and everything!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Larsen Bucked Superstition During His '56 World Series Gem

The MLB Network debuted yesterday. It's 24/7 baseball, and why not? Other sports are doing it, so the national pastime may as well, too.

They kicked things off with a re-broadcast, on kinescope, of Don Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game. Mel Allen and Vin Scully behind the microphone. Two cameras. An occasional "super" -- old-time TV talk for graphics -- of a player's name as he came to the plate. No replays. Yet there WAS excellent crowd ambience caught (you could practically hear the peanut vendors), probably due to baseball's reliance on radio, which was in love with crowd mikes in order to provide atmosphere.

Countless Hall of Famers played in that Series, too many to mention.

Yet one who didn't make the Hall -- didn't even come close -- had the best day of them all, and maybe ever in a World Series.

"A lot of guys had a good day. I had a little better one," Larsen said with a smile as he sat with Yogi Berra and Bob Costas, the three of them ruminating on the game from time to time as it progressed.

If you want proof that baseball superstitions are a bunch of hooey, look no further than Larsen's perfection in Game 5 of the '56 Series.

Years ago, narrating a movie about the game, Larsen revealed how his words and actions flew in the face of baseball's unwritten rules.

Even today, if a pitcher is working on a no-hitter, announcers are loathe to mention it. Teammates are scared to death of being seen anywhere near that pitcher in the dugout. Nobody says a word. Been like that forever.

But here's Larsen: "About the seventh inning, I went up to Mantle, and I said, 'Wouldn't it be something if I got a no-hitter?' He looked at me like I was insane, and moved away from me."

I love it.

An enduring image: Larsen hugs Berra after perfection in '56 Series

Don Larsen, the pitcher himself, working on a perfect game, no less, in the World Series, brazenly and openly talks of the possibility of doing it while the game is going on. So wrong on so many levels, according to baseball tradition.

Yet Larsen bucked that tradition and completed the perfect game anyway. But it did nothing to stop the superstition. When Justin Verlander pitched his no-no in 2007, FSD announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen blatantly refused to mention the ongoing effort.

Jack Morris, pitching a no-hitter in Chicago in 1984, was being tormented by a White Sox fan throughout the game, near the Tigers dugout. The fan kept mentioning the no-hitter, hoping to jinx Morris. After he finished it, Morris sought out the fan and yelled, "THERE'S your no hitter!" I think Jack added some more colorful language, too.

But I think it's awesome that Don Larsen either defied superstition or simply was naive to it. Either way, he stood up to the baseball gods and won.