Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Mets and Fan Owners

A lot of owners say they care
about the fans, but But Bill Veeck
really seemed to mean it.
Major League Baseball has reportedly turned back a group of fans that wanted to buy a minority stake in the New York Mets. This word comes after Met's owner Fred Wilpon announced last week he had an investor lined up he tries to escape the mess the Madoff scam has made of his finances.

It's too bad that the fan-based group, buythemets.com, which was organized by business professionals, was so quickly turned down. I know baseball prefers its owners rich so they can spend their way out of financial jams (and maybe so they trade capitalism war stories at pricey restaurants). But that model has proven anything but rock solid.

From the Montreal Expos, which had to be taken over and moved to Washington, D.C., to the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, rich owners have had their problems in recent years. Maybe it's time to try another way.

Some point to the model of the Green Bay Packers, a team owned by community stockholders. Obviously, that model has looked pretty good the last few years with the Packers consistently winning. And the buythemets.com group would operate in a similar way.

There would be no guarantee, of course, that a community-owned team would win, as one blogger notes. But as we've seen there's no guarantee with the current model of rich owners.

Baseball for years barely tolerated Bill Veeck, probably the most populist owner ever. They never gave him a break. But fans adored him, whose autobiography, "Veeck--As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck," reveals him to be part baseball visionary and part P.T. Barnum, was never liked by the other owners.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Choosing the Best Ballparks

Miller Park is among my favorites, but maybe I am biased.
The New York Times has a new post rating the ballparks. Nate Silver, who famously used sophisticated formulas to predict the 2008 elections at his fivethirtyeight.com, used ratings from Yelp.com to determine how fans feel about major league stadiums.

It's not scientific, and Silver has no information regarding why PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, rates as the best stadium.

Silver speculates that teams that spent money for a retractable dome might regret it because those parks didn't rate well. But I bet if you asked fans at those ballparks on a cold or rainy day their ratings would skyrocket.

Silver's sole basis for his ratings is an analysis of yelp.com stadium ratings. Other than being good for bar (and blogger!) talk, I'm not sure Yelp's ratings are meaningful.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Baseball Goes to War

I was poking around the web trying to figure out what to write for Memorial Day Weekend. Some of the iconic stories of ballplayers going to war came to mind. You know them: Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio. They all are familiar.

Harry O'Neill was killed in WWII.
Then there are players whose stories of military service are not talked about much anymore. For instance, Carlos May, a '70s slugger for the Chicago White Sox, lost part of his thumb in a training accident. He managed to have a solid career despite the injury.

Instead of offering my opinion on these players (after all, what is there to say beside "thank you?") today I offer links to the best websites on the topic. All of them are interesting and many are inspiring.

In no particular order:

1st Inning: Largely far from our memories, much like the war itself, are the players who served during the Vietnam War.

2nd Inning: Three icons risk danger in World War I.

3rd Inning: They gave the ultimate sacrifice -- and that's what we are supposed to remember on memorial Day -- in World War II: Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill.

Elmer Gedeon was the other major Leaguer killed in WWII.
4th Inning: Depleted leagues play on.

5th Inning: The catcher was a spy.

6th Inning: Players on the front lines.

7th Inning: A friend recalls the "Splendid Splinter" 

8th Inning: Everything you wanted to know about baseball and war.

9th Inning: The Blue, the Gray and the ball field.

Extras: This tidbit from the 4th inning link above: When Leo Durocher was rejected by the Army because of a bad eardrum, the Sporting News wrote this brilliant headline: "Lippy, the Umpirical Earache, Just Bum Drum to Uncle Sam."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rose and the Hall of Fame

Pete Rose bared his soul today: He wants to be voted into the Hall of Fame while he can still enjoy it. Makes sense for him. But I don't believe he deserves the honor.

Rose in the 1970s was the living embodiment of baseball and competition. He earned the nickname "Charlie Hustle" through his never-say-die style. (As I wrote yesterday, his collision with Ray Fosse is an iconic play of the era.)

Rose was aware of the game's history and his 44-game hitting streak and march to overtake Ty Cobb's all-time hits record were riveting. Some may have found him arrogant, but nobody could deny that he was always exciting, doing anything to win.

Then came his fall from grace. While manager of the Cincinnati Reds he was accused of betting on his team's games. He may have always bet on his team to win, but the rule on this was always clear. It was even posted in clubhouses for all to see. No gambling on baseball. Period.

That's why it was such a shock. Pete Rose knew the history of the game. How could he have violated such a well-known rule? It's clear he needed the action. His lust (or addiction) for it got him in trouble.

It's a shame. But I would never vote him into the Hall. Rose broke baseball's cardinal rule. The story of the 1919 Black Sox has been told over and over as warning. Rose knew all about it.

Remember his greatness and a player. Don't forget his accomplishments. But don't enshrine him in the Hall of Fame.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Excuse Me, I Want to Score

Pete Rose slams into catcher Ray Fosse
in the 1970 All-Star Game.
Buster Posey broke his ankle protecting home plate last night. He's not the first catcher to be injured blocking a runner from the dish. But to hear his agent tell it, he should be the last.

Jeff Berry, the agent for the San Francisco Giants' catcher, likened collisions at the plate to helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL. He called for an end to the practice of runners slamming into catchers. The debate has started. Jim Rice, the Boston Red Sox star of the 1970s and '80s, has already weighed in, saying such plays are a part of the game.

I don't know when base runners first decided slamming into the catcher was a good idea. The first time I remember it being controversial was Pete Rose's destruction of Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. Mostly I remember the controversy being about whether such a rough play had a place in a game that doesn't count in the standings.

Plays at the plate are among the most exciting. The crowd is roaring, the catcher is waiting for the ball and the runner is barreling toward him. The moment when ball and runner arrive at the plate is thrilling. The results, like last night, can be devastating for the catcher. Sometimes, of course, the runner gets the worst of it. Nyjer Morgan, of the Milwaukee Brewers, was injured earlier this season scoring a key run. Last year, Morgan ignited a brawl on a similar play.

In the more than 40 years I have been watching big league ball, collisions at the plate have been part of the game. With emotions raw, sometimes they have sparked fights. It's a shame when someone gets injured. But now a star has been injured.

Will baseball change its rules? I wouldn't think so. But when a star gets injured you never know. Certainly the vote from the Bay Area would be for a change.

If a change is decided on, baseball need look nor further than the NCAA, which outlaws a runner from lowering his shoulder into a catcher who is blocking the plate while in possession of the ball. The colleges still allow collisions, but ban the most violent kind. The replay of the Posey play shows him blocking the plate before the ball arrives. So maybe no rules would have helped him.

Maybe it's worth considering.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mariano Rivera's Milestone

Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees' iconic closer, entered uncharted territory today when he became the first pitcher to play in 1,000 games for the same team. That is a remarkable feat. Few doubt Rivera is the greatest closer ever, especially if you include his unequaled postseason record.

But does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Most, but not all, say yes. Those against say no closer belongs. These people argue no one filling a specialty role deserves enshrinement. Voters resisted putting Goose Gossage in the hall, for instance.

On the other end of the spectrum are the stataholics. You know them; they use all kinds of new-fangled formulas to compare players. Some of these people argue that Rivera is the greatest pitcher ever. That seems like more than a bit of a stretch to me.

Is there any other player that is considered by some the "greatest ever" and by others not worthy of the Hall of Fame? I can't think of one. I think both sides are off base.

Does Rivera belong in the Hall of Fame? Of course. I've never bought this idea of specialists not getting in. If a player is acknowledged as the best or one of the best to ever play his position he should get voted in. Rivera is a star player whose name practically defines his position. He'd get my vote without hesitation (and I am not a Yankees fan).

Remembering the Royals During Their Heyday

The news that Paul Splittorff, the ace of the Royals when Kansas City had a contending ball club, died today brought back memories of two expansion teams that came into the American League together. The teams have followed similar paths over the years.

The teams were the Brewers (who played a year as the Pilots in Seattle) and the Royals. The year was 1969. For that reason, I always followed the Royals a little more closely than other teams. They were a yardstick by which to measure my team. And my team was always a year or two behind.

George Brett, top, and Robin Yount
were the leaders of the Royals and Brewers
in the 1970s and '80s.
The Royals built their team by establishing a super farm system. Players like Splittorff, George Brett and Frank White came up to the big club this way. The Brewers farm system took longer to bear fruit, but Robin Yount and Paul Molitor came along just as Milwaukee took some chances on free agents like Sal Bando.

The Royals made the playoffs and World Series before the Brewers did. Despite the competition between the clubs, there was a certain grudging pride seeing the little guy take on the New York Yankees in the playoffs and beating them in 1980 for the pennant.

It seemed the teams were on parallel tracks. The Royals had Brett. The Brewers had Yount. Two classy players headed for the Hall of Fame. The Royals had Amos Otis, Freddie Patek and John Mayberry. The Brewers had Gorman Thomas, Jim Gantner and Cecil Cooper. And the teams were contenders into the mid-'80s.

Then they hit bottom. For decades. The Brewers even managed to be at the bottom of both leagues after switching to the National League. Now, things are looking up for both clubs.

The Brewers have good young players like Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks signed for years (Prince Fielder is likely in his last year with Milwaukee. They even made shrewd trades to add pitching in Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bernie Brewer: Is Anything Sacred in Baseball?

Bernie Brewer must be surprised that greed
marred a team promotion.
Say it ain't so, Bernie.

I usually try to have fun when I write my posts. But today I am forced to deal with a serious issue. What was meant as a simple promotion by the Milwaukee Brewers has exposed the naked greed that lies beneath fans of our great, pure national pastime.

Bernie Brewer, the team mascot famous for sliding from his chalet after Brew Crew home runs and victories, has served the team well for decades. His first grab at greatness was in 1970 when he installed himself in a house trailer on top of the County Stadium scoreboard, vowing not to come down till a crowd of at least 40,000 showed up for a game. That was a big number back then.

Show up they did six weeks later. For bat day on Aug. 16. And most everyone, including me, stayed aft the Brewers won to watch Bernie (who wasn't officially recognized as "Bernie Brewer until later), rappelled from his perch. And in the process of deciding to slide down tore the skin off his hands. Is it no wonder Bernie is a fan favorite? He's a hero and has the scars to prove it.

Fast forward to today. Bernie, now an icon alongside brats with Secret Stadium sauce, was a natural for a promotion. The Brewers told fans to look for lawn ornaments fashioned after the likeness of our mustachioed cheerleader. Fourteen hundred would be placed in various locations like public parks. Some would entitle the finder to tickets or other gifts. There was a limit of one per household.

But then greed took hold. Such a concept, of course, is rarely introduced to our grand game. Players play because they love the sport and are interested only representing their teams in cities in the best manner possible on and off the field.

Shockingly, spies watched as the ornaments were put in place. Soon enough, there was a photo on Twitter of a trunk stuffed with 10 of the little Bernies (it's since been removed). Then they were seen for sale on eBay, for as much as $200.

I guess nothing is scared. My entire belief system has been shattered. Maybe Prince Fielder and all those prospective free agents don't mean it when they say they'd love to re-sign. And owners might be fibbing when they say they won't abandon fans for anew stadium in a new town.

Baseball will never be the same.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wilpon Shoots From the Lip

Fred Wilpon and his Mets have had a tough year.
So the owners of the New York Mets decided honesty was the best policy when talking to about his "star" players to a reporter. His critique of David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran centered on a theme: They are overpaid or want to be.

Some commentators have compared Fred Wilpon's comments to the kind often made by the late George Steinbrenner of the Yankees, who was famous for bombastic diatribes aimed at his superstars. Others see the Mets' owner as a whiner, complaining about his mistakes.

The first thing I thought when I heard about his comments was money. Wilpon and the Mets have had a famously bad year. The ownership group took a financial beating because of their investments with Bernie Madoff. Then they were sued by the trustee trying to recover money for Madoff's investors. The trustee claims the Wilpons knew or should have known about the fraud.

Now, ticket sales have fallen and it's been reported the team will lose millions this season (although it's unclear how much money the profitable cable channel SNY brings in for the owners). All of that has forced the Wilpons to put a minority stake in the team up for sale. Is it any wonder Fred Wilpon has money on his mind?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let's Stop the Violence

Players were injured in 1974 when Cleveland fans were sold
beer at 10 cents a cup (yes, that was really cheap, even then).
It's been reported that Los Angeles police arrested a suspect in the severe beating of a Giants' fan on opening day outside Dodger Stadium. Let's hope they have the right man, as well as anyone else involved in the ugly incident.

But there's more work to be done. Unfortunately, violent behavior by fans happens all too often. It's not just limited to baseball, but the sport needs to do more to address the problem. Most of the problems that get publicized happen when fans intrude on the field.

The beating on opening day put the spotlight on the fans. I have followed my team to many stadiums. Most of the comments sent my way by opposing fans were good-natured. A couple times they were, at the least, disrespectful. Usually those fans were drinking copious amounts of beer.

I never felt personally threatened. But I was at a playoff game between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals when things started to get out of hand. It started with a fan in a Cards' hat and jersey taking his seat. Comments and epithets were hurled his way. He took it in stride.

Baseball's 'Greatest Game' And Some Left Off the List

The Mets and Braves played an iconic game in 1985.
Major League Baseball has unveiled its choice for greatest game of the last 50 years: Game 6 of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. The game produced the indelible image of catcher Carlton Fisk frantically trying to wave his game-winning home run fair as it sailed over Fenway's Green Monster.

I remember watching this game on TV as it stretched on toward four hours, an almost unheard of length at the time, even for a 12-inning game. I was pulling for the Sox (I always thought the Big Red Machine was more hype than substance) and was trying to will Fisk's ball fair from my bedroom in a Milwaukee suburb.

I have no quibble with this choice or most of the others on MLB's list of the top 20 games. I wonder, though, if there weren't games from before 1975 that deserved inclusion. It's also interesting that all but one of the games on the list are from the postseason (the 50-year cutoff left Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run to give the Pittsburgh Pirates the title over the New York Yankees in 1960 out in the cold).

There are two regular season games that stick out in my mind. One was the Fourth of July 1985 contest between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. Thanks to TBS, which at the time beamed nearly every one of the team's games to a national audience I was able to watch it till the wee hours.

This game had everything: It lasted 19 innings, Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle, pitcher Rick Camp hit the only home run of his career to tie the game in the 18th inning, and that same pitcher was at the plate as the tying run when the game ended.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Buckner's Boston Return

Bill Buckner started out with the Dodgers.
Sometimes a fine career is defined by one bad moment. Such is the case for Bill Buckner, whose error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series allowed the New York Mets to win the game and ultimately best the Boston Red Sox in Game 7.

Tonight, Buckner returned to Boston to broadcast the BoSox game with the Chicago Cubs, their first visit since 1918. It's an interesting twist for Buckner, who played for both teams but it is remembered most for one missed ground ball.

Buckner had a career that was a notch below Hall of Fame caliber. When he retired in 1990, he had 2,715 hits and a .289 batting average. He appeared in the 1981 All-Star Game. He led the National League in fielding once and placed second twice. He ranks among the top 160 players all-time in several hitting categories.

That body of work, however, is seldom remembered. Instead, Billy Buck's career is defined by Mookie Wilson's grounder in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It ended what seemed was a sure Series win for the BoSox, allowing the New York Mets to win the game and then take Game 7.

Cubs Streak to Win

The Chicago Cubs beat the Florida Marlins Wednesday night and, according to media reports, they got a little help from a streaker. After the man made his appearance in the fifth inning, two errors helped the Cubs score two runs.

And I thought streaking had gone out of style in the '70s. Whatever the case, the incident might be a bit of karmic payback for the denizens of Wrigley Field. It was more than four decades in coming, but maybe it evens the score (at least a little) for the black cat that crossed the team's path during their epic 1969 collapse.

That year, of course, the New York Mets came roaring from behind to win their first division, pennant and World Series. The Cubs had a huge lead, a star studded roster -- Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins among them -- and an iconic manager in Leo Durocher.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Silent Umpire

The Mets played through rain, heavy at times, at Citi Field,
but umpire Bill Miller wouldn't explain why he never called for a delay.
I've written before about umpires, specifically Joe West, who believe their job makes them all-powerful. They are never accountable and never need to explain. Anything.

We have a new entrant in the contest to see which ump cares little for the fans or players: Bill Miller. Last night, he was the crew chief for the New York Mets rain-soaked game with the Washington Nationals in New York. Throughout the game, rain was falling. Sometimes it became a deluge. Eventually, the infield was as announcer Keith Hernandez said, "puddling."

On TV, the stadium lights reflected brightly off the dirt. The grounds crew repeatedly worked on the infield between innings. It seemed odd that the game wasn't stopped. The mound was a slippery slope and ground balls were slowed in the slop.

The announcers, and I am sure most viewers, discussed the situation. Hernandez and Ron Darling and Gary Cohen were reasonable. They were curious just about the umpire's reasons for continuing play. And wondered about safety concerns.

No big deal. We'd all find out after the game. Well, no. Because Miller, from his powerful perch, refused to talk about it. (It's not the first time Miller has been in the spotlight. In 2009 he was accused of insulting a player during a game.) He sent word through one member of the media that if it was about the rain he could talk to the commissioner's office.

It's hard to understand why Miller won't explain his actions. Maybe the forecasters told him the rain would ease. Maybe he feared stopping the game would just make the field worse while everyone waited till the game was finally called. It doesn't even matter.

The fans, the players and the media deserve an explanation. Has Miler not learned that being upfront and honest will give him more credibility? As I have written before, Jim Joyce made one of the worst calls ever, costing a pitcher a perfect game. But by being honest about it he earned respect.

It's time for baseball to bring the umpires into the 21st century.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Back to Interleague Play

This weekend marks the return of interleague play. The marquee match-up is the Chicago Cubs first series in Boston against the Red Sox since the 1918 World Series. That series famously was the last title for the Sox until 2004. The Cubs haven't brought home the banner since 1908.

It makes for a good narrative. And throw in the recent reports speculating that the beloved Cubbies were paid by gamblers to throw the series and you have quite a yarn for the hype machine to spin.

I've never been a big fan of interleague play. I'd much rather see divisional rivals play each more. Those are the games that decide divisions and pennants. But the fans get into it, so I am probably in the minority. Living in the New York City area, I see and hear all the excitement leading up to a Yankees-Mets match-up.

As I wrote in April, I'd rather see a radical realignment of the leagues to take advantage of geographical and historical rivalries. I've heard some fans say they wouldn't like to see the Yanks and Mets play too many times. I've never read such complaints about the Dodgers and Giants -- either when they were in New York or after they moved west.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Baseball's Soggy Spring

Rick Dempsey entertains fans during a rain delay.
Baseball has endured a spring of rainouts. There were four more today and the number of games postponed has already eclipsed the total for 2010. For fans that miss out on games it's disappointing. For teams, it's at least inconvenient for the players and also could mean lost revenue for the front office.

Rainouts became more of a problem for baseball when teams started to sell a large percentage of the tickets available for each game. If fans wanted to use their rain checks at another game, there weren't enough seats available. More teams started playing split-admission doubleheaders. That puts pressure on pitching staffs. In the days when playing two on Sunday was common, starters went deeper into games and bullpens were not chewed up as quickly.

R.I.P. Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew died today. It was obvious the end was near for Killebrew when he announced last week he was going to stop treatment for the cancer that had ravaged him. As I wrote then, Killebrew was a special player, who fans looked forward to seeing.

Baseball fans are mourning his passing today and remembering "Killer" at the plate, wearing No. 3 on his back. A slugger whose home runs evoked that other basher who wore the same uniform number, Babe Ruth.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What the Fans Don't Know ...

David Wright played with a stress fracture.
For the last couple weeks, David Wright has been vilified by New York Mets fans and radio announcers. As his batting average plummeted the cries grew ever louder for the team to get rid of the third baseman. Mets fans know changes are coming to team. And many made their position clear.

Everyone figures Carlos Beltran, the oft-injured outfielder with an expiring contract, will be traded to a contender. What happens to shortstop Jose Reyes is up for debate. He'll demand big money as a free agent and it's unclear if the Mets and Sandy Alderson, the small-ball G.M., will want to pay his asking price.

And that brings us to Wright. An all-star player who sometimes has fielding lapses, Wright came up through the Mets farm system and was an instant fan favorite. But being the star on a team that had two spectacular September collapses and is now fighting to be mediocre has dimmed his star power.

It's an odd rule of sports that the best players on a bad team become lightning rods for the wrath of the paying public. Wright has been dealing with this syndrome for a season or two now. He started to strike out more often. And then his slump began.

Bautista's Amazing Run

By any measure, Jose Bautista is on a monster run. In his last 162 games the Blue Jays basher has banged out 64 home runs. That's a historic number. It's exciting. It's thrilling. Well, it should be anyway.

But I have a hard time getting into it. And I know why: The steroid era hangs like a dark cloud over anything that smacks of amazing on the diamond. Bautista might be another victim of baseball's lazy approach to dealing with performance enhancing drugs. Maybe he's perfectly clean and just blossomed late. Later than anyone ever.

I'll admit I was transfixed by the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa duel to break Roger Maris' season home run mark. But the old saying goes "Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you." And baseball managed to out one over on all of us. And they did it over and over.

I remember seeing Alex Rodriguez at his first spring training with the New York Yankees. I had seen him years earlier when he was a youngster with the Seattle Mariners. When I saw him in Tampa, I told my wife he looks like a cartoon character. I never believed he was clean again. And I think it would be absurd to believe that he and all the others caught using steroids and their cousins did it just "once" or a "few times."

I know baseball Commissioner Bud Selig tells us the game has never been more popular. And by the numbers he's probably right. But I can't help thinking something has been lost. Maybe for others baseball still evokes looks of wide-eyed wonder at long home runs and amazing seasons.

Yes, I still love the game. And I still cheer when Prince Fielder sends a missile 500 feet into the bleachers. But in the back of my mind I always wonder if what I am seeing is based on chemicals.

I hope someday baseball will regain my total trust. In a way it shocks me to see the media pump out Bautista stories just like they did about McGwire, Sosa and all the rest. And when someone dares mention the possibility of performance enhancing drugs, he is met with disdain of Internet readers.

I'm not sure what comes after "Shame me twice ..."

Baseball's 'Unbreakable' Records

Ted Williams, left, and Joe DiMaggio completed feats
in 1941 that might never be broken.
It's funny how over the years the so-called "holy grail" of baseball's unbreakable records has shifted. As one after another was surpassed, a new record was "the" one that was unassailable.

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the start of Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. This is also the 70th anniversary of Ted Williams being the last to bat .400. Both records seem unlikely to be broken. But the list of unbreakable records that have fallen is impressive.

When Henry Aaron was on his way to becoming baseball's home run champion, it was almost unimaginable that Babe Ruth's mark was going to be surpassed. 

I was lucky enough to be at Wrigley Field to see Aaron hit No. 702. My Dad took the family and my cousin to see the former Milwaukee Braves star play the woeful Chicago Cubs. I was a confirmed Cubbie fan back then, but that day I was rooting for Hammerin' Hank.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Decline & Fall: It Can Get Ugly

Jorge Posada isn't the first player
to face the ravages of age.
Watching great players age is not always pretty. As their skills erode and their stats slide, confidence drops and fans and the media debate what should be done. Should he be benched? Be moved in the batting order? Retire?

Such is the case with Jorge Posada, the latest in a line of great Yankees catchers (Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra and Thurman Munson among them). Posada has struggled mightily at the plate this year, with his average, below .170, the worst in baseball.

Posada is just the latest aging star to be forced to deal publicly with his decline. The decline of Willie Mays is perhaps the most talked about. I've written previously of how, for some reason, his stumbles as a player for the New York Mets overshadowed the fact the he drove in a key run in the World Series in his last season.

Babe Ruth's career ended on a similar note. The aging slugger was traded to the Boston Braves. By then he was overweight, said to be depressed and a shadow of the "Sultan of Swat." Ruth retired after going hitless on May 30, but he did have one great moment for the Braves: He hit three home runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 25. That feat has managed to give even his decline had a bit of Ruthian swagger.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't Laugh, it Hurts

Vince Coelman could run, but he
couldn't escape the tarp.
There have been a lot of injuries in the news lately; from questions about New Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon's  unusual surgery to Ike Davis, the first baseman of the Mets, who incurred two injuries in a collision while chasing a pop-up.

I started me thinking about some odd injuries over the years. One I always remember -- although I have to admit I find no evidence of it on Google (does that mean it didn't happen?) -- was what happened to Cesar Cedeno, a fine, if injury plagued, player for the Houston Astros in the 1970s. 

Cedeno, as I recall, was chewed out for not running out a ground ball. He evidently took the lesson to heart. The next time he hit a grounder, Cedeno took off for first. Too fast, maybe. As his foot came down on the bag he crumpled to the ground with a bad leg injury. I'm not sure exactly what lesson Little Leaguers should draw from this incident.

Vince Coleman didn't even make it to game time before he was injured during the 1985 National League Championship Series. It was prior to Game 4, when Coleman went out to stretch. He was oblivious to the fact that the machine to retract the tarp was set in motion. Unfortunately, Coleman's leg was in the way. Not good for a man whose greatest attribute on the diamond was speed. St. Louis fans might not have been laughing, but the everyone else was as Coleman missed the World Series.

Curt Simmons, a top pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, is one of a number of players who suffered freak injuries far from the ballpark. In 1953, he managed to slice off part of his big toe while mowing the lawn. He missed just a month and won 16 games that season. Baseball Digest noted that he switched to steel-tipped shoes while caring for his lawn.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Recalling 'Killer' Killebrew

The sad news that Harmon Killebrew is losing his battle to cancer brought back memories of my days as a youngster at Milwaukee County Stadium. Although I loved going to any ballgame, there were always certain players that I really looked forward to seeing.

Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, Al Kaline were among this group of American Leaguers. And at the top of the list was Killebrew, who had the apt nickname "Killer." Something about the Twins slugger sparked the imagination.

He seemed bigger than life. In reality he was 6 feet tall and weighed 195 pounds. Not small, but no Frank Howard, either. Bu the power he displayed was enough to make him seem like Paul Bunyan.

It's always nice to hear that a player you admire is a nice guy off the field, too. In "Killer's" case, apparently the nickname was only apropos on the field. Off the field writers and others knew him as a "classy person."

It seems to me that Killebrew rarely gets mentioned these days when announcers or fans tick off the best home run hitters of all time. Even after the steroid era's inflated numbers, he still ranks 11th with 573. When he retired he was fifth.

Baseball's Civil Rights Struggle

This weekend is baseball's annual Civil Rights Weekend. Besides the game, there's a roundtable discussion and awards given out. It's a chance for the sport and its fans to consider how much has been accomplished and how much needs to be done.

In my recent post on the fabulous group of players that came from Mobile, Ala., I alluded to the fact that for many the story of the desegregation of baseball begins and ends with Jackie Robinson. In that telling, once the color line was broken blacks were accepted and, except for a few who couldn't see the light, everything was fine.

Of course, the truth was a lot more complicated. And although blacks could play alongside whites and share the same locker room, many areas of the sport remained segregated into the 1960s. Nowhere was this more stark than in spring training in Florida.

While the white players would be put up in hotels, often with their wives and kids, the black players were sent to boarding houses in the "colored section" of town. Players were reluctant to bring their families to the hostile South under these conditions.

Nicknames a Thing of the Past?

George Herman Ruth had a lot of nicknames: Babe,
Sultan of Swat and the King of Clout.
The New York Times had a story today about the dearth of colorful nicknames in sports. They have a point. Sure there are still a few nicknames, but they seem to lack the panache of the past. I agree that A-Rod isn't really a nickname: It's just shorthand.

I can recall a lot of players whose nicknames were so entrenched that hearing their real first names was a surprise. There was Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, Whitey Ford, Pie Traynor, Red Schoendinst, Lefty Gomez, Dizzy Dean, Yogi Berra, and the greatest of all, Babe Ruth.

Sure announcers would mention the real names from time to time, but it was almost like they were divulging a secret.

Others had nicknames that were descriptive of some personal attribute or that were evocative of their play. Ted Williams was "The Splendid Splinter," Henry Aaron was "Hammerin' Hank" (although he preferred Henry to Hank), Willie Mays, of course, was the "Say Hey Kid." Later there was "The Kid" (Robin Yount who hit the big leagues at 18), "The Ryan Express" (Nolan Ryan), and "Donnie Baseball" (Don Mattingly).

The lack of nicknames today speaks to the way sports has involved into a business that rakes in billions of dollars. The games, as The Times notes, have become more corporate. That leads to separation from the fans. And less color in the game. And the article notes that nicknames are less prevalent in general society than in the past.

I ran my eye down the Milwaukee Brewers roster and no nicknames came to mind. No "Yankee Clipper (Joe DiMaggio) or "Fordham Flash" (Frankie Frisch) among them.

"The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book" is a wonderful book that I wore out as a kid that introduced me to great nicknames like "Suitcase" Simpson.

ESPN's Chris Berman, who must have grown up soaking in all the nicknames, is known for his word play involving players' names. They can't exactly be called nicknames, but at least he has a little bit of fun.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nothing Left to Say?

Mike Francesa
I was listening to WFAN in New York today and I heard a comment that just might prove people have run out of things to say on sports talk radio.

A listener called up host Mike Francesa to talk about who might buy the New York Mets. Informed that the current owners seem likely to sell only a piece of the team, the caller wondered if the Steinbrenners might take a minority stake in the team.

So, one of those sophisticated New York fans thought it was a fine idea for the owners of the hated rival Yankees to own part of another team. I guess the competitive problems this would cause were lost on him.

Fortunately, Francesa set him straight.

Managers Ready to Rumble

Lou Piniella on a rampage.
I thought it was only fair to follow up yesterday's post about Joe West, baseball's worst umpire, with a look at some of the managers who have caused the men in blue to reach for the Rolaids.

In recent seasons, Bobby Cox, who retired after last season as manager of the Atlanta Braves, was king of the tirades. In fact, he's the career leader in ejections. For my money, Ozzie Guillen is the king now. He's bombastic on the field and seems to have no filter between his brain and mouth off the field. Lou Piniella's tirades were scary, if only because you feared for his health as the veins popped out of his head.

There have been a lot of managers who enjoyed kicking dirt, throwing bases and caps and generally making a spectacle of themselves. Leo Durocher is the first I remember who was celebrated (or castigated) for his fiery temper. Leo the Lip had a somewhat checkered career that included stops as a shortstop with teams including the St. Louis Cardinals' colorful Gashouse Gang and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As a manager he was set to lead the Dodgers during Jackie Robinson's inaugural season. But the commissioner suspended him for "the accumulation of unpleasant incident" deemed "detrimental to baseball" just before the regular season started. Some see the suspension as the result of a feud Durocher had with Larry MacPhail, a New York Yankees' executive. Either way Durocher will be remembered for his temper and "nice guys finish last" mentality.

In the 1960s and 1970s, managerial tirades brought to mind two men: Billy Martin and Earl Weaver. Both were winning managers and both were famous for arguing their cases vociferously. Weaver is a YouTube hit. Martin was bombastic back in his days managing the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers. He could be caustic off the field. When he was fired and rehired by George Steinbrenner during their long-running soap opera, it was like watching a train wreck. You wanted to look away but just had to keep watching.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Joe West: The Power Mad Ump

Joe West is used to tossing managers and players.
NOTE: Joe West keeps showing off his incompetence. On May 17 he called a runner out for leaving the bag early on a fly ball. This post shows how wrong he was. And see my new post on Phil Cuzzi, another incompetent ump. And sometimes umps need a fair shake.

If the mark of being a good umpire is never being noticed, then Joe West has to be the worst umpire ever. When it comes to consistently bizarre decisions, he's e only major league arbiter who comes to mind. I guess if he wants to be noticed, he is a spectacular success.

The latest incident involving West came on Friday night after a balk was called on Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. Because a balk call is often contentious, it wasn't a surprise that Sox manager Terry Francona cam out to argue.

What happened next is being reviewed by commissioner's office and likely will end up with Francona suspended. Francona was arguing with Angel Hernandez, the ump who called the balk. As the argument heated up, West moved in between them and used his hands to push Francona away. The bumps between the two continued until Francona finally headed to the dugout, tossing his chewing gum at Hernandez as he walked away.

It's debatable whether West instigated the bumping, although Francona certainly thinks so. It's hard to give West the benefit of the doubt considering his history. Search YouTube and there are a disturbing number of games where things get out of control. Back in 1991, Cubs fans poured garbage on the field after West's extra wide strike zone caused Andre Dawson to erupt.

Baseball's Mobile Connection

Note: This weekend baseball turns its attention to civil rights with a game and other festivities in Atlanta. What better time to look at the legacy of one Southern City and its impact on the big leagues?

Maybe it was the era, or maybe it was just coincidence, but two of my favorite players growing up (and to this day) came from the same place: Mobile, Ala. And Hank Aaron and Billy Williams aren't the only stars who joined the majors from that Southern city.

In fact, there are five Hall of Famers from there: Aaron, Williams, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Ozzie Smith. All are black and the first four all were among the first wave of players after Jackie Robinson to break the color line. Aaron was the last player to move from the Negro Leagues to the majors and be voted into the Hall of Fame.

And there are other prominent players from Mobile, including Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee who shared the outfield on the '69 Miracle Mets team, and Amos Otis a star on the Kansas City Royals teams of the 1970s. That's quite a distinguished roster of players.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Break Out the Pink Bats

It's Mother's Day and for the sixth year many major leaguers will stride to the plate wielding pink bats. The color, of course, doesn't really affect the game -- notwithstanding Ron Santo's poor attempt at humor while broadcasting a Chicago Cubs game.

The bats are a way to raise awareness for the fight against breast cancer. The observance is in conjunction with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. In 2009, baseball also started choosing honorary bat girls for the day.

The bat girls, who are breast-cancer survivors, are chosen by each team. It's a nice addition to the day. Of course, ball girls are not new as many teams have deployed them down the lines over the years. Perhaps most famously the Cubs (they seem to have problems in this area) hired and later dismissed Marla Collins, whom was the object of many Harry Caray sexist remarks and a spread in Playboy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays

Willie Mays turned 80 yesterday. It's hard to believe the "Say Hey Kid," frozen in time making the most famous catch ever has reached that milestone.

To a lot of fans, Mays is the greatest player ever. The image of his cap flying off as he chased down an impossible-to-catch fly ball proof of his superior ability. No doubt Mays is among the greatest ever; he is even celebrated wit the immortal refrain "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" in Terry Cashman's ode to baseball, "Talkin' Baseball."

I find Mays career fascinating for the way it played out over two decades. Last year, I read "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" and I came away with two overall thoughts about Mays.

First, there were three distinct periods to Mays' career. In part one, he was the young kid who came from nowhere to make Gotham's Nation League team a champion. Then, in part two, the team moved west to San Francisco. It took the fans there years to warm up to Mays (which shows just how fickle sports fans can be: How do you give a cold shoulder to the "Say Hey Kid?").

Finally, part three, the final act of his career. Mays is traded to the Mets so he can have a triumphal return to New York. Instead of being joyous, the farewell tour has left many New Yorkers with a bad taste. They often lament that it's a shame Mays' career had to end the way it did.

But I think they have selective memory. Yes, the aging hero did lose a ball in the sun during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the 1973 World Series against the Oakland A's. And yes he did look bad stumbling and falling. But, after that, in the 12th inning, Mays drove in the last run of his career. It gave the Mets a lead they wouldn't relinquish. In other words, the last RBI of Mays' career was a World Series game winner. I've never heard anyone mentions this. All they remember from his Mets' days is one lousy missed fly ball.

The other image I formed of Mays was of a man whose entire life was baseball. The account in the book is of a man who in retirement never really found something to spark his interest the way being the "Say Hey Kid" had.

But for a black kid from Alabama who was born before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, it's quite an accomplishment to be the man many consider the best ever. For him, the first act was so large it's possible that no second act could live up to it.

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Baseball's Drinking Problem

I've written a couple of times about baseball's problems with the law and other incidents of bad behavior. Now comes the arrest this week of Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo on DUI charges. Unfortunately, he's not the only player who has been arrested for drunken driving since spring training began.

At least five other players are in the same situation: Adam Kennedy of the Seattle Mariners; Derek Lowe of the Atlanta Braves; Austin Kearns and Coco Crisp of the Indians; and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.

I don't know if that's more than in an average year, but I was shocked to read that major league baseball has no policy regarding offenses related to drinking. Maybe I just haven't paid enough attention, but it seems like baseball players and alcohol have often been linked and some sort of policy would have developed.

What Is Fan Loyalty, Exactly?

As I cruised through web today, I stumbled on a Bleacher Report feature judging baseball's worst fair weather fans. It's an easy story for the site, famous for slideshows and captions, to do. These can be fun to buzz through. This one, though, just doesn't hold up.

Sports is apparently the one business where the customers are castigated for not buying the product. If a movie bombs or a car doesn't sell, critics point out the deficiencies of the product. Maybe it's because teams disguise themselves as representatives of the cities they play in.

That makes it seem almost unpatriotic to not go the games. While it's easy to get wrapped in the notion, the reality is that  team owners are quick to move or threaten to move to get whatever tax breaks or new stadiums they want.

And then there's the biggest problem with the thesis of the post: Somehow it was deduced that when teams had bad years attendance dropped. And, amazingly, when teams play they sold more tickets. Sherlock Holmes would be proud.

Even the Yankees have had their problems at the gate. Back in the early '90s when George Steinbrenner was suspended by major league baseball, getting tickets to a game was not so difficult.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hall of Famers, from A to, Well, Y

Arcane fact: If you list the 205 players elected to the Hall of Fame alphabetically, the first and last on the list started and ended their careers in a uniform that read Milwaukee on the front. At the top of the list, of course, is Henry Aaron. At the bottom, in name only, is Robin Yount.

I saw both of them play many times (and, in fact they suited up together for Aaron's final two years in the big leagues.) Looking back it makes a tidy story line.

Yount was the young phenom who was the starting shortstop for the Brewers when he was just 18. (Being 14 at the time, it seemed impossible to think anyone in high school could be a major leaguer!) And in Robin's third season, Hammerin' Hank was traded to the Brewers so he could end his career where it began. (Trivia: Aaron was acquired from the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Dave May.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sports and Bin Laden II

One day of sports radio being turned over to serious news is good; two appears to be too many. I figured that today sports talk radio would return to the usual topics of baseball, picking apart every managerial move and lambasting one team or another's NFL draft.

Unfortunately it didn't work out that way. Rashard Mendenhall (OK, he plays football for the Pittsburgh Steelers), inserted himself into the Osama bin Laden discussion with his idiotic tweets about 9/11 being a conspiracy. I'm not exactly sure why anyone cares what someone who makes a living being hit in the head thinks, but his comments dominated WFAN for a time this afternoon.

It was hard to listen to. Silly comments from listeners that invoked the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (one caller was quick to say he wasn't saying whether that policy was right or wrong) were cringe-inducing.

The morning announcers, Evan Roberts and Joe Beningo, had it right when they addressed a question about why they weren't talking about the tweets. They just didn't think it was worth their time

Enough said.

The Braves, Brewers and Memory

With all of the sensational news lately -- Roger McDowell's tirade, fans cheering bin Laden's death -- I started thinking of happier topics. At the top of the list are my earliest memories of heading to the ballpark.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in Milwaukee where big league baseball was part of the fabric of the city. The Braves are a fuzzy memory for me. I was only 6 when the Braves headed South, but I can remember going to a game. The only images in my mind's eye are walking in the concourse at County Stadium. It's a pleasant memory, if scant on details.

The next Braves memory I have is of my cousins, who lived in Atlanta, telling me my team was headed their way. I can still feel the shock of hearing that. Maybe it was city pride, but I was saddened when my Dad confirmed the bad news.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Baseball, the Mets and bin Laden

Fans at the Phillies-Mets game react to bin Laden's death.
It's hard to believe it's been almost a decade since Osama bin Laden became a part of our lives with the Sept. 11 attacks. In a strange echo of that infamous day, his death, announced last night by President Barack Obama, is dominating WFAN sports talk radio in New York.

It's not unusual to hear the announcers on WFAN mention non-sports topics. But I can think of no other such topic that has dominated the station. In fact, some of the best reporting I heard on Sept. 11, 2001, was on the station. First, there was Warner Wolf, a veteran TV sportscaster who lived near ground zero. He described the first tower falling on the Don Imus show.

But most astonishing to me, was an interview with tennis commentator Bud Collins, who had been covering the U.S. Open, which ended the day before. Known for his loud sports jackets and bombastic opinions, Collins showed he was a keen observer in a stressful situation. He really did paint word pictures of the dazed people fleeing the World Trade Center area. His descriptions of soot-covered people wandering north in Manhattan clutching briefcases, still wearing ties are unforgettable.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stolen Bases, By Almost Everyone

Maybe you think the stolen base is the province of speedsters. Daring men like Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson taking the measure of the pitcher and catcher and daring them to stop them. Well, it turns out that the stolen base is there for almost everyone who plays.

Everyone, that is, but Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Chris Snyder, who the Wall Street Journal notes is closing in on the record for most trips to the plate without a steal. That's amazing to contemplate.

It's easy to come up with a list of players who would seem to be candidates to have been perpetually stuck at first after a single. Most people picture Babe Ruth as a rotund slugger. But the Bambino was a good base runner. Not only did he often steal more that 10 bases in a season, he even swiped home 10 times in his career. Sure stolen bases were more prevalent then, but there are less than 60 players in the history of baseball who managed that feat.

Others that were slow of foot include Ernie Lombardi, a Reds catcher in the 1930s famous for turning doubles off the wall into singles. Still, he managed to nab eight bases in a 17-year stay in the bigs. Likewise, Frank Howard, who is as massive as a wall, stole eight bases over his career.

Players like Brock and Henderson -- not to mention Ty Cobb and Maury Wills -- never had much problem stealing bases. But even Snyder has reason to hope. After all, almost everyone who plays manages to steal a base. So hang in there, Chris.

ESPN.com - MLB