Friday, July 29, 2011

For Love of a Ballpark

The Milwaukee Brewers are sponsoring a contest asking fans to let the team know what they love about Miller Park. The winner gets season tickets for next season. It's a nice way to celebrate the stadium's 10th anniversary.

I don't live in Milwaukee anymore and haven't for the better part of more than three decades, but I make it to one or two Brewers' home games a year. There's a lot to love about the new ballpark. The wide concourses and seats closer to the field are a big improvement over County Stadium. Without a doubt, the thing I love most is the retractable roof.  Nobody likes a rainout, but it's even worse if you have only one day to see a game. I shake my head at the two new stadiums in New York that neglected to this feature.

Still, the contest started me thinking about what inspires love for a ballpark. For me it's not the amenities or the design. It's the memories of what happens there.

The picture I have in my mind of sitting in the upper deck at County Stadium with my Dad watching the early, bad Brewers teams are priceless. So, too, of seeing Robin Yount mature from the reed-thin rookie into the franchise's greatest player. And nothing tops the summer of '78 when the Brewers made the leap from perennial doormat to contender. (Although '82 is obviously the Crew's best year, I had to follow the thrills from far away in South Carolina.)

I am sure for a new generation of fans Miller Park is making indelible memories that pack the same emotional wallop as County Stadium does for me.

I didn't shed a tear when County Stadium was replaced. I knew it was time. But I'll always love the old stadium and the memories it left with me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Best Double Play of Year? U2

The playing field at Busch Stadium was completely
resodded following U2's  July 17 concert.
Best double play pulled of this year? The surprise winner is U2. The band had a hand in two games played in different states. Not bad.

The first part of the twofer occurred earlier this year when the Florida Marlines moved their home series with the Mariners to Seattle to give the band time to set up. Since Marlins games are sparsely attended, I guess the team figured they'd get more out of the concert and their share of the away gate.

U2's second out was apparently recorded Monday night in St. Louis where the Houston Astros had a bad game stumbling and falling while chasing a few fly balls hit by the Cardinals. The explanation for all the pratfalls wasn't just that the Astros are a bad team (worst in baseball by far), but that the field was a mess after a U2 concert. (There was nothing in the story that explained if the Cards also had problems.)

Who knew that all the grass on a field is pulled out to prepare for a rock concert. For me, it brought back memories of when Milwaukee County Stadium hosted rock concerts for the first time. It was 1975 and the Rolling Stones headlined a show with the Eagles, Beach Boys and Rufus.

After the concert,  the criticism was loud that the field had been ruined. I remember the Milwaukee Journal running photos of the outfield. Damage was clear. But then it was pointed out that damage from Green Bay Packers game was more widespread. The controversy died out and more concerts were held over the years. (I never attended any but I don't think it was the greatest venue to see a show. Unless you were sitting on the field, I would think the sight lines would be pretty bad.)

But surely the double play U2 pulled off in St. Louis and Miami will go down as a nice bit of band trivia for fans to talk about.

Monday, July 25, 2011

More Day Baseball?

The Cubs play more day games than anyone.
 Does anyone want to  emulate their record?
The Florida Marlins are finally going to play their home games in a stadium built for baseball next year. And the new ballpark, rising on the site once occupied by the Orange Bowl, will even have a retractable roof.

The obvious reasons for that are the heat and the penchant for late-day rain in southern Florida. Now fans will no longer have to ponder whether to make the trek to see the Marlins play in the midst of a thunderstorm. But the team has decided there's another benefit to the new park: more day games during the week.

As reports, the location of the ballpark in a business district has the Marlins thinking games in the sunshine will be a draw for the workers in the area. The St. Louis Cardinals have long had a "businessman's special" staring time of noon. The theory behind it was that an extended lunch hour would be enough time to catch a game. I'm not sure how well that holds up now that games are much longer than two hours.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Innocence Lost

There's an interesting piece in The New York Times today in which readers recalled when their innocence about sports was replaced with the knowledge that the game and heroes they loved were imperfect after all.

The responses were interesting. Moments that left fans disillusioned included the trading of favorite players Rocky Colavito, Lou Brock and Tom Seaver), wife swapping between two players on the New York Yankees (Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson), and the moving of a team (Brooklyn Dodgers).

The responses started me wracking my brain to remember back to when I had illusions about the purity of the game. I admit I was stumped. No single trade or huge disappointment came to mind.

Sure, there were trades I didn't like (Gorman Thomas). And I was only 6 when the Braves left for Atlanta. I remember my Southern cousins breaking the news that it was going to happen. I do remember not believing them, but I don't recall being emotionally distraught.

Maybe because I was young when Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" came out in 1970, I learned that ballplayers were just people and not really special except between the lines. The book wasn't well received by baseball and Bouton was vilified for revealing the drinking, womanizing and other bad behavior that was part of a ballplayer's life on the road.

Somehow, I've always rooted more the quiet players who really did "just do it." Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Rod Carew and Ernie Banks were among my favorites. They weren't flashy on the field and acted with dignity off it.

But mainly I think I was raised to think of ballplayers as talented athletes not heroes. My parents never talked put athletes, or anyone really, on any kind of pedestal. I think it's a good thing I absorbed that lesson because there have been chances to be disappointed over the years.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blue Eyes Squinting in the Sun?

Are these eyes too blue to see in daylight?
Maybe John Fogerty had a point when he sang about a "brown-eyed handsome man" playing "Centerfield." Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers obviously thinks so. Ever since he told the world that his daytime hitting woes are all because he has blue eyes, the debate has raged.

Optometrists have weighed in on both sides. Many say there's something to Hamilton's complaint, while others says people with light eyes naturally compensate to the difference.  I admit I am skeptical that having blue eyes is a huge obstacle for hitters.

A number bloggers have looked at the stats of Hamilton and other blue-eyed players. One tracked Hamilton's year-by-year splits and Jason Bay's, another player with blue eyes. Bay has said he agrees that hitting during the day was tougher because of his blue eyes. (Although how any blue-eyed player knows what it's like for a brown-eyed player is a mystery.) Bay's day night-splits are pretty close.

I'm not surprised. It seems to me that Hamilton's problems are in his head, and I don't mean his eyes. This week he tried some fancy, custom sunglasses, but gave up on them after one hitless day. Last year, Hamilton hit 170 points higher during the day than he has this year. That says to me it has become a confidence issue.

Or maybe he just needs to squint a little more.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Run on Bobbleheads

Bobbleheads have become the top ballpark giveaway. It's been that way for a while. But the Minnesota Twins might have taken the dolls to a new level. The team offered a set of 25 of the collectibles representing the 1991 World Series winners.

The cost for was $391. One thousand sets were offered. They sold out quickly. That's nearly 400 grand in sales. The Twins say the net profits will go to its community fund. Of course, some of the buyers immediately put them for sale on eBay, looking for a profit.

I'm ambivalent about the bobbleheads. I have a shelf full of New York Mets lookalikes (well, some of them sort of look like their alter egos). The top giveaway when I was a kid was the common wood baseball bat. I used my Darrell Porter model till it the paint was worn off and the handle was chipped.

I understand they probably stopped giving out bats for fear of liability problems. And it's doubtful any kid today would be allowed to use a wood bat. I suppose the baseball giveaway was ended when one too many ended up being thrown onto the field during play.

It's interesting that almost none of the giveaways these days involve equipment that can be used to play the game. The only items that even come close are caps, wristbands and a water bottle. And the latter item is a stretch. We never had water bottles on the playground back in the day.

Added to my shelf this year have been Mr. Met (my wife, a lifelong Mets fan, calls it the evil Mr. Mets because of changes to his eyebrows) and Ike Davis, who was obtained last night. They join Johann Santana and Frankie Rodriguez, among others. Strangely, Most of the Mets honorees have been injured when their likeness was handed out. Although Mr. Met did appear at Opening Day this season on his special day.

I can't imagine any kid has as much fun with a bobblehead as I did with my bat, batting gloves and plastic helmet. But then there wouldn't be much a market on eBay for those items.

Blast from Baseball Past

The Wall Street Journal had a story on Monday about a group of self-described nerds who cling to a baseball board game that seems to transport them (at least in their minds) into the role of all-powerful baseball lord.

I enjoyed the article, which calls the game a "nerd magnet," mainly because I loved the game in question, All-Star Baseball, when I was much (and I do mean much) younger. It turns out ASB, as the nerds now call it, is older than its more sophisticated rivals like Strat-O-Matic and APBA.

ASB dates to 1941 when a former New York Giants outfielder and Yale baseball coach was inspired to create a game based on the statistics of major leaguers. The result, at least when I was younger, was addictive. The original set of player cards was based on all-time greats. Of course there were Ruth and Cobb, and Spahn, and Walter Johnson. But where else would I have heard of Eppa Rixey? Later, there were cards for modern players.

I remember receiving the game for birthday one July in about 1970 or '71. I remember it so well, I think, because my birthday is in February, so a summertime present was unusual, if not unique. Uncle David and Aunt Barbara stopped by out of the blue to drop it off. They had it all along, but forgot to give it to me. That didn't matter much to me. (Although, the fact they lived several blocks on the same street as we did, makes the explanation kind of mysterious.)

I was instantly enthralled with the game. I spent hours playing with friends or alone filling spiral notebooks with scorecards. But then like a light switch turning off, I stopped playing. There was no thought put into it. I just moved on to other pursuits.

Maybe if just once I felt as all-powerful over the players represented in the game as one of the nerds quoted in The Journal I would have stuck with it. But then again maybe that just means I am not that much of a nerd.

Monday, July 18, 2011

600 Ain't What is Used to Be

Jim Thome is on the verge of a milestone that just seven major leaguers have reached: 600 home runs. That's far fewer than the number with 3,000 hits. But somehow the buzz in much lower than it was for Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit.

Jeter, of course, plays in New York for the Yankees, so that accounts for some of the difference. And after steroid era, it seems the value of home runs has diminished. I can remember the hoopla surrounding Hank Aaron's 500th, and Ernie Banks was widely saluted when he reached that mark for the Chicago Cubs.

But Thome's march to the plateau seems to be getting less notice. It's not hard to remember the home run chase put on by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Every at-bat was a media event. Batting practice by the sluggers was watches as intently as a World Series game.

After the bubble burst on that era, the numbers seemed more like pinball than baseball. After all, until the steroid era, only Aaron, Ruth and Mays had crossed the 600 barrier. The club will soon have eight members.

Unfortunately, the effect of the steroids era has been to tarnish even those might have never used the substances. Jeter has managed to keep a clean image, and, by all accounts, Thome name has never been associated with the scandal.

Still, for me, and I suspect many others, the distrust has been planted. I love the game, but any sense of innocence about the players has been lost. For me, now, it's hard to take the breaking of these records too seriously.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is MLB Catching on to Joe West?

Managers like Joe Maddon won't be double-teamed anymore
by umpires Angel Hernandez, center, and Joe West.
It doesn't go far enough, but Major League Baseball has at last taken a little action against Joe West and Angel Hernandez, the two worst umpires in the game. To start the second half of the season, the two are no longer on the same crew.

It's far short of the firing both have long deserved, but at least their incompetence will be watered down some by working with three other umpires.

Besides the fact that West and Hernandez have an endless capacity for making bad calls, they both seem to revel in the power their position gives them. Photos of the two double-teaming to argue with managers are all over the web.

Once the screaming starts, they are too stubborn to walk away to defuse the situation. They'd rather get in someone's face and then toss the "offender" out. Just ask Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers who was ejected after his manager had pulled him for a new pitcher. Some lip readers say he said "horrible" to an ump on his way off the field. Touchy, touchy.

The old saying goes that the best umpires are the ones you don't notice. Joe West and his former running buddy Hernandez make too much news. Let's hope 2011 is the end of the line for both.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Blyleven Gets His Due

After years of waiting, Bert Blyleven is finally getting his due. On Saturday the Minnesota Twins will retire his number and later this month he'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

When I was kid going to Brewers games, Blyleven was one of the visiting players I always looked forward to seeing. His pitching style was effortless and his curveball broke so much it just had to be an optical illusion. But it wasn't. It was often said by announcers at the time that he had the best breaking ball ever.

Still, a long career (22 seasons) and a lot of wins (287) weren't enough to get him into the Hall of Fame for years. A lot of the argument against him centered around the idea that he was just a compiler, someone who put up good numbers only because he hung around so long.

I am suspicious of the "compiler" argument. I have heard it used several times to denigrate the accomplishments of Hank Aaron. Yes, Aaron had a long career; almost all legendary players do. But he was a great player from the start of his career and had the grit to break the game's greatest record in the face of death threats and vile racial insults. And he he was in the two three in homers, RBI, runs scored and hits when he retired. In short, he is the definition of a Hall of Famer.

Blyleven, of course, is not Aaron. His winning percentage is not the best, but he often had mediocre or even hapless teams behind him.

While there are some number that (automatically) make a player worthy of enshrinement, like 300 wins, 3,000 hits (at least prior to steroids), I have always thought Hall of Famers can be spotted while they are in the midst of their careers.

Bert Blyleven seemed worthy then, and I am happy to seem him finally get the honor.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Clemens Gets a Reprieve

The trial of Roger Clemens on Thursday was shut down by the judge after just two days. And like the entire steroid era, the mistrial leaves us with more questions than answers.

I am not surprised that the trial of Clemens didn't go well, although I didn't expect prosecutors to present evidence that had been ruled inadmissible. That's a hard one to understand, no matter how much pressure they felt to get a conviction.

I doubt we'll ever know haw many players used steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. Nor do I think any players will ever be convicted of any crimes. And I doubt we'll ever really know how much management at the top levels of MLB discussed the problem even as they denied there was one.

I suppose they will try Clemens again, but with the all the long drawn out hearings and trial delays, the public cares less and less. It seems everyone in baseball -- fans, players, management -- wants to pretend it never happened.

Even mentioning the possibility that current players could still be using PEDs draws hoots from readers. Unfortunately, I think athletes in all sports are still looking for an edge. And with all the stories that have been written about the drug labs working to beat the testers, it's hard to believe that it all of it has stopped.

I guess that's the way these things go. Fans want to enjoy the game and not have it sullied by stories of bad conduct by players. That's why the first line of attack by fans and players is to blame the messenger, be it he media or Jose Canseco.

It's the baseball version of don't ask, don't tell. And we all know how well that policy worked.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oh, Those Slings & Arrows

Cold weather is a fact of life
in many World Series games.
It's not always easy being a displaced Brewers fan living far from Milwaukee. Today is a great day to root for the Crew: Prince Fielder is the hero of the All-Star Game; and the team made a statement by trading for high-priced closer Francisco Rodriguez to add depth to a sometimes shaky bullpen.

Still, that didn't stop an announcer on WFAN from bashing my hometown. It's a common occurrence around here (Yankees' announcer Suzyn Waldman once whined for 10 minutes about having to accompany the team to Milwaukee. She complained about there being nothing to do. She's such an awful, biased commentator I was thinking she might use her off hours to practice.)

So there I was again in the car hearing an announcer talk about how horrible it will be for him to have to be in Milwaukee in November for the World Series. November! The very idea! The temperature, he said would be 29 degrees (The average high in the city is 46 degrees, the low 31. And in the early part of the month I am sure it's higher.) I guess he hasn't heard about the retractable roof over Miller Park. He needn't worry about frostbite.

I was talking to a friend about it and he mentioned that going to the Series is all about hanging outside and partying. I must have missed that memo. The World Series usually has a cold weather team involved (like the New York Yankees who win more than their share).

Aside from that, the Milwaukee bashers should think about leaving their hotel rooms and exploring the city. There's a world-class art museum, a fine museum and other things to see. And if drinking is the goal, um, Milwaukee has a reputation in that area, too.

If that isn't enough to do, they could always console themselves that they lucky to see the Series for free. That's not a bad job.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Are You Listening, Bud?

Another day and another bad idea from Major League Baseball. In his annual All-Star chat with fans, Commissioner Bud Selig talked about many things. Most of them were predictable (he evaded a question about the Dodgers and said no major realignment was "imminent')  but one was another one of those ideas that is just plain awful.

Selig said he wouldn't mind tweaking interleague play so that the designated hitter is used in NL parks. Conversely, pitchers would hit when NL teams visited AL stadiums. Selig likes the idea, he says, because NL fans would get a chance to see how game is played with the DH and AL fans would enjoy seeing pitchers bat.

I find that hard to believe. I know fans of both leagues and none of the Senior Circuit rooters have any interest in the DH. They find the concept, if it is brought up, loathsome. While some AL fans are affirmed backers of the DH, there are some who haven't warmed up to it after 39 years.

Personally, I was an AL fan first and the DH was OK back then. Because of the rule, I was able to see Hank Aaron play his final two years. He was well past his prime and in no shape to play the outfield, so DH was the only position he could have played.

Since the Brewers have moved to the NL, though, I have no interest in the Junior Circuit brand of ball. It's slower and lacks the strategy of the NL version.

Hopefully, this was just a trial balloon and Selig will hear it burst.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Who's Not in the All-Star Game?

Maybe I just don't pay enough attention, but I barely have an idea who's playing in Tuesday night's All-Star Game. Every time I scan the headlines on or sports news outlets it seems there is a story about this player or that pulling out of the game.

My feelings about the game are mixed, but I usually watch it. Not being quite sure who's going to play (or if the players are really best in the game) is another knock against it, though. I know injuries have always caused changes to the lineups, but this year seems to be reaching new heights.

It used to be that the starting players stayed out on the field for most, if not all of the game. And even extra innings didn't bring on the "scrubs." In 1955, for instance, Stan Musial hit a game-winning home run in the 12th inning at Milwaukee County Stadium. And starting pitchers went three innings, unless the all-star hitters whacked them around.

Players named to the All-Star Game sound like Academy Award nominees: They love the "honor" but don't care much about winning or even playing. (Although, I think the actors really do want to win. I'm not so sure about the players.)

I foresee a time not so far from now hen so many players choose not to play that everyone in the league will be an "all star." Think of all those incentive clauses reached. The agents will have field day at contract time.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Jeter Smacks No. 3,000

Derek Jeter reached the milestone he's been chasing the last couple weeks by hitting a home run for career hit No. 3,000. He's the 28th player ever first to get that many hits while wearing the uniform of the New York Yankees. With the team's legacy of great players and teams that's an amazing feat.

More amazing to me is that despite Jeter's stellar play as a key player on several World Series winners, a debate has still raged about who is more important to the team, Jeter or Mariano Rivera, acclaimed as the greatest closer ever.

As Jeter closed in on the hit plateau, callers on sports-talk radio in New York stated their case for one over the other. Mike Francesca, the drive-time host on WFAN, sides with Rivera. After all, he says, Rivera has been almost perfect in the post-season and he is the difference between the Yankees and the teams they played.

The whole the argument rings false. Yes, Rivera came in and closed games, but without other players putting the team ahead there would have been no games for him to finish. And Jeter, the Yankees' captain, usually helped give the team those leads.

Championship ball clubs need more than one player to win. The Yankees always felt secure when Rivera came in to close out games, but they also knew Jeter was likely to get a key hit or make the right play in the field.

Maybe some caller made this point, but I never heard it: Both Jeter and Rivera were needed for the Yanks to the dominant team of the decade. That doesn't diminish the contributions of either. Together they helped propel the Yankees to greatness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dick Williams, RIP

When Dick Williams came calling, pitchers like
Goose Gossage often didn't want to see him.
Dick Williams, one of the top managers of the '60, '70 and '80s, and a Hall of Famer, died today. Williams was one of those old-school tough guys who didn't take guff from anyone, even his employer.

As a kid, I loved the Oakland A's. Williams was their manager when they won two of their three straight World Series. The team featured colorful figures like Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris and Rollie Fingers on the field and Charlie Finley in the owner's box.

Everything I've read about Williams since paints a portrait of a disciplinarian who insisted things be done his way. He used that to take charge of the circus that was the A's back then. It didn't seem to matter whether Reggie stirred controversy or Finley was the center of attention, Williams kept the team winning; they were the best team of the '70s. (Sorry Big Red Machine, you finish second in my rankings.)

Maybe only a strict manger could have run a team like that successfully. In the end, it was too much for Williams. He quit the A's after three division titles and two world championships. He'd had enough of Finley and his style. For those who are too young to remember, Finley was part carnival barker (that was the fun part) and part George Steinbrenner (think tyrant).

Let 'Em Hit Gold

'My Man Godfrey' poked fun at the wealthy.
Baseball is serious about playing with gold.
Let 'em hit gold.

No, that is something Marie Antoinette said. It's what Major League baseball said today when it announced gold-infused baseballs would be used in this year's Home Run Derby the night before the All-Star Game.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me that a sport played by millionaires on teams owned by people who are really wealthy would have lost touch with the average fan. You know, the ones who are struggling is this economy to make ends meet. The one who love the games, who spend the money on tickets, memorabilia, apps, and cable and computer subscriptions to see games.

The final round of the Home Run Derby on Monday night will be played with baseballs with 24-karat-gold-infused covers. The balls cost about $150 each, and MLB proudly points out that the lucky fans who catch the one will have a great souvenir. (Soon to be available on eBay!)

To me it seems absurd in the middle of the worst economy in more than seven decades to play a game (and one designed by the marketing department at that) with baseballs covered in real gold. Yes, I understand that the Boys & Girls Clubs of America gets a nice donation for every one of the balls that is hit over the will. But that charitable tie-in is not new.

What is new is playing a game with a symbol of greed and avarice.

The image of golden baseballs being launched into the stands seems like something out of a Depression-era movie. You know, like "My Man Godfey," where a rich guy pretends to be a bum and gets scooped up as part of a scavenger hunt. But that was a parody. Rich people searching for poor people to win a contest. The very idea!

But I suppose any sport that would think playing with gold baseballs is a good idea probably would not realize how silly it looks.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Give the Ump a Break

Brian Knight appears to have made a
good call, but  was criticized anyway.
I haven't been reticent to criticize the state of umpiring, especially as practiced by Joe West, Angel Hernandez and Phil Cuzzi (and boy does this trio need practice). But even when umpires make a seemingly good call they get bashed sometimes.

Such is the case with the final out in last night's game between the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. C. Trent Rosecrans at used his space this morning to write about how a blown call ended the game.

The play in question happened with runners and first and second and two out in the ninth and the Jays trailing by a run. A base hit to short left was scooped up by Sox left-fielder Darnell McDonald who fired a strike to catcher Jason Varitek. Varitek had the plate blocked perfectly. Edwin Encarnacion slid in hard and was tagged and then called out by Brian Knight, the home-plate arbiter.

You'd think that would end the discussion. But on replays, Encarnacion's right leg sneaks past Varitek's shin guard. The problem is that no replay angle shows for sure whether his foot touched the plate or passed over it.

I understand the Blue Jays arguing about it. But media, and even bloggers, should try to be objective when calling out umps or players. Most who commented on Rosecrans' post said they couldn't tell if the runner was safe.

Sometimes even the men in blue need a break. Or at least a fair shake.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

All-Star Addiction?

Check out the price, and that's for a Lower Box seat down the line!
I admit it. No matter how awful the selection process, how meaningless the game I still watch baseball's All-Star Game each year. I am an addict. (Although if I did miss it I don't think I'd go into withdrawal.)

I know the game is not what it once was. Apart from the World Series, it used to be the only time you could see the stars from each league face off. And those stars seemed to play it like they wanted to win. There was no cheering when someone made a nice catch to send them back to the dugout. No one left the ballpark after their stint in the game was over to catch the ESPYs. Just thinking about the ESPYs makes the All-Star game seem suddenly important.

Some of that nonsense hasn't been seen the last few years. But the game doesn't have the thrills it used to. My earliest All-Star memory is a vague recollection of the 1969 game. Actually, what I remember most is the dugouts overflowing with rainwater and the game being postponed. They played that game on Wednesday afternoon.

It could be that the 1970 cemented my affinity for the Mid-Summer Classic: Pete Rose scoring the winning run by running over Ray Fosse (who knew he was voted as the starter in '71 despite being injured?) is an iconic moment. I was 11 and there was no doubt the game was for real.

I was at the '75 game at Milwaukee County Stadium. It was Hank Aaron's last appearance as an All-Star and had the odd coincidence of the co-MVPs having similar names: Bill Madlock and Jon Matlack for the National League. I think that was the first time I was sprayed with beer at a ballpark. The guy behind me had managed to get a six-pack and I guess it was shaken, not stirred, on the way in.

Through the years, I've always managed to see the game. When I worked nights I would tape it and watch it later. For several years now I've gotten together with my friend, John, and whoever else wants to watch the game.

It's become more about the tradition and camaraderie than the game. Maybe I'm not addicted after all. This therapy session worked. Thanks for listening.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Fourth at the Ballpark

Over the years, I've managed to take in several Fourth of July ballgames. For the most part, memories of the on-field play have faded. But some moments stand out.

In the early '70, ballpark promotions were more quaint than today. I remember one Independence Day when the Flying Wallendas of circus and high-wire fame were the star attraction at Milwaukee County Stadium (probably more than the Brewers were to many at the game that day). It was impressive to see them walk across a wire strung across the field.

The Wallendas performed their death-defying stunts with out a hitch. I can't remember a thing about the game. At least there's something about the day I remember.

The most iconic moment in baseball's July Fourth history is Lou Gehrig's farewell speech in 1939. It was a day that cemented the "Iron Horse's" reputation as a classy, indomitable player. By luck I was at the re-enactment of the event. I am pretty sure it must have been 1999, the 60th anniversary of the speech. The ceremony was emotional for fans and players.

On the other end of the spectrum, was my sojourn to Yankee Stadium last year. My wife, Lynn, and I were guests in the Legends Suites. It was unlike any other ballgame I've attended. I've been to stadium clubs and restaurants for dinner, but none compared to this day.

Entering the suites area was like being greeted at a resort. A line of employees welcomed us, showed us our seats (a couple of rows from the field near third base) and then explained how the buffet worked. Trust me, the buffet worked fine. The food was superior and there was even plenty for Lynn, a vegetarian, to eat.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Umpire Out for the Count

We have a new entry in the race for the title of worst umpire in baseball. Phil Cuzzi, who was already under consideration, added to his credentials on Saturday night when he allowed a batter a walk on just three balls.

This is the same ump who called a Joe Mauer double foul during a 2009 playoff game between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. That call was so bad it led to the addition of instant replay, which had long been kept out of the game because of the objections of purists.

Purists don't mind grievous errors by umpires because that's the way it was always done. That's just not a good enough reason to allow poor calls to stand.

Now, back to Saturday night. Cuzzi lost track of the count during a seven-pitch at bat. Cameron Maybin of the San Diego Padres took his base and came around to score the only run of the game. No one on the Seattle Mariners' bench protested. The Mariners' catcher didn't seem to notice. The fans didn't howl.

It reminds of me of the "Fifth Down" game when Colorado defeated Missouri in a key 1990 Big 8 (yes, it was long ago). The Buffaloes used the extra snap to score the wining touchdown.

Padres' Manager Bud Black says he knew what had happened, but wasn't going to argue about it for obvious reasons. Cuzzi's crew chief, Tom Hallion, was quoted as saying Cuzzi thought it was only ball three, but since the scoreboard had it as ball four, he figured he was wrong.

Say what? Cuzzi ceded his job to the scoreboard operator. It's past time for Major League Baseball to get rid of umpires who can't do the job. Joe West and Phil Cuzzi should be handed pink slips.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Baseball's Sweet Soundtrack

Ruth Roberts was honored at Shea Stadium in 1996.
Baseball has a long history of songs. Most of them are novelties and not great, but many of them are memorable. Some tunes have stuck with me over the years. "It's a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame," "I Love Mickey" and "Meet the Mets" all share a middle of the road sounds and lyrics that are corny, but evocative.

I never realized they all shared the same songwriters: Ruth Roberts, who died yesterday, and Bill Katz who passed away in 1988. I had never connected the songs before, but when I heard the same team had written all three songs, it made sense.

"Beautiful Day" will always trigger memories of my youthful "blue period" when I indiscriminately was a fan of the Chicago Cubs. Although New York Mets' announcer Ron Darling noted during the broadcast tonight that the song is used by the Los Angeles Dodgers, WGN used it in the 1970s to open Cubs' broadcasts. Who can resist a line like, "It's a beautiful day for a home run, but even a triple's okay?"

Dumbest Use of Steroids

As far as I am concerned, any player who used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs would be ignored when it comes to Hall of Fame balloting. But at least I can understand why players would have used them. After all, they were competing against others who did, and athletes are always looking for an edge.

But for the life of me I can't wrap my mind around the idea of an actor using steroids for a movie about baseball. In case you missed, that's the claim made by Charlie Sheen about his starring role in "Major League." It's debatable whether anything that spills from Sheen's mouth should be believed, but it is an incredible statement.

Maybe Sheen didn't realize that Hollywood is in the business of make-believe. After all, he has had problems separating fiction from reality of late.

He says he used steroids to get some extra juice on his fastball (which supposedly went from 79 mph to 85 mph). He says he did for "ego." That part is believable. It makes me wonder if the other actors felt the same pressure. Probably not. I'm guessing they read the script and realized they weren't going to hit him when it mattered most.

In the end, like real players, Sheen says the drugs led to arm problems. Good thing for the producers he was able to come back for "Major League II." At least there won't be a debate whether Sheen cheated. I'd hate to see the Cleveland Indians' Series win vacated. - MLB