Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Kansas City Something or others...

                              As I write this, the Oakland A's have the best record in baseball, followed by their division mates, the Angels. Then there are the other division leaders around the league, and a number of teams vying for wild card spots.  One of those teams, the Kansas City Royals, have the longest playoff drought in baseball at twenty nine years...TWENTY NINE...even with all the wild cards and new divisions since their heyday, the Royals have somehow managed to remain fairly irrelevant in the pennant race...until now.

                       I could do a whole thing on the history of baseball, from the many minor league teams there, to the great Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, ( who had such future Hall of famers as Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and should be Hall of famer, Buck O'Neil) but I'm just going to keep it to the so-called "major leagues." (cynical enough for ya?)

                             It all starts with the Philadelphia A's.  Owned and managed buy Connie Mack, the A's had two great runs in the first half of the twentieth century, where they won five world championships.  By the mid fifties, however, with a different owner, Arnold Johnson  and less and less cities being able to support two teams, the A's moved to Kansas City.  Their early years there, they  mostly seemed to serve as a sort of minor league team to the Yankees, giving them, among others, a power hitting right fielder named Roger Maris in exchange for a bag of magic beans and an autographed photo of Rin Tin Tin. After Johnson died, the notorious Charles Finley took over the team, and promptly refused to make deals with the Yankees, turning around the fortunes of the team.

               By the time Finley had moved the team to Oakland in 1968, their farm system had already built up the makings of a dynasty, with Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, etc. starting to make an immediate impact.  The next year brought the second wave of baseball expansion-the first being in 61 and 62-that awarded another franchise to Kansas City in the Royals, a name that had previously been used by the Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in Montreal.  So even though both clubs in their respective cities began almost at the same time, their paths would be quite different.

       From 71-75, the A's won their division, with three championships sandwiched in the middle.  Meanwhile, the Royals were going through the usual expansion team learning pangs, mostly trying to keep fan interest going while their young stars like George Brett, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorf, and Frank White developed.  Finley didn't take to free agency well, selling off, or simply letting go, a lot of his players in the mid to late '70s.  The result would be a good five years of awful baseball in Oakland.  Right about the time this happened, however, the Royals went on a mini run of their own, winning four division titles in five years, capped off with an A.L. pennant in 1980.

             The strike year of 1981 would be the only year that both the Royals and A's would appear in a postseason together, where the A's beat the Royals in a bizarre postseason in which the best records of each half (before and after the strike) were to play the others.  The A's-briefly invigorated by Billy Martin's "Billy ball", which was basically a managing style that relied on speed and stretching your starting pitchers to the limit- had that one playoff year, but all the Rickey Henderson's in the world couldn't keep Martin from getting fired...and hired again, by the Yankees, where he would once again manage Henderson in a few years.

             The Royals returned to the playoffs in 1984, losing to a powerful Detroit team, but returned to the postseason the next year, winning it all.  1985 is the last season they made the playoffs to this date, but who knows this for the A's, they used their down years in the early, mid '80s to build the farm system and make some trades, winning three straight pennants (88-90) and a World Championship in '89. Other than a playoff appearance in '92, they spent most of the '90s in the doldrums.  They reappeared  a few times in the '00s and this decade, but haven't gotten over the hump...(that hump has usually been the Tigers), but this is their strongest team since the late '80s teams.

               So, in conclusion, the A's, barring a catastrophic collapse, are in, and the Royals are a gigantic "maybe." Then again, if the team in Kansas City and the team formerly known as Kansas City don't play in the post season together this year, there's always hope...If another strike happens, what with the new divisions and wild cards, and they use the same format from '81, pretty much every team will make the playoffs...Bud Selig, even when he's gone, is making his mediocre presence felt...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ejections getting ejected...

                      Last week, in a game against the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was ejected for arguing a call...I almost wept.  Future generations may never know, or get to appreciate the true art of managers getting ejected by umpires, due to the recent reliance on instant replay.  Team skippers throwing tantrums over even the most marginal of bad calls, are disappearing faster than the one on one fight in hockey or the hook shot in basketball.  One could say it's a good thing; umpires are getting the calls right, and it doesn't seem to take nearly as much time as it does in football.  However, my argument is this...if the umpires were doing their job, we wouldn't need instant replay, but anyway...

              A lot of people have their favorites, whether it's Lou Pinella picking up the first base and throwing it, (or later, Lloyd Mclendon picking it up and taking it with him to the dugout) Billy Martin's psychotic rants, or Bobby Cox's record setting 161 ejections, breaking the old record by John McGraw.  It was something the fans could get into, whether the manager in question was home or away.  It seems  you almost need a team brawl, or the occasional bad ball/strike call to get the heave nowadays.

       The all time master of this was probably Earl Weaver, who was tossed 91 times in his career, and while that's not the record, he made every one of them count.  A diminutive man, Earl would run out to the field, turn his cap backwards, and give the ump a piece of his mind, in his gravely, smoker's voice.  The real fun began once he was tossed.  Unlike most managers, he would get his money's worth, staying out on the field long after he wore out his welcome.

             In one game, early in the season, Earl was ejected in the first inning-FIRST INNING- of a game, mainly to go out an keep his hard hitting first baseman Eddie Murray from getting ejected on a balk call.  Weaver got in between Murray and the ump, and after a few expletives, he said, "Your job, and every one else's job here is to fuck us!"...GONE...of course, that was only the beginning, as Earl accused the man in blue of poking him, saying, "you do that again, I'll knock you right in the nose."  Then the ump got in a good line...after Earl said that he was the only one of the two of them  going to the Hall of fame, the ump said, "for what, fuckin' up World series?" (Earl won it all only once in four trips.)

                 I'm not sure how long this instant replay will last. Maybe forever...if that's the case, we may be losing one of the most entertaining parts of the game.  Sure, a manager can only challenge once so often, so there's still room for explosive anger and red faces, but I feel a part of my childhood die when I see the umpires gathering around to look at a play that they probably either should have gotten right, or, hopefully, get wrong, so I could see yet another swear laden rant, complete with tossed bats and ballbags from the dugout....hell, I'd even settle for one of Joe Torre's "cooler heads will prevail" type argument.  That way, Don Zimmer would take over, and he was always good for an eruption...

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cheaters never win, unless they don't get caught.

                                      Last night, Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected from a game with the Red Sox for having pine tar on his neck. The substance, which is legal when used on part of a bat, is considered illegal when used by a pitcher.  This comes two weeks after Pineda apparently had a similar looking substance on his hand against the same Red Sox team, but Boston manager John Farrell chose not to investigate then (Probably because his own picthers, Lester and Buccholz have been accused in the past as well).  New York won that game 4-1.  This time, however, Farrell asked umpires to check it out, and they found it in an even more obvious place on his body.  Yankee T.V. broadcaster Michael Kay said it was like "robbing a liquor store, getting away with it, and then going back to rob the same liquor store two weeks later."

                          Of course, this isn't the first time a pitcher was caught trying to "cheat."  For decades, the spitball was a legal pitch, and- especially during the dead ball era- pitchers would do whatever they could to scuff up the ball to get the advantage over the hitter.  The most famous pitcher to use a modern day version of the spitter (or just outright use various substances to doctor the ball), was Hall of famer, Gaylord Perry, who spent a lot of his career under scrutiny, but always seemed to avoid getting caught.  I remember a time late in his career, where he threw a suspicious pitch to Reggie Jackson, who swung and he headed to the dugout, an incensed Reggie went over to a bucket of Gatorade, and dipped his hands in it, trying to show the umpired that Perry was putting something on the ball.

                Then there was Mike Scott.  Early in his career, he was a mediocre pitcher for the Mets, but  seemingly reinvented himself in 1986, winning the Cy Young Award while pitching for the Astros.  During the NLCS, Scott beat his former team twice, and would have probably beat them again, if the series had gone to a seventh game.  Players on the Mets accused Scott of using illegal substances during the series, but nothing was ever found.  For his part, Scott has either denied cheating, or has avoided the question.

           The funniest example of a pitcher getting caught was Joe Neikro in 1987.  Joe, the younger brother of Hall of famer Phil Neikro, was a knuckleballer in his final year in the Majors.  He spent his career with seven teams, and now was with the Twins.  He would help Minnesota win it's first ever World Series that year, but his most famous moment happened early in the '87 campaign.  While pitching against the California Angels, umpires asked to see what he had in his pockets.  When Neikro reached in, he grabbed two items and proceeded to throw his hands up, and, sure enough, both an emery board and a piece of sandpaper came flying out.  Umpire Tim Tschida found it and ejected Neikro.  He served a ten game suspension for his actions.

                 Don't know how long Pineda will be suspended, but no matter what, he'll be watched carefully from here on in, as will pitchers all over the league. Great. Like games aren't long enough...

Friday, April 4, 2014

Pick off triple play.

                             This year marks sixty years of Baltimore Orioles baseball. The franchise started in 1901 as the Milwaukee Brewers (not to be confused with the current Brewers team which started as the Seattle Pilots in 1969), then became the St. Louis Browns the next year.  The Browns won only one pennant (1944) in their 53 year history, and often finished in the second division. When Baltimore took over the franchise in 1954, they weren't immediately successful, but a dozen years later, they won their first championship, in 1966. A few years later- under manage Earl Weaver- they won three straight pennants from '69-'71, as well as having one of the best records in baseball during the 1970s, ending that decade with yet another pennant.

                 Earl's last year as manager- not including a brief comeback in 1985- was 1982, when he came within one game of taking yet another division title, losing it to Milwaukee on the final day of the season.  The next year, the Orioles won their third World championship, this time under manager Joe Altobelli.  And while there's not that much difference between the Weaver teams of the early '80s and that '83 team, there was something that happened that year that had never happened before, and will probably never happen again.

            On August 24th, 1983, Baltimore was playing the Toronto Blue Jays, when the game went into extra innings.  Having run out of catchers, Altobelli was forced to put utility infielder Lenn Sakata  at catcher, a position he had never played before in the majors.  On the mound was lefty  Tippy Martinez, a reliever enjoying his best season in the big leagues, having been voted to his only All Star appearance the month before.  The Blue Jays Barry Bonnell reached first on a single, and couldn't wait to steal second, and take advantage of the inexperienced Sakata behind the plate.

             However, Tippy suspected as much, and threw a pick off move to first, as Bonnell took off for second, eventually getting caught in a rundown. One out.  Then speedster Dave Collins-who had stolen 79 bases with the Reds a few years earlier, and 31 that year- walked. He then took a big lead, and was also picked off by Martinez... two outs.  Finally, Willie Upshaw, a power hitter with not much of a stolen base resume, reached first on a single. You'd figure he'd just stand on first with what he had just happened to his team mates, but apparently, the temptation was just too much. He also was picked off...three men on, three men picked off...Andy Petitte, eat your heart out.

                     After watching the tape of the feat, I'm not sure if those were balks or not (or even what the hell a balk is, seems the rule keeps changing), but it still seems funny that after the first guy tried, that anyone else would.  The Orioles were a blessed team that year; when stuff like that starts happening, you KNOW you're on the way to winning it all. I'm sure the '68 Cardinals tried to hit everything to Tigers "shortstop" Mickey Stanley, an outfielder placed there in the World series to add more offense to the team, which reminds me: Sakata wasn't the only one out of position in the 10th for Baltimore; outfielders John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke were playing 2nd base and 3rd base, respectively (if not respectably). Luckily, nothing was hit to either of them...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

One and done.

                                       When the Major leagues first expanded in 1961, two teams- The Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators-were added.  Many people think that the Minnesota Twins were an expansion team, but they were originally the first version of the Senators.  After they moved to Minnesota, the AL decided to expand, and a second Senator team was formed.  After eleven, mostly unsuccessful years, the team moved to Arlington Texas, and became the Rangers. The next year, the National League also expanded, with the senior circuit getting a team in New York after four years without one...the Giants and Dodgers having moved West in '58.  The other team was the Houston Colt '45s, who had spent the first three years of their existence playing in an outdoor stadium, only to change their venue and name in 1965, to the Astrodome and Astros, respectively.

                       As confusing as the first expansion was, the second may have been even more so. 1969 saw four new teams added, two from each league: The San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the National League, and the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the American League.  Obviously, two of these teams don't exist anymore.  The Expos had a good run, though, lasting 35 years, making the NLCS in 1981, the best record in baseball in the other strike shortened season in 1994, and producing two (soon to be three) Hall of famers. (Gary carter is the only player to go to Cooperstown wearing an Expos cap, while Andre Dawson- who actually spent a lot more time playing for Montreal than any other team-went in wearing a Cubs cap.  The Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2004.

            So, that just leaves the Pilots, easily the most obscure team of the last 100 years.  The Pilots played their one season in tiny Sicks stadium, which was the former home of the minor league "Seattle Rainers" (get it?), which only held 19,500 fans, although they ended up adding 6,500 more by opening day. The most famous person on the club may have been Jim Bouton, who, by that point was strictly a reliever.  He talks about his one year with that team in his book "Ball Four." Mike Hegan was the lone Seattle player selected for the All star game, but was injured, so team mate Don Mincher took his place.  Another player, speedster Tommy Harper, would have some good years with the Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox in the early '70s.  '

                   Of course, it was Milwaukee where the team moved the next year, thanks to local resident, and future Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.  There wouldn't be another team in Seattle until the next expansion, in 1977.  The Seattle Mariners are the only American league franchise left who have never won a pennant.  The only N.L. team never to win one is/are the Expos/Nationals.  The Mariners have had some success, though, making it to the ALCS twice (in '95 and '01), and at least two of it's players-Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr.- will most likely go into the Hall of fame wearing a Seattle cap.

         The Pilots are but a footnote, now, mostly being mentioned as part of the history of the Brewers...however, even though they only had one season-a season where they finished last in the newly formed A.L. West at 64-98-they served as lesson to be learned for anyone trying to bring a team to their city.  For one thing, they had rather high ticket prices for an expansion team who played in a run down old minor league park. Also, they were all set to start the 1970 season as the Pilots, until several circumstances led them to become the Brewers on April 1st, 1970...APRIL 1st, as in only days before the season began. Guess Selig really wanted a team in his hometown...oh, if that were the only thing in baseball he did... 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Spread the wealth.

                                In 1903, the Boston Americans (later, Red Sox) defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three in the first ever World Series.  This past October, The Boston Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals four games to two, in the most recent World Series.  Not counting the two years when there wasn't a series- 1904 and 1994- that makes 109 total.  Those two non-series years happened for two different reasons; in 1903, Giants manager John McGraw refused to play out of spite for his hatred of  American League President Ban Johnson, while ninety years later, the season ended with a players strike in August of '94, much to the lament of Montreal Expos fans. ( an MLB best 70-44 at the time of the strike)

                       Out of the 109 series played, over half of them (55 total) are by four teams:  The Yankees (27), Cardinals (11), A's (9) and Red Sox (8). Then if you take the next four teams- The Giants (7), Dodgers (6), Pirates and Reds (5 each) -the total is 78 titles from 8 teams.   That leaves 23 franchises winning the remainder of the 31 championships, some of them multiple winners (Tigers, Braves, White Sox, Orioles, Twins/Senators etc.), and some just only one so far, (Royals, Angels and D'Backs).

                    Granted, 14 of the remaining teams are expansion teams, and they account for nine of them, but It just goes to show you how little parity there is/was in general.  Not to say that there haven't been moments of true parity; the '78- '87 seasons are the ultimate example, with a different team winning it all in a ten year span.  The early '00s looked to be similar, with the Yankees finally losing some steam after dominating in the late '90s, early '00s.  Two teams broke 80-plus year curses that decade, (Red and White Sox...back to back years in '04 and '05), the Angels won their first in '02, breaking a 42 year drought.  Newer teams got in on the act too- Marlins with their 2nd ring in six years, D'Backs winning it all in their fourth year- but of course the decade ended on yet another Yankee title.

                      One of the weird things about the Yankees dominance overall, is that it took them 20 years to get their first ring 1923.  Then there were years in the ensuing decades where they'd win two, three, four and even five in a row (49-53...Stengel's best team).  Sure, there have been droughts; no championship between 63-76, and another dry spell during the '80s and early '90s.  The latter one is the most significant, because the '80s are the only decade since their first title in '23 that the Bronx bombers didn't win a World series, despite the presence of Hall of famers Ricky Henderson and Dave Winfield...oh, and Donnie Baseball.   Those teams scored a ton of runs and are a testament to the old adage: "pitching wins World series'."

                 Even if the Yankees don't win one for the next 25 years, they would still be the dominant all time champ...The Cardinals-the closest to them- would have to win 16 to tie, and I'm kind of sick of them anyway.  I wouldn't mind some of the teams who won pennants in the past, but  not the World series, get in on the act, like the Padres, Astros, Rockies, etc.  Just not the Rays...they're the Bosox biggest competition now (ha). I think the Nationals (formerly Expos) and Mariners should have to win a pennant before they can win it all...sort of like an initiation into the club.

        Of course, there are the long suffering teams: Pirates, Orioles, Tigers, Mets and Royals, whose fans surely would appreciate a title after 25-30 years of coming up short.  There are the Indians, who despite having one of the most dominate teams of the '90s, never won it all in that decade...and then, the are the Cubs.  For years, I sympathized with the boys from Wrigley; they seemed like a cousin to my equally hapless Red Sox.  However, the difference was, at least the Sox actually would go to the World Series here and there, while the Cubs haven't won a pennant since 1945, which is actually a longer drought than the Indians last Championship in '48.

              When the boys of Fenway won it all in '04...and again in '07, and again this past year, I felt my alliance with the Cubs slipping away.  It's not that I don't still sympathise, it's just that I don't really relate to their plight anymore..  My N.L. team for years has been the New York Mets, mostly because I've lived in Brooklyn for a while and Mets fans hate the Yankees as much as Sox fans do, if not more. People say, "What about '86, Bill Buckner, etc.", and I say, after '04, all that is washed away.  The Cubs still have the billy goat...they still have the black cat in '69...they still have the Bartman incident...and until they win it all- or at Least win the pennant- that stuff will still be relevant in some weird way.  Trust me, I know...notice how nobody chants "Nineteen-eighteen" at Yankee Stadium anymore?


Friday, February 7, 2014

"Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords."

                               It's a great accomplishment to be beloved by two generations of fans.  It could be argued that Ralph Kiner was beloved by three, possibly four generations, depending on your definition of "generation."  I moved to New York in 2002, so by the time I saw Ralph Kiner, he was one of the elderly statesmen of baseball, usually showing up somewhere in the middle of Mets T.V. broadcasts, giving his insights while Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and/or Keith Hernandez called the game.

                   Of course being somewhat of a baseball historian, I knew Kiner was one of the most feared sluggers of the first half of the 20th century.  After serving his time in WWII, he burst onto the scene with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946, leading the league with 23 home runs...he was only just getting started.  Kiner led the National league in homers every year from 1946-1952, and in six of those years, he led the entire Major leagues in that category...both are still records to this day.

           He was helped slightly by Forbes field's short leftfield porch, which they constructed for the then newly acquired slugger Hank Greenberg, calling it "Greenberg Gardens."  After Kiner hit 51 homers in '47, fans renamed it "Kiner's Korner", which later became the name for a post T.V. broadcast show he would host.  The Pirates were a second division club during his tenure there, so Pittsburgh's GM Branch Rickey decided to trade Ralph to the Cubs saying, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.

       A bad back forced Kiner out of the  game by the mid mid '50s, and he became a broadcaster in 1961 for the Chicago White Sox.  The next year, he landed the radio broadcast job for the expansion New York Mets, in which he, Bob Murphy and Linsay Nelson would rotate duties.  When the Mets won it all in '69, he was  one of the announcers for NBC radio.  As an announcer, he had the third longest run, trailing only Jamie Jarrin and Vin Scully while also hosting the aforementioned "Kiner's Korner on T.V., where he'd interview player's after the game.

                 During his last year of eligibility in 1975, Kiner  was elected to the baseball hall of fame, making it by one vote.  By that point, of course, he was probably more well known as a broadcaster than he was a player.  One of the more amazing aspects of his longevity in that field was the fact that he suffered from Bell's Palsy, a condition which slurs your speech.  He was able to deal with it for the most part, until his later years...His malapropisms were legendary, once calling Gary carter "Gary Cooper" and himself "Ralph Korner."  He was a humble man, despite uttering the immortal line: "Home run hitters drives Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords..."  (editors note: My last car was a Ford...)