Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Gimme some skin, my brother

                                                  Late in the 1977 season, the Dodger's Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the season. When he  returned to the dugout, he was greeted by part-time outfielder Glenn Burke, who, instead of extending his right hand to shake, as was tradition, decided to turn both his hands upward. Baker then responded  by simply slapping them.  This my friends, was the first ever "high five", a gesture that is so commonplace in sports today, that no one even notices it anymore.  That it was a relatively unknown player like Burke who invented this trend is not that noteworthy.  The fact that Burke was gay, however, is...

                       Of course, back then, no one knew he was gay;  he didn't come out until  two years after his playing days were over.  During his brief career, a few players knew of his lifestyle choice, as did members of the Dodger's front office. The fans, however, remained blissfully ignorant.  Although, if Glenn's lover, sportswriter Michael J.Smith had his way, it would have been public knowledge.  Smith had pleaded with Burke to come out during the 1977 World Series against the Yankees.  Something tells me that if he had, Reggie's three home run performance in game 6 wouldn't have been the only thing people were talking about.  Glenn thought better of it and kept his secret, even when the Dodger higher ups decided to trade him the next year to Oakland ( basically for not keeping things on the "down low" ), for an older player with almost identical stats, Billy North.

                    Only one other Major League baseball player has come out since, that being journeyman  outfielder Billy Bean ( not to be confused with the current A's GM), but since then, nothing.  Only one NBA player, John Amaechi, has come out, also well after his playing days were over, and wrote a book about the experience entitled "Man in the middle".  Surprisingly, there are three NFL players who have later admitted to being gay; Esae Tualo, Roy Simmons and Dave Kopay. Although Burke is seen in hindsight as a pioneer of sorts, his life was a sad one.  After baseball, he slipped into drug addiction and eventually died of AIDS in 1995, the same year his autobiography "Out at home" was published.

               So the next time you see an athlete congratulate another with a high five, remember where it came from.  Maybe it will enlighten some of the more homophobic sports fans.  You know, the same people who don't see the irony of singing along to Queen's "We will rock you/We are the champions" every time their team wins.  Freddy Mercury's anthem of triumph has been used for years to celebrate victories in almost every sport, and Freddy couldn't have been more gay if he tried.  So, the moral here is, don't judge a, uhhhhh....don't be like....ummmm...well, don't judge, I guess.  That person next to you at work or competing against you  may be gay, but that fact won't keep him or her from achieving greatness or from being an innovator who comes up  with something that people use say  the "high five"...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Your favorite player...

                                      Who was your favorite player growing up?  It's kind of a strange question, because first of all, we need to define what exactly the "growing up" years are.  So to make it easier, let's just say from the ages of 6 to 12.  You may have liked baseball before 6, but you probably didn't understand it enough to make an informed decision. And after the age of 12, you're a teenager and therefore subject to being kind of a cynical douchebag from time to time (although I know a lot of pre and post -teen douchebags as well, but I digress...).  Also, you may remember your favorite player from those days as being someone who actually wasn't your favorite at the time, but you tell everyone that they were just to be cool.  For example, when Dan Epstein, author of the amazing book "Big hair and plastic grass" autographed his book for me a few months ago, he asked me that very question, and I said "Bill Lee".  Now he's my favorite player from the late 70's Red Sox teams, but he wasn't when I was actually watching them then.  He was a pitcher, and I liked hitting...especially guys who hit "taters".  Therefore my fave was first baseman George "the boomer" Scott.

                    Scott started his career actually a few years before I was born, debuting in 1966 and was a part of the 1967 "impossible dream" team that saw them get to within one game of winning it all (Damn you Bob Gibson!).  After 2 solid years with the bat, he had an atrocious year hitting in 1968.  He bounced back slightly in the next few years only to be traded to the Brewers in 1972, where he ( of course) had his best offensive seasons, leading the league in homers and RBI's in 1975.  One thing he never slumped at, though, was his fielding. For a big man, he was quite agile, winning 8 gold gloves in his career.  He returned to the Sox in 1977 and his 33 homers , or "taters", as he liked to call them, were part of the teams 213 that year.  At the time, getting the boomer back to Beantown seemed like a good move.After all, they only had to trade under performing Cecil Cooper to get him.  Needless to say, Cooper went on to a borderline Hall of fame career...oh well. 

               I think the thing I dug about the Boomer the most was his wild batting swing;  He would take a ferocious cut every time, pulling his right hand off the bat after he swung.  I emulated that style in little league, and first time up, I hit a home run ( I'm sorry, a tater)...the last one I ever hit in little league.  He also wore a batting helmet at first base and regularly sported a necklace that he claimed was made of "second baseman's teeth".  Growing up dirt poor in Mississippi with only a third grade education, George was as unpretentious as they come. Before a spring training game against the Orioles in the early '70s, the boomer was taking batting practice.  Around the cage watching him were Frank Robinson, Elrod Hendricks and Paul Blair who were discussing the current events of the day, specifically, the plight of Biafra.  When one of them asked, "hey George, what do you think of Biafra"? he replied, "I never faced the muddafucka, but third time up, I'll hit a tater off him".  The fact that he just assumed Biafra was a pitcher is hilarious, and pretty awesome.  The man breathed, ate and slept baseball..Unfortunately, he also ate a lot of other things.

                 Weight was always a problem for him, even at a young age.  Dick Williams, manager from the '67 season always got on his case for it, and he would try all sorts of crash diets.  By the time he returned in 1977, he was pretty heavy, but because he had an All Star season that year, nobody griped.  In 1978, however, he was noticeably out of shape.  He later lamented about not switching to a lighter bat like  Sox manager Don Zimmer told him to.  Alas, the boomer was traded to the Kansas city Royals midway through the 1979 season for something called a "Tom Poquette".  He played for them for only a month or so and  then was  picked up by the Yankees to finish off his final season in baseball.  That topps 1980 card with the boomer wearing a Yankees cap is one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen.  Imagine Donnie baseball wearing a Sox cap, Yankees fans...yes, that bad.  In later years, he managed  Boston's A ball team, the Lowell Spinners for a bit, and his grandson plays for the Pacific coast league, so he's still involved in the game in one way or another...anyway, that's was my favorite player "growing up"...who was yours...?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coincidence? Probably...

                                      No one loves a pointless conspiracy theory more than me, so I've decided to create one, though it's hardly a conspiracy and barely a theory...It's just that I've noticed a lot of clapping at ball games over the past ten years or so.  I don't mean like regular, "Oh he made a good play" or "yeah, my team scored" type clapping.  I'm speaking specifically of the two clap, pause, three quicker clap variety, or clap-clap, clapclapclap, which usually follows the words "Let's go Red Sox" or "Let's go Yankees".  But of course I would hear these;  I grew up in Boston and now live in New York.  There are other times I'd hear the simple three word chant , "Let's go Mets!", in  which the claps came on each word.  However, I do watch a lot of games from different teams, so I tried to make a list of these "two syllable" teams and how successful  they've been in recent years...the results are a little mind blowing.

                     Take the 2011 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.  Now technically, they're a three syllable team, but their name can easily fit into a two syllable context, therefore they can fit into a "five clap" chant, ie: "Let's go Cardinals", (Clap, clap, clapclapclap ). Let's call them a 2 and 1/2 syllable team.  And going back through the years, it looks like this:

Let's Go....

2011- Card-inals (Clap, clap, clapclapclap)
2010- Gi-ants
2009- Yank-ees
2008- Phil-lies
2007- Red -Sox
2006- Card-inals
2005- White-Sox
2004- Red- Sox
2003- Mar-lins
2002- Ang-els
2001- D'Backs (I cheated a little here, but most people call
them the D'Backs anyway...)

...and then the 1995 Braves break the string...a string of sixteen years of 2 syllable teams.  The longest such streak ever.  Before then, there's a little bit of back and forth;  1994 was a strike year, the Blue-Jays winning back to back titles in 92 and 93, which was preceded by three 1 syllable teams in a row ( It would have been six, but the A' lost to the Dodgers in a series they should have won blindfolded in 1988 ), the 1991 Twins, the 1990 Reds and the 1989 A's.  Before the Dodgers' surprise series title in '88, there were the mono syllabic '87 Twins and '86 Mets, which broke up a nine year run by dual syllable teams; 85 Royals, 84 Tigers, 83 Orioles (another one of those 2 /12 syllable teams...maybe it's a bird thing) 82 Cardinals(ditto), '81 Dodgers, 80 Phillies, 79 Pirates, 77- 78  Yankees.  The longest streak by one syllable teams came right before that run...75-76 Reds and the 72-74 A's.

            Every championship team in the '60s had 5 clap names except the '69 Mets.  In fact, the second longest streak by the dual sylls run from 1958-1968...of course the team who predated this streak was the '57 Braves (then in Milwaukee), who broke up an 8 year dual syll run that started in 1949.  The team that preceded that run is one of the only legitimate three syllable teams, the Indians.  Sure, I could go back even further, but I've made my point...whatever the hell THAT point was is up for debate.  I think I was just taken aback by the most recent run of  5 clap-worthy teams.  As for this year, the Rangers are looking good, as are a few other teams.  But of course, now that I've written this, the three syllable Nationals have the best record in baseball, and will probably mess the current streak up and win it all, just like a certain other team from Washington named the Senators had their only championship in 1924 land smack dab in the middle of an almost decade long run of 2 syllable dominance.  Somewhere, the Mariners are saying "what about us"?...

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Cubs: Cursed or complacent?

                                  Billy cats...Steve Bartman...all are in one way or another to blame for a "curse" against the Chicago Cubs, one of the oldest and wealthiest teams in baseball.  Of course there were/are other curses in the game, some broken, some still in full effect.  The most famous of course was the "Curse of the Bambino", in which  Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sealed the team's fate for 86 years by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash to fund his play "No, no Nanette".  What people don't remember is that he also sold off several other key members of those  1915-1918 teams by unloading other greats like Tris Speaker( actually, he was sold by the previous owner in 1916...) and Harry Hooper.  Tom Yawkey bought the Bosox in the '30s and opened his wallet to try and do to the Philadelphia A's what the Yankees did to the Sox, by buying big names like Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove.  The reason that the Sox never won a championship in the Yawkey era ( he died in 1976, and his wife took over for the next decade to no avail) was probably because he was more than a little racist.  The Sox were the last to integrate, signing Pumpsie Green in 1959.

                    The Cubs, however , had no problem with integrating the team.  In fact, by the time Green played his first game for Boston, Ernie Banks had already won 2 MVP awards ( for losing teams, of course), and  The Cubs have had 3 more black players go into the Hall of fame as of this writing...Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, and more recently, Andre Dawson (who should have gone in as an Expo, but anyway).  As far as fans go, however, it has been pointed out that for a team that was always pretty diverse racially, the fan make up is pretty white.  Possibly because Wrigley is located in the northside of Chicago, which has a more suburban feel to it as opposed to the south side, where the White Sox play.  Honestly, I've never been there, so I don't know ( and you could make the same argument about Fenway, so I'll just shut up now).  Another team with a so-called "curse" are the Cleveland Indians.  There was a book published in 1994  entitled "The Curse of Rocky Colavito", which blames the trade of the popular slugger to the Detroit Tigers in 1960 for the team's downfall, although it's not the same as the Babe Ruth trade, of course; The Indians had gone a dozen years without a World championship by then, and the Tigers would have to wait until 1968 for theirs, and Colavito was long gone by then. The irony of that book was that a year after it was published, the Indians won the pennant, as they would 2 years later.  But enough about that, back to Chicago...

            Very little fanfare was made when Chicago's south side team, the White Sox, broke an 88 year championship drought in 2005.  Maybe because it was on the heels of the Red Sox Championship the year before.  Most likely it's because the Cubs are just more popular.  So popular, it seems like they don't even have to try being great to get fans through the turn styles.  Hell, the last time they even won a pennant was  1945,  but of course lost the series to the Tigers because Cubs fan William Sianis famously bought his pet billy goat a ticket to game 4, then was ejected in the fourth inning when other fans complained of the smell.  He became so incensed for his ousting, he put a "curse" on the team.  Fast forward to 1969 when a black cat crossing in front of the dugout during a game that year with the Mets somehow led them to losing the division to New York.  The more logical, non superstitious answer was that the Mets had a better pitching staff. Even with division play starting in 1969, it would take the Cubbies another 15 years to make it to the playoffs, in 1984, the year Ryne Sandberg made Phillies fans curse the name Ivan DeJesus.  In their first ever NLCS, the Cubs won the first 2 at Wrigley, they then dropped 3 straight in San Diego, thanks in no small part by Leon Durham's pre-Buckner ball-through the first basemen's legs routine.   

         However, I believe the 2003 NLCS game against the Marlins was the most heartbreaking of all.  Known now as the " Steve Bartman incident "after a fan by that name reached over to catch a ball in fair territory and prevented Moises Alou from making the catch.  The fact that at least one other fan was also guilty of this act is rarely brought up. Bartman became the goat, although the real goat may have been the pitching staff which let up 8 runs after the incident, with an error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez (not to be confused with the other shortstop named "Alex Gonzalez" playing for Marlins that day ) not helping matters. They lost that game, and then the next.  The anticipated Cubs/Red Sox World series was never to be.  The Sox, of course would lose the 2003 ALCS to the Yankees because of Aaron bleepin' Boone, but they pulled it together the next year.  Their GM of course was Theo Epstein, now with the Cubs.  Can he pull it off again?  If he does, then I know a certain headphone -wearing bespectacled Cubs fan who would definitely "friend" him on facebook.