Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Monthly archives: April 2004


Yanks 7, A's 5
2004-04-30 09:05
by Alex Belth

Derek Jeter blasted the first pitch (a fastball) he saw from Barry Zito last night out near the monuments in left center field and ended his hitless streak at 0-32. Oakland's third baseman Eric Chavez connected for a two-run shot off of Kevin Brown in the top of the first, and Jeter stabbed Scott Hatteburg's liner to end the frame (nice play). Then he homered and there was relief in the Bronx.

Barry Zito pitched a strange game, alternating filthy curve balls with flat change-ups and mediocre fastballs. His hook is a beautiful pitch to watch, and seemingly impossible to hit. But it wasn't enough. Alex Rodriguez hit a solo homer to left off a fastball in the third, and Bernie Williams hit his first home run of the year--a solo shot--off a hanging change up in the fifth to give the Bombers a 3-2 lead.

Jermaine Dye collected his first hit of the series--an RBI double--in the sixth which tied the game. However, the biggest shot of the night came in the bottom of the frame, when Mr. Magoo, Miguel Cairo smacked a horseshit cut-fastball for a three-run homer, putting the Yankees ahead for good. It was the first time Zito had ever given up four dingers in a game.

Kevin Brown wasn't terrific either. He left some sinkers up in the zone, and after giving up a lead-off single to start the seventh, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre visited the mound to give the bullpen some time to ready itself. Brown's face looks very much like a cartoon. He's got a sharp nose, and a seemingly permanent frown. His chin sticks out and he's got a buldging adam's apple. Nasty McNasty himself, Brown isn't the sort of pitcher who takes kindly to visits from any coach, no matter how esteemed. When Stottlemyre reached the mound, Brown turned his back and walked away. Stottlemyre was left there with Giambi and Posada. He must have appreciated Brown's old-school disposition because he laughed out loud.

Brown couldn't put the next batter, Bobby Crosby away on a 3-2 pitch, and the rookie doubled to left. Brown's night was over. Paul Quantrill relieved him and got out of the inning only allowing one run to score. The A's put another run on the board in the eighth, and Mariano Rivera replaced Flash Gordon with runners on the corners and two outs. He threw one pitch to Crosby, who grounded out to second.

Bubba Crosby had an RBI infield single in the ninth, and the Sandman retired Oakland 1-2-3 to seal the three-game sweep for the Yankees. While Jeter's home run was the highlight of the night for the Yankees, my favorite moment of the game came in the bottom of the seventh. Bernie Williams lead off against erstwhile Yankee reliever Chris Hammond. Hammond's best pitch is a Bugs Bunny change up. With two strikes, you could see that Williams was fighting to remain patient, and keep his hands and weight back. Hammonds floated an Eddie Lopat special that tailed inside and Williams almost dropped his right knee to the ground and made a desperate stab at the pitch to foul it off. At the last possible moment, he chopped it foul toward the Yankee dugout. It looked as if a bumble bee suddenly zipped towards his face, and Bernie tried to karate-chop it away.

You could see a sheepish smile on Williams' face as he looked toward the dugout. He stepped back in the batter's box and swiftly struck out. When he returned to the bench, Williams sat next to Jeter, who was holding his stomach he was laughing so hard. The YES cameras showed Jeter immitating the chop swing several times, cracking up. It was a hearty, full-bodied laugh. Javier Vasquez was chuckling next to Bernie. Panning the rest of the bench, you could see the entire team joining in on the fun. Mattingly was dying, as was Torre. Finally, Bernie threw up his arms in mock fury and stood up in protest, going along with it. Godziller Matsui passed by and the joke was not lost in translation; he was smiling too.

It was great to see the Yankees loose and smiling again. Funny what winning does to a team. As removed as modern athletes often feel from us in interviews, we are still invited to observe the intimacy and spirit of the dugout, when men light up like boys. Last night, the Yanks had a good reason to feel good about themselves. Really, how often do you go up against Hudson-Mulder-Zito and come away with a sweep? Not often, that's for sure. The A's have now lost six straight, but they will have another shot at the Yankees next week in Oakland.

Elsewhere, the Red Sox continued to roll, as they swept a double-header at home against the Devil Rays. Andy Pettitte collected his 150th career victory in his second start of the year, and the Mets beat the Dodgers, 6-1. Jeff Weaver started for the L.A., and pitched relatively well. I have to say his shaggy blond hair looks much better suited in Dodger blue than it ever did in the Bronx.

Yankees 5, A's 1
2004-04-29 08:32
by Alex Belth

Jose Contreras pitched his best game of the year, and the Yankees beat the A's on a beautiful spring night in New York. It was a relatively tension-free game and it was a relief to see Contreras pitch with more confidence. The A's have some good hitters, but they swing at far more pitches than the Red Sox do. Jason Giambi made a nice, diving grab to rob Eric Chavez of a hit with two men on in the third, and that's as good a scoring opportunity as Oakland would get. Tyler Kepner and John Harper have good reports on how Jorge Posada guided Contreras to a strong outing. Posada added a solo home run, and so did Jason Giambi (who hit a seed off of Arhur Rhodes in the ninth). Giambi had three hits on the night, and Gary Sheffield had two.

I was at the game with a group of guys. We didn't reach our seats until the bottom of the first, as the Yankees were putting three runs up against Mark Mulder. To be honest, I was too caught up in conversation to remember much of the game. The most memorable part of the night was the standing ovations that Derek Jeter received in his final two or three at-bats. Unfortunatley for the Yankee captain, the cheers didn't help him get a hit. Jeter is now 0-for his last 32. While Jeter continues to be humbled, at least his team has won a couple of games.

It was a good, if not terribly exciting night for the Yankees. In fact, there wasn't any bad news until I read the morning papers. Bernie Williams was not in the line-up after he strained his left knee on Tuesday night. Though Williams will not go on the DL yet, the news is troubling:

"I am concerned," Torre said of the 35-year-old outfielder who will wear a brace or sleeve when he returns. "It's frustrating for him and I decided to give him a blow. We will give it a day and take it day to day."

"You know what's interesting about Bernie, during this whole time I've been here, it's been one problem or another," Torre said. "He's been disabled a couple of times. I don't think he's ever been 100 percent when he's played. He really hasn't."

Not so long ago I wondered if Williams would be able to make it to the Hall of Fame. Now, who knows if he'll play out his contract (2005) with New York. As much as it pains him to admit, Steve Bonner thinks it's time for the Yankees to trade Bernie. Maybe Rob Neyer isn't just crying wolf when he insists that Carlos Beltran will be playing center field in the Bronx by August. Travis Lee is also hurting, and it appears as if he's going to have surgery on his left shoulder, which means Tony Clark is here to stay for now.

Meanwhile, Curt Schilling and the Red Sox shut out the Devil Rays, 6-0.

Oh, and for the latest on Barry Bonds and the steroids story, head on over to John Perricone's Only Baseball Matters, forthwith.

2004-04-28 13:44
by Alex Belth

Congrats to Mr. Met Mike Piazza who went yard last night and tied Carlton Fisk for the most homers ever hit by a catcher (351). It is only fitting that the home run came at Dodger Stadium, where Yazzie began his career. Mr. Piazza is the best-hitting catcher of all-time, but is he the best catcher of all-time? Labelmate Rich Lederer takes a look. Check it out.

Reversal of Fortune: Yanks 10, A's 8
2004-04-28 08:42
by Alex Belth

Oh, what a relief it is

Down 8-4, the Yankees staged a dramatic comeback in the eighth inning, scoring six runs, giving New York its most compelling victory of the season. Mike Mussina, who allowed five runs in six innings of work said after the game that he hasn't seen the Yankees this excited since the playoffs last year. It sure was good to see them smiling again.

Mussina said that he felt good about his performance, though it wasn't especially sharp. Eric Chavez proved why he is the goods in the top of 3rd when he pounded a solo home run to left. Ooof, that man has a sweet swing, and boy is he ever strong. After the Yankees jumped on an equally shaky Tim Hudson for four runs in the bottom of the frame, Mussina gave it all back in the fourth. The Yankee defense didn't help, as Miguel Cairo couldn't field a ball, and Mussina had another grounder deflect off of his glove. Mussina was smiling by the end of the inning, as if to say, "It can't get any worse than this."

Tim Hudson, who is a dead-rinder for Ray Liotta for the nostrils down, left several pitches up in the zone during his seven innnings of work (he got away with a hanging splitter to Clark in the fourth, which the big man swung over), but the Yankees couldn't take advantage. But in the third, Matsui lead off with a single and advanced to third on a double by Tony Clark. Migeul Cairo then double them home. Derek Jeter, who grounded out in his first at-bat, laid down a sacrifice bunt which moved Cairo to third. Bernie walked and Rodriguez grounded out to Chavez, scoring Cairo. Next Jason Giambi singled through the Boudreaux-shift for an RBI single. A sign of life! A two-out hit. Hey, I remember what those look like.

However, the Yankees would not get another base hit until the seventh inning. Meanwhile, the A's continued to add to their lead. Mussina left a pitch up to Frankie Menechino in the fifth, who smacked an RBI single to center. Gabe White relieved Moose in the seventh and recorded two quick outs. Then Scott Hatteberg dumped a double into center field just beyond the reach of Bernie Williams. The play must have left Yankee fans shaking their heads, "Jeez, that was a play Bernie used to make, right?" (I doubt that Larry Mahnken was that kind.) After Durazo doubled to make the Oakland lead 6-4, Paul Quantrill came in and Marco Scutaro skied a high fly ball to left center.

You can run but you can't hide. The winds were swirling last night, and Bernie Williams took a poor route to the ball. He dove but the ball knocked out of his glove, and the A's had another run. Williams looked old. My girlfriend Emily tried to console me, but I shook my head and cursed my favorite player anyway.

Paul Quantrill tweaked his sore right knee on the final play of the seventh, so Mark Kotsay bunted for a base hit in the eighth. Next, Bobby Kielty hit a liner to right which popped out of Gary Sheffield's glove. The ball floated in the air like a football that tipped off a reciever's fingertips. Sheffield tried to recover and snag it, to no avail. It was scored an error and helped lead to another Oakland run, 8-4.

It looked like another night of bad breaks for the Yankees. Jeter's third-inning sacrifice was admirable or desperate, depending on how you look at it. Regardless, it was a contribution. He stung the first pitch he saw from Hudson in the fifth, but it was right at the shortstop. And so it goes when you are slumping. Credit the stadium crowd for giving Jeter a standing ovation when he came to bat in the seventh. It was a rousing moment. Jeter missed a 1-2 fastball that was up, fouling it straight back. On the next pitch, Jeter grounded out, and his hitless streak would reach 0-28 by the end of the game.

Hudson was replaced by Jim Mercir in the eighth, and Bernie Williams hit a solid single through the right side to start the inning. Alex Rodriguez followed with a seeing-eye single through the left side. Then, Jason Giambi walked on a close full-count pitch. At this point, I was hoping for a home run, but expecting a double-play. Gary Sheffield cued a ball off of the end of his bat that squibbed towards the right side. It went for an infield single, and an RBI.

Jorge Posada spoiled a good pitch (outside fastball or splitter) and lined a single through the left side, and now the Yanks were down 8-6. The southpaw Ricardo Rincon came in for Mercir, and quickly got ahead of Matsui 0-2. But the next four pitches were out of the strike zone, Matsui walked, and the Yankees were within a run. Clutch at-bats from the Bombers here. Ruben Sierra pinch-hit for Cairo. I was cursing the move at home, loudly predicting that Sierra was going to hit into a double play. Instead, the bulky bench player smacked the 3-1 pitch into left for a double. Two runs scored and the Yankees had the lead for good. Sierra's ball landed smack dab on the foul line. It was the luck the Yankees needed. Bernie Williams added an RBI on a fielder's cherce, Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth, and the Yankees won, 10-8.

Another frustrating game turned into an improbable win, and like I said, it was great to see the Yankees smiling. What a sight for sore eyes. That they rallied in the nickel-and-dime tradition of the 1998 Yankees made is especially rewarding. With Jose Contreras pitching tonight, it was close to a must-win for New York. Now, if they can swipe one of the next two games, they should feel good about themselves. For Oakland, it was a vexing loss, considering that they blew a four-run lead on a night when Tim Hudson was not on his A-game.

Cooperstown Confidential
2004-04-27 08:53
by Alex Belth

By Bruce Markusen

Regular Season Edition

April 22, 2004

Card Corner: Hair Here, There, And Everywhere

Call him the “Unfrozen Caveman.” Call him “The Hippy.” Call him the “Mountain Man.” Call him whatever you like, but no nickname can entirely capture the untamed image that Johnny Damon has created by not cutting his hair for nearly a year and not shaving his face since the latter stages of 2003. Damon’s “biblical” appearance has become such a sidebar of attention that it motivated to come up with an all-time, all-hair team featuring some of the longest and most unusual hairdos in the game’s history. ESPN included some worthy candidates on its list, including Oscar Gamble and Ross Grimsley (owner of the white-man afro, as ESPN puts it), but somehow left off the man who sported baseball’s longest hair during the frenetic decade of the 1970s.

Until Damon and Pittsburgh’s Craig Wilson, whose flowing blond locks aren’t far behind Damon in length but haven’t received nearly the attention, no one had longer hair than former major league catcher Dave Duncan, now the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Based on how he looks today, with short hair and a clean shave every day, you might not have recognized the wild-looking Duncan during the latter stages of a journeyman career that saw him play for the Oakland A’s, Cleveland Indians, and Baltimore Orioles from 1964 to 1976. In his formative years with Oakland, Duncan still featured a close-cropped hairdo, as did most players of the 1960s. (There were two primary reasons for the short-hair preference of that era. Most teams had unwritten policies that outlawed the wearing of long hair, along with mustaches and beards. Also, a number of players served in the military reserves during the Vietnam War, necessitating that they maintain their hair in the brush-cut look.) That all started to change in 1972, when Reggie Jackson showed up to spring training with a fully-grown mustache, eventually prompting owner Charlie Finley to offer $300 bonuses to each A’s player who followed suit. Duncan complied with the owner’s “request” and then pushed the trend two steps further by growing a beard and letting his blond hair grow out. By the end of the ’72 season, Duncan sported both a full beard and lengthening hair that stretched beyond the collar of his neck, making him look like an extra during the filming of Deliverance.

The following spring, the A’s traded Duncan, not because of his new mountain man appearance, but because of a salary dispute that saw the catcher engage in a spring training holdout while asking the penurious Finley for more money. The spring training trade landed Duncan in Cleveland, allowing him to bring the long-hair look to the Midwest. Duncan shaved off his blonde mustache and beard but continued to let his hair lengthen, well beyond the lower reaches of his helmet and cap, to the point that his tresses draped onto his shoulders. Whenever Duncan ran, his long mane of hair flapped as if stirred by a stiff breeze, creating a memorable impression for those who had become used to major league players who looked more like soldiers than flower children.

Sometimes derided with catcalls of “Goldilocks” and “Prince Valiant,” Duncan drew raised eyebrows from many in the baseball establishment. Some critics used Duncan’s unusual hair style as an excuse for questioning his smarts and hustle, portraying him like a caricature of Cheech and Chong proportions. Yet, those close to Duncan realized that such characterizations were all stereotype and little truth. “With that long hair, he looked kind of goofy as a player,” said former slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman, who coached with Duncan during a stint with the Chicago White Sox. “But once you get to know him, you realize he’s one of the kindest, smartest men you’ll ever meet.” Few would question Duncan’s baseball intelligence, given his success as a pitching guru with the Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, White Sox, A’s, and Cardinals. He’s sometimes criticized for being too blunt with young pitchers, but his triumphs with veteran hurlers and the overall success of his pitching staffs remain his hallmark.

Most of Duncan’s baseball cards don’t do his “Mod Squad” head of hair full justice, but his 1975 Topps card (No. 238 in the set) probably offers the most emblematic view of his blond bombshell appearance. Duncan is also featured in an intriguing 1977 Topps card (No. 338) wearing the air-brushed colors of those awful White Sox throwback uniforms, yet he never actually played for Chicago, instead drawing his release just before the start of the 1977 season and prompting him to call it quits. By the time of Duncan’s retirement, a number of other players had also “let down their hair,” as baseball’s conservative approach toward grooming quickly crumbled and gave way to a more liberal hygiene. And perhaps we’re headed toward that same trend again, at a time when almost every fashion statement is allowed on the field, from goatees to earrings to tattoos. Yes, let the hair flow freely.

All-Hair All The Time

ESPN presented its own All-Hair Team, so why can’t I? Let’s give it a try, position-by-position:

Catcher: Dave Duncan (backed up by Ted “Simba” Simmons and curly-haired Rick Sweet)

First Base: Don Mattingly (long hair prompted a fine and a benching)

Second Base: Pete Rose (enough said there)

Shortstop: Teddy Martinez (a full but well-manicured beard)

Third Base: Buddy Bell (flowing blond locks)

Left Field: Craig Wilson (a Duncan-Bell look-alike)

Center Field: Johnny Damon (backed up by Jose Cardenal and his mini-Gamble afro)

Right Field: Reggie Jackson (first mustache since Wally Schang in 1914)

Backup Outfielder: Tarzan Joe Wallis (Mountain Man III, pre-Damon, post-Duncan)

Designated Hitter: Oscar Gamble (the largest afro this side of Darnell Hillman)

Starting Pitcher: Randy Johnson (mullet madness)

Starting Pitcher: Don Sutton (as Skip Caray once said, hair like cotton candy)

Starting Pitcher: Ross Grimsley (afro aside, he allegedly didn’t wash his hair or bathe regularly)

Starting Pitcher: Mudcat Grant (somehow made mutton chops look good)

LH Reliever: Stan Wall (hair almost as long as Duncan’s)

LH Reliever: Al Hrabosky (king of the Fu Manchus)

RH Reliever: Rod Beck (his long, ragged hair epitomized the wild and wooly look)

RH Reliever: Rollie Fingers (from handlebar mustache to Hair Club For Men)

Major League Morsels

The Kenny Lofton Era has started poorly in the Bronx, so much so that the Yankees are already shopping their free agent acquisition, who has already made a visit to the disabled list with a strained quad (the most fashionable injury of the last 15 years). A combination of factors have pushed Lofton to the trade block, in particular the play of backup outfielder Bubba Crosby (who deserves a spot on the 25-man roster), Lofton’s chronic complaints about his roles with the team, and Joe Torre’s unwillingness to remove Bernie Williams from center field on a fulltime basis. Two contending teams may be interested in Lofton: the Phillies, who are unhappy with the development of center fielder Marlon Byrd as a leadoff man, and the White Sox, who also need help in center field and at the tablesetting spots in the batting order… A recent game between the Cubs and Reds offers further evidence that the umpires simply won’t enforce the hit-by-pitch rule as dictated by the Official Baseball Rules. In the sixth inning of a game at Wrigley Field, Cubs starter Matt Clement hit Cincinnati’s Wily Mo Pena in the arm with a pitch. Pena made absolutely no effort to move out of the way of the pitch, not even a flinch or a customary turn of the back. According to Rule 6:08 (b), “the batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out when… he is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit UNLESS the batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.” Therefore, by the written official rules, the home plate umpire should have called a ball “if he [the hitter] makes no attempt to avoid being touched” and ordered Pena to remain in the box, since he made no effort at eluding the pitch… Speaking of the Cubs, they are deeply concerned by the defensive shortcomings shown by new catcher Michael Barrett during the early weeks of the season. Although Barrett has hit well, he has had alarming trouble with the basic elements of catching, such as handling pitches from a starting staff with overpowering stuff and locating pop-ups behind the plate. Barrett’s defensive play has been so poor that the Cubs might be willing to admit they made a mistake in handing him the catching job and begin stepping up efforts to acquire a more accomplished catcher. A perfect fit would be the Mets’ Vance Wilson, who could be had for some extra outfield help (which the Cubs don’t have unless they can convince the Mets of David Kelton’s value as an outfielder) or a spare pitching prospect (which they do have). An excellent all-around defender, Wilson might be capable of 15-20 home runs if given the chance to play every day. Other possibilities are the expensive Jason Kendall, who’s off to a blazing start with the Pirates, or Anaheim’s defensive stalwart Bengie Molina, who’s been demoted to secondary status behind his brother, Jose… Other than the Twins’ trade for Shannon Stewart, there might not have been a better mid-season pickup in 2003 than the Reds’ acquisition of infielder D’Angelo Jimenez. The White Sox had grown tired of Jimenez for several reasons, including his attitude, baserunning, and defensive play, all of which led to the Sox designating the switch-hitter for assignment. The Reds then swooped in and acquired Jimenez for practically nothing—giving up only a minor league relief pitcher—and they couldn’t be happier about it. Jimenez has ended the Reds’ revolving door at second base while giving them a patient leadoff man who can hit for a decent average, draw walks, and hit with occasional power. The Reds also seem to be satisfied with Jimenez’ defense, which had been cause for criticism in both Chicago and San Diego. At least two teams are probably kicking themselves for failing to pick up Jimenez when he became available; both the Dodgers and Yankees need major help at second base. Of course, the Yankees still had Alfonso Soriano at the time of Jimenez’ switch from the American to the National League, but they still could have used Jimenez as a much-needed boost to their dilapidated bench and then promoted him to starter status in 2004.

Horton Hears The Hurrahs

During our first full-hour installment of this year’s Hall of Fame Hour (as heard every Thursday at noon eastern on MLB, I had the pleasure of interviewing former Detroit Tigers slugger Willie Horton, who is now the team’s special assistant to the president and a roving minor league instructor. He was a favored player of mine, despite the fact that he never played for two of “my” teams (the Yankees or Pirates). One of the most popular Tigers of the sixties and seventies, Horton made news earlier this month when the Michigan legislature declared that October 18 would be officially recognized as “Willie Horton Day” throughout the state. It’s certainly a deserving honor for the longtime outfielder-DH, who not only made seven American League All-Star teams during his career, but has also continually involved himself in numerous charitable and humanitarian acts throughout the Detroit area. He has worked with such organizations as the United Way, Meals On Wheels, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Horton’s community activism stretches all the way back to his playing days—specifically to 1967. That season, Horton achieved legitimate hero status when he left Tiger Stadium immediately after a game and traversed directly into the streets of Detroit during the city’s brutal racial riots in an effort to quell some of the violence. Still in full Tiger uniform, Horton climbed aboard a truck to speak to a gathering crowd of insurgents. Horton obviously couldn’t stop the riots by himself, but he did succeed in quieting some of the angry demonstrators, especially when he engaged them in calming one-on-one conversations. It was the kind of brave, civic-minded action that I can’t imagine coming from many of today’s major leaguers, given their general reluctance to “mingle” with the common folks even under more pleasant circumstances, both at the games and in other public locales.

Horton’s bravery under fire in 1967 probably didn’t surprise too many of his Tiger teammates, who had come to respect the quiet, rock-solid left fielder for his understated leadership abilities and unwavering professional approach to his work. Horton was one of just a few black players on the Tigers of ’67 and ’68 (along with backup outfielders Gates Brown and Lenny Green, starting pitcher Earl Wilson, and relievers Les Cain and John Wyatt) and the team’s only full-fledged African-American star. His status as the team’s most prominent minority made him extremely popular with black fans throughout Detroit, helping to attract a number of African-American visitors in creating a diverse crowd at Tiger Stadium. Curiously, white and black fans intermingled without incident at the old ballpark, in contrast to the anger and violence that bubbled between the races in the city streets.

On the field, Horton’s presence loomed just as large as his civic and social involvement. He was one of the most feared hitters of his era, in part because of a sturdy five-foot, 11-inch, 225-pound frame of compact muscle, achieved at a time when few players lifted weights and perhaps none used steroids or other performance-enhancing, body-building type supplements. Pound for pound, no one appeared stronger than the robust Horton, whose thick wrists and forearms made him a Bunyanesque figure. A seven-time All-Star during his career, Horton typically hit 25 to 35 home runs a year and put up slugging percentages bordering the .500 neighborhood in an era when pitchers enjoyed most of the “enhancements” that the game provided (an expanding strike zone along with the ingression of larger, full-figured stadiums in Anaheim, Oakland, and Kansas City). Horton’s performance during the famed “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 remains one of his landmarks; he hit 36 home runs and slugged .543 in a year where most hitters flailed away at far below their normal levels of production. He then hit .304 and scored six runs in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, but it was one of his fielding plays that really turned the Tiger tide during the Series. Never known as a particularly nimble fielder, Horton aggressively charged a ground single to left and then air-launched a one-hop throw to catcher Bill Freehan, who tagged out Lou Brock to stymie a potential Cardinal rally in the fifth inning of Game Five. The Tigers went on to win the potential elimination game, then claimed the next two matchups to take the Series.

Horton remained the Tigers’ everyday left fielder until 1972, when injuries and a slumping bat restricted Horton to 108 games and led to a time-sharing arrangement with the lefty-swinging Gates Brown. Manager Billy Martin lost so much confidence in Horton that he began to play a catcher, the relatively immobile Duke Sims, in the outfield during the American League Championship Series, squeezing Willie out of starts in the fourth and fifth games. (Horton, by the way, says that Martin’s insistence on using Sims in the outfield during the playoffs cost the Tigers the pennant that year. Sims went only 1-for-6 in the final two games and committed an error in the decisive fifth game, which the Tigers lost to the A’s, 2-1. In the meantime, Horton appeared only as a pinch-hitter in those two games, delivering one hit in two at-bats.) Plagued by a series of injuries, Horton lost the left-field job completely within three years, as the organization decided to capitalize on the relatively new designated hitter rule, which had been put into place in 1973. Horton made a smooth transition to the DH role in 1975, but slumped considerably the following summer. He remained in the role until the early days of the 1977 season, when the over-the-hill Tigers decided to expedite a youth movement by trading Horton to the Texas Rangers for pitcher Steve Foucault, a hefty right-hander who had enjoyed a mixed bag of success but would last only two more seasons in the major leagues.

Legendary for his superstitions, Horton then bounced from team to team, enjoying varying levels of prosperity as a DH with the Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Oakland A’s, Toronto Blue Jays, and Seattle Mariners, while also earning the Comeback Player of the Year Award after his career had been given up for dead. His newfound status as a journeyman prompted a new superstition to be added to his repertoire of rituals, this one involving his equipment. According to the Horton legend, whenever he changed teams he allegedly refused a newly issued helmet from his acquiring team, instead painting the colors and logo of the new team onto his existing headware. I asked Horton if this was true; he confirmed it during the interview while displaying the pride of a skilled painter. True to form, Horton still owns the battered helmet, which appropriately features the old logo and colors of the Mariners—his last major league team.

Although it’s been nearly a quarter-century since he wore a batting helmet in anger, Horton remains active in the game today. As one of several former Tiger stars in the team’s front office, Horton is trying to turn around a major league team that became a laughingstock in 2003. As part of his assistance to team president Dave Dombrowski, Horton travels throughout the club’s minor league system and counsels the franchise’s young hitters. And for those who might be interested, he plans to make at least one trip to central New York this summer, in order to visit the Tigers’ minor league affiliate in Oneonta, located just 22 miles from Cooperstown.

The Nickname Game

It’s not particularly well known, but Willie Horton was once known as “Boozie”—and no, it had nothing to do with the imbibing of alcoholic beverages. Unlike many nicknames that are the creation of teammates or the media, Horton was given the moniker by his parents when he was still a baby. As a toddler, the mischievous Horton once gained access to an off-limits area of the kitchen and then went “on a spree with flour and lard containers,” as described by The Sporting News Baseball Register. Horton’s parents, in tribute to the boy’s impish manners, decided to call him Boozie. I’m still not exactly sure of the connection between the name “Boozie” and Horton’s “spree with flour and lard,” but that’s what the Baseball Register says, it’s their story, and I’m sticking to it.

Pastime Passings

Lou Berberet (Died on April 6 in Las Vegas, Nevada; age 74): Typifying the notion of a good-field, no-hit catcher, Berberet played seven seasons during a journeyman career in the 1950s. A veteran of the New York Yankees, Washington Senators, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Detroit Tigers, Berberet was involved in three trades during his career. In 1956, the Yankees traded him to the Senators as part of the deal that brought left-handed pitcher Mickey McDermott to the Bronx. Known for his sure hands behind the plate, Berberet played all 77 of his games in 1957 without an error. As a hitter, Berberet’s best year occurred in 1959, when the left-handed batter clubbed 13 home runs and drove in 44 runs.

Gene Karst (Died on April 6 in Ladue, Missouri; age 97): Karst was baseball’s first public relations official, taking on the role for the St. Louis Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang” teams of the 1930s. After a stint with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Karst was hired by Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey to write feature stories about such stars as Dizzy Dean, Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe “Ducky” Medwick. The stories often appeared in small-town newspapers that surrounded the St. Louis area. In addition, Karst promoted special events designed to increase the awareness and popularity of the Cardinals. Karst’s work in journalism and baseball eventually earned him induction to the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame in 2001.

William Eberly (Died on March 21 in Toledo, Ohio; age 82): Eberly served the minor league Toledo Mud Hens as their financial consultant for the last 40 years, capping off a baseball career that began after an encounter with Branch Rickey. In 1945, Eberly approached the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, who was so impressed that he hired him to work as a general manager in the team’s farm system. Eberly’s career with the Dodgers included stops in five different states, eventually setting the stage for a move to the major leagues. In 1953, Eberly became ticket and business manager for the Milwaukee Braves and remained in that position until 1965, when the team relocated to Atlanta. His career at a crossroads, Eberly decided to leave baseball and return to his native Toledo, where he became a stockbroker. Eberly eventually returned to the game, joining the staff of the Mud Hens, the same team for which he had previously worked as a teenager.

And Another Thing

The Hall of Fame will host a special program entitled “Baseball in Asia” on Saturday, May 8, beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater. The program will feature a roundtable of authorities on Asian baseball, including Robert Whiting, an expert on Sadaharu Oh; author and journalist Joe Reaves; journalist Marty Kuehnert; and professor Bill Kelly of Yale University. The program is the brainchild of baseball author George Gmelch, who will also serve as host and moderator. For more information on the program, which is free of charge to all Museum visitors, please call 607-547-0261.

Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is host of the Hall of Fame Hour, which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on Radio. He is also the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at Borders Books and at A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004. He has also written a young adult horror novel, Haunted House of the Vampire, which is scheduled for release this fall.

2004-04-27 08:45
by Alex Belth

The Angels swept the A's over the weekend, so Oakland has something in common with the Bronx Bummers. There are several articles in the New York papers this morning delineating the Yankees' recent struggles. Things of course could get worse, what with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito scheduled to pitch for the A's this week.

I'm not going to be able to post tomorrow morning so make sure to read Cliff Corcoran, or any of the other fine Yankee-based sites listed on the right. For the Oakland perspective, make sure to check out Baysball, Athletics Nation, and our old friends over at Elephants in Oakland.

No Bull
2004-04-27 08:31
by Alex Belth

Baseball culture is rich with sayings and phrases. Paul Dickson even wrote a baseball dictionary to document it all. Do you have a favorite baseball word or expression? I do. For me, there is no single word that is more flexible or evocative (or fun to say) than "horseshit." I don't know when baseball men started using it, but when you say the word, you can fantasize that you are connected with baseball history, from John McGraw, Sal Maglie, Gorman Thomas, and Nuke LaLoosh, to a craggy old bird-dog spitting tabacco into a cup in Florida.

In his excellent book about the world of baseball scouting, "Dollar Sign on the Muscle," Kevin Kerrane gives us the following description:

Any baseball talent, body, body-part, effort, action, player, team, city, or scouting assignment can be horseshit. The term vovers everything but the world of words—the world of stories, explanations, and scouting reports—at which point bullshit takes over.

A real sentence spoken by a scout discussing a former colleague: "His written report was all bullshit, and that's when I knew he was a horseshit guy."

Bullshit can be a verb; horseshit can't. (A sentence like "Don't horseshit me would make no more sense to a scout than to a nonscout.) Novices sometimes elide the word into horshit, but the veterans get that first S down deep in the throat, with the tongue at the back of the palate, lots of air whistling past the lower teeth, and then they follow through for full emphasis. horsse-shit!

The word is popular throughout baseball—with players, managers, umpires, and exectuives.

Fans like it too.

And Anutha Thing
2004-04-26 13:29
by Alex Belth

A few final thoughts on the Yanks-Sox series...

--I neglected to mention it this morning, but for the first time in a long while, I didn't wear any gear to the game on Saturday. I usually have a Yankee cap, and sometimes I wear a Yankee t-shirt as well. But I lost my Yankee hat over the winter and haven't yet replaced it. I have to admit it was interesting to be at the game sans team colors. When I looked at a Red Sox fan, they didn't know how to look at me. Was I a friend? Same goes for the Yankee fans, although I think they assumed I was a foe if I wasn't wearing any Yankee clothing.

--I wanted to call this morning's post, "The Out of Towners," because for the most part, that is who attends Yankee games.

--Watching Manny Ramirez and Javier Vasquez face off yesterday made for great baseball. Vasquez got ahead of Ramirez in the first with fastballs, and struck him out on a curve ball. The next time up, Ramirez was down 0-2. This time however, Vasquez's curve hung in the zone; Manny paused, then pounced, knocking the bejesus out of the ball. In his third at bat, Vasquez showed no signs of backing down, and got ahead of Ramirez, throwing fastballs by him again. Vasquez had two strikes on Ramirez, but Manny knocked a flat (though not terrible) change up into center for a single. Watching Ramirez is like watching a hitting clinic. Vasquez was impressive too. He's been a bright spot for the Yankees so far this year.

--For all of the pumped-up histrionics, there was some genuine moments of electricity at the stadium on Saturday as well. The crowd buzzed when Alex Rodriguez first appeared on the field during warm-ups. Also, you could hear a pin drop as the National Anthem played. When it ended, the crowd was united for the first and only time all day, letting out a huge ovation. The surge of unity felt surreal.

Late in the game, you could feel the tension in the stands as well. The game was tied, and the crowd was busy making lots of noise right until the instant that the pitcher went into his motion. Then, for a brief moment, everything was suspended, and still. Ah, if you could bottle that in time.

--My friend Johnny Red Sox spotted a middle-aged Yankee fan wearing a "Serpico, #8" pinstriped jersey. Sign that man up.

--I'm not deeply concerned about the Yankees offense. Frustrated is more like it. Although he's more likley to have a productive year, Jeter's slump is more troubling than Bernie Williams' simply because Bernie never hits well in April. (Okay, he did last year, and look what happened there.) It's been strange to see Jeter so out-of-synch.

--I'm going to the Yankee-Oakland game on Wednesday and I look forward to washing away the memory of Saturday's ugliness. Things could be fugly on the field though, as Jose Contreras will pitch against Mark Mulder. Talk about a contrast in styles, not to mention results. Oy.

--The Yankees need somebody to go Paulie O Postal on a water-cooler. Hell, even if it doesn't help them hit, it'd make me feel better.

Curtains: Red Sox take Act One
2004-04-26 03:04
by Alex Belth

The Red Sox capped off the first leg of their reunion tour versus the Yankees by beating New York 3-2 on Saturday and 2-0 on Sunday, for a clean-sweep of the three-game series in the Bronx. Where's ya Moses now? indeed. According to the YES network, Boston has taken six of their first seven games against the Bronx Bombers since 1913. They did it in convincing fashion, with superior pitching (their bullpen allowed one hit in nine innings of work), brisk defense and timely hitting (see: Manny Ramirez).

I went to the game Saturday afternoon. Although I live in the Bronx, there isn't a clear-cut, direct route to get to the stadium from my house, so I end up taking three subway trains to get there (in all, the trip is no longer than 40 minutes). When I got to the 145th street station to catch the D train, there were smatterings of Yankee fans grouped on the platform. All of them looked like they were from out-of-town, mostly from the suburbs. Plenty of them were drinking already. The ugliness starts early.

When the D train pulled up, it was packed with more baseball fans, Yankee and Red Sox rooters alike, who all looked like they were from out of town too. Stepping onto the train was a treat. The car was alive with conversation. You could practically feel the anticipation. Instead of engaging in the banter like I usually do, I just sat back and let it wash over me. I wished that every fanbase could experience something similiar.

Of course, exiting the train and subsequently trying to navigate exiting the train station, let alone the streets, is an endeavor for suburbanities. You can feel the rush of adreneline, of xenophobic tension, as they made their way to the Bronx street above.

It was a fine day in New York. The sun was out, yet the air was still crisp and cool. As I made my way to meet my companion, I saw a Spanish teenager walking along with what I guessed was his brother, a skinny kid on cruches. The little guy couldn't have been more than eleven years old. He had a big cast on his right foot, and he was moving along as quickly as he could.

As I passed them, I said, "Now, here is a real baseball fan. Coming out the game on crutches and everything. You are the real deal, kid. That's beautiful." The older kid nodded at me. I continued, "That's a beautiful thing, and worth the trip because the Yankees are going to win." With that, I moved passed them, when I heard the young kid say, "Are you sure? Are you sure?"

I turned around and looked at him in the face for the first time. He had a great head of black hair, and big brown eyes. You should have seen this boy's face; it was all lit up. "Are you sure? Are you sure?" Of course, I wasn't sure, but looked at him and said, "Of course, I'm sure. 7-2, final. You wait and see. The Yanks'll win."

My friend Johnny Red Sox and I sat in the lower part of the upper deck in the right field. We got to our seats by a quarter past noon, so we had plenty of time to watch the Yankee players warm up. I'm not sure what happened to Eddie Layton, the long-time organist at Yankee Stadium, but he has been replaced by a guy named Ed Alstrom. We watched Kevin Brown run sprints, and then start his soft toss catch in the outfield as Alstrom played "Pretty Baby," then vamped into "You Shook Me All Night Long," before finishing with "Hot, Hot, Hot."

Like always, there were plenty of Sox fans at the game, especially in the upper deck. We saw a sweet young girl on crutches who must have been 13 or 14 wearing a Red Sox jersey, and bravely hopping down the steps to her seat with her friend and her father. Hadn't I promised that the Yankees would win to the first kid on crutches I saw? Well, what about this girl?

As luck would have it, we were in the sun all afternoon. The game was far more entertaining than Friday night's drubbing, but ultimately, it was a long, frustrating day for the Yankees and their fans. The Red Sox scored two early runs off of Kevin Brown, who despite not having his best stuff, pitched reasonably well. B. Arroyo was even better for the Sox, allowing just one hit—a solo home run to Alex Rodriguez—through six innings.

In the seventh, Yankees would tie the game at two on Gary Sheffield's RBI single, but Bernie Williams bounced into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning. Manny Ramirez hit a double and scored the game-winner in the 12th off of Paul Quantrill. Alex Rodriguez made the defensive play of the game for the Yankees when he made a back-hand stop, then a strong throw to first to rob Kevin Millar of a double in the third.

When the game ended I remembered the little boy I had seen on crutches, and began to feel badly for him. I should have told him that even if the Yankees lost today that it would be okay, that they would be okay. As if I was powerful enough to have been able to pick the game in the first place. But I decided to cut myself a break, and I chose to remember the look on the boy's face. "Are you sure, are you sure?" I actually felt better knowing that the young Red Sox fan on crutches was happy, and that this would be a day she'd never forget.

Prince P

Things got even tougher for the Yanks on Sunday afternoon when Pedro Martinez was in fine form. Manny Ramirez smacked Javier Vasquez's one mistake of the afternoon—a hanging curve—for a two-run bomb, and that was all Boston would need. The Yankees had some good hacks (Giambi, Sheffield) that could have turned the game around, but all they could do was fould pitches off. Alex Rodriguez was robbed of a single by Kevin Millar in the first, then later singled and doubled to right. Rodriguez was the only Yankee to hit all weekend long. Bernie Williams went 0-4 and so did Derek Jeter. Jeter is now 0-25 and is experiencing the biggest slump of his career. He also made a throwing error. Both players look uncharacteristically uncomfortable at the plate, frequently taking pitches, and disputing calls with the home plate ump.

The Yankees' best chance to score came in the fifth when they had men on second and third with one out. Enrique Wilson, who has had success (re:luck) against Martinez, popped out, unable to get the ball out of the infield. Next, Jeter struck out looking on a back door curve that hung up in the zone. Regardless, it fooled Jeter badly. In the sixth, a pop-up down the third base line, dropped in between Hideki Matsui and Jeter for a double. It was Matsui's play to make, but the ball fell in just a few feet from Jeter, and it is rare when he doesn't make that play.

When the Yankees are winning, Jeter is usually at the center of the action. It is fitting that he is struggling the most now. The Red Sox fans at the stadium (and everywhere I presume) took great pleasure in watching Jeter stumble. The Yankee shortstop made the last out of Saturday's game. As he stepped to the plate a group of Red Sox fans chanted from the upper deck, "Je-ter sucks, Je-ter sucks." Not only that, but Yankee fans booed Jeter too.

I'd say that the Yankee fans out-numbered the Sox fans by 60-40 in the upper decks, but it was the Boston-rooters who made most of the noise. Yankee fans mostly sat on their hands, waiting for something to cheer about. It's bad enough when your team is struggling, and it's worse when you have enemy fans letting you know how badly they are struggling.

This is how it went: Yankee fans were pensive and peeved. A Red Sox chant begins, and only gets louder. Yankee fans eventually start to a counter-chant, until all you hear is a lot of sound and fury (signifying zilch). It goes, "Let's Go Red Sox," "Let's Go Yankees." Then "Yank-ees suck," "19-18." The effect is that of an infant who sticks his fingers in his ears as he's being teased, only to yell "La-la-la, I can't hear you, you stink worse."

Quite frankly, I can't find much difference between Sox and Yankee fans. If they weren't wearing different colors it would be hard to tell them apart. The only discernable difference is that Red Sox fans are whiter, preppier (though there were some Latin Sox fans too). But a lot of the Yankee mooks look just like the Red Sox mooks. They are cousins at the same dysfunctional family picnic.

There are plenty of nerdy Sox fans too. Some of them look appealing to chat with. Two such nerds sat nearby, and had the sincere pleasure of dealing with a trio of drunken Yankee fans who were sitting in the row ahead of them. One of the drunks kept repeating, "Red Sux suck," like an toddler who just heard a knock-knock joke and couldn't stop repeating it. This guy couldn't get enough ot it. "Red Sux suck." Get it? It's like he had discovered fire.

One of the Sox nerds eventually got sucked into a heated argument with the Yankee dopes. For many of fans in the upper deck—mostly men in the 18-35 age group—yelling and screaming with each other is far more important than watching the game. Call me an elitst, and a snob, but I have a hard time empathizing with this brand of rowdy, loutish behavior. I understand everyone has a right to enjoy the game in thier own way, and this kind of salty back-and-forth is to be expected, but quite frankly, after ten minutes it's boring. Worse, the kind of sadistic exchanges that make up a Yankee-Red Sox game, make attending these games an unpleasant experience.

I don't know who is worse: the Yankee fans or the Red Sox fans. I've said this before, but I they deserve each other. They are the two most self-aggrandizing, insufferable groups of fans you can find in the sport. When the Yankees beat the Sox, Yankee fans become shameless, entitled front-runners, rubbing tired slogans in the faces of the Sox fans. When the Sox beat the Yankees, Sox fans act as if the victory is a triumph of all that is moral and good, over all that is evil. Oh yeah, their slogans aren't too original either.

You'd think fans could show a degree of humility, but where fun is that, right? Especially when you consider how much booze is being consumed. Listen, Yankee fans get a good dose of their own medicine when the Sox play in New York. All over the country, no matter where the Yankees play, there is a good showing of Yankee fans, who are rarely shy about making themselves known. The only time the tables are turned is when Boston plays in town. Not even Mets fans make this kind of noise.

That's fine. I may not like hearing "Let's Go Red Sox," but who says I'm suppose to? The Sox fans have a right to cheer their team on. What does bother me is when they chant, "Yank-ees Suck," or "Je-ter Sucks." But then again, I'm not down with chanting that anyone sucks. That's just too much negative energy for me to spend. Why not be content saying, "My team is great?"

Anyhow, the Yanks have two months to think about it before they meet up with Boston again. But things do not get easier for the slumping Yankees, what with the Oakland A's coming to town this week. I'm sure everyone—especially Red Sox Nation—is eagerly awaiting George Steinbrenner's first eruption of the season. Stay tuned.

Beat Down in the Boogie Down: Red Sox 11, Yanks 2
2004-04-24 10:24
by Alex Belth

Call it what you want: throttled, bashed, mashed, scorched, whipped, spanked, humiliated, smacked down, whatever. I prefer to look at it like Popeye the sailor: "It was embarraskin." (Errors by Bubba Crosby and Gary Sheffield were the icing on the gravy.) The bottom line is that the Red Sox beat the Yankees about the mouth and face at the Stadium last night. After a much-improved "looking" first inning, Jose Contreras quickly returned to his tentative ways against Boston. They stole bases at will—even old Ellis Burks swiped one with ease—and crunched the horseshit sliders and high fastballs Contreras served them up in the zone. The Red Sox feast on Contreras and in turn, it appears as if he pitches scared against them. A parade of bottom-feeders followed the big Cuban—who couldn't get out of the fourth: Osborne, Proctor and Graman (duck).

It rained steadily for the second half of the game, which made for a tough night for the Yankee fans at the park. The Boston rooters made like Kenny Loggins singing, "I Love a Rainy Night," and had much to cheer as their team cruised to an easy victory. Man, you'd think they were doing a rain dance.

I have to admit, I lost my patience with Contreras for the first time. It's clear that he's a work-in-progress, but he's looking more like Hideki Irabu with each outing. Irabu battled the umpires and everybody else, while Contreras battles himself. But it's tough to watch a guy with such strong pitches have such little conviction in them. He minces around the corners, falls in love with his slider as an out-pitch, when he can blow his fastball by most hitters.

The Yankee offense was shut down again. Derek Lowe pitched well and the Red Sox made several slick defensive plays behind him. Gary Sheffield smoked a ball into the left-centerfield gap in the first inning which was caught by Johnny Damon. Sheffield did rope a single over Pokey Reese's glove in his final at bat of the night. He's a lot of fun to watch hit. Hideki Matsui had a double and a two-run homer off of Lowe. Alex Rodriguez had two hits: a softly hit double to right and an infield single. Jeter went 0-4 and is now 1 for his last 22. How bad was it for the Yanks? As Mike Vaccaro writes in the Post today: "It's this bad: Jeter Booed." I can't remember the last time that happened. Heck, maybe it was the first time.

But today in another day. It's a brilliant sunny moring in New York. If Kevin Brown can help the Yankees earn a win today, then tomorrow's match-up of Pedro and Javey will be exciting.

White Sox 4, Yankees 3
2004-04-23 08:55
by Alex Belth


The Yankees lost a game they should have, could have won last night. However, they still return home to the Bronx having won their first series of the year. Mike Mussina was touched for three first-inning runs (again), but he pitched well after than. I was thinking, "Here we go again," during the first, but Mussina improved as the game moved along. He did hang a breaking ball to Joe Crede, who popped a solo homer in the sixth, but overall, Mussina looked good enough by the end of the night for Yankee fans to let out a sigh of relief. As YES analyst Jim Kaat noted, by the eighth inning Mussina was "throwing his pitches with more conviction." His breaking balls were sharp, though his fastball was still only clocked in the high-eighties.

The Yankee offense sputtered again. After scoring a couple in the third, Alex Rodriguez was robbed of a game-tying RBI single by Timo Perez in center field. Gary Sheffield ended the eighth by grounding into a double play, and Travis Lee ended the game by doing the same. The most frustrating part of Lee's double play was that he hit the ball slowly enough to allow the tying run to score from third. He simply couldn't truckulate his wide-load down to first in time and was thrown out by a step.

The top half of the Yankee line up didn't do anything; the bottom-half kept them in the game. Tony Clark started at first base and drew three walks, as Jason Giambi was given the night off. Jorge Posada collected a couple of hits, and Miguel Cairo looked decent as well. (When Cairo used to play for the Devil Rays, I called him the Bizzaro Jeter, because he looked like an fugly, compressed version of the Yanke shortstop. Now, I think he looks like a combination of Jeter and Oliver Stone.) Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter continue to struggle. Williams looks especially lost at the plate.

The Yanks face the Red Sox in the Boogie Down tonight. Jose Contreras goes against Derek Lowe. Yankee pitching coach Mel Stotlemyre feels good about the work Contreras has put in since he was bombed in Beantown last weekend. According to the New York Times:

"He's changed a couple of things," Stottlemyre said. "I'm not going to tell you what they are, but you'll probably see them. We're trying to eliminate some things. We're trying to eliminate their getting pitches, which we think they've done before. He feels really good right now about himself."

..."I finally got something back from him," Stottlemyre said. "Rather than just hearing me talk, I got some conversation back. He and I both are on the same page now, and that's very important.

"I told him it's very important I get some feedback on and off, during the start and between the starts. So I've got high hopes."

I expect that Contreras will be better tonight (how could he be worse?), but I also think that Lowe will be much improved as well. The Blue Jays finally won a game at home, beating the Sox last night. I'm going to tomorrow afternoon's game at the stadium (my first game of the season). Hopefully, the Yanks can win two of three. I'm as curious as the next guy to see how Rodriguez and Sheffield will perform.

Yankees 3, White Sox 1
2004-04-22 08:51
by Alex Belth

Luckiest Man in the Bronx

Two nights ago my girlfriend Emily started clapping when she got home and I told her the Yankee game was about to begin. I think she even surprised herself with how much she was looking forward to watching the game. Em never followed baseball until we started going out a little over two years ago. Now that we live together, it's become a welcome part of her life. We watch a lot of games together. Em dubbed herself "the Big O," the big optimist, last week. She helps balance my most base, defeatist tendencies.

I never intended to subject Emily to watching baseball on a regular basis. I've always kept sports and relationships with women apart like the seperation of Church and State. But believe me, it has been a real treat that she not only tolerates my fanaticism, but actually appreciates the game on her own. I remember telling Will Carroll about this last year and he sent me an e-mail that read: "Marry her."

Last night, after Emily's favorite player Jorge Posada whiffed to end the fourth inning, Em says to me in a soft voice, "I love baseball." I turned down the volume on the commercials and asked her why. She said, "I like it because I enjoy seeing how much you get into it. I like that it brings you so much joy. I also like it because it's food for conversation and learning for me."

Emily often asks questions, and naturally, I love to give her answers if I can.
She calls me Rainman because I know that Joe Dimaggio struck out 13 times in 1941 as well as I remember my mother's birthday. However, Emily takes special pleasure in stumping me with trivia (which, truth be told, I'm not so great with). Regardless, baseball initiates conversation, which often leads to things that have nothing to do with the game at all.

She continued, "I also like it because I can get up and dick around and when I come back the game is still on. It's not like a movie where I have to pee and get everything together before the commercial is over. If something good happens I hear you yell and then I come running and watch the replay. I think they made the replay for people like me. It's like they knew I wasn't there the first time, so they can show it again."

Em and I watched the Yankees beat the White Sox 3-1 last night. It was a lean, efficient affair, a welcome change from Tuesday's rain-soaked barner-burner. Jon Garland and Javier Vasquez both pitched very well. Vasquez, whose uniform is tight and form-fitting--unlike the rumpled, baggy look that Derek Lowe or Mike Mussina sport--didn't have his best stuff early, but he worked out of trouble. He's quickly becoming my favorite Yankee pitcher. He is all business on the mound, and pitches with confidence and purpose. The only mistake he made all night was a curveball he hung to Carlos Lee. Lee popped it over the left field wall for a homer and gave Chicago a 1-0 lead.

Garland was almost as good. But Alex Rodriguez lined a homer to right field in the sixth to tie the game, and Jorge Posada murdalized a pretty-good breaking ball for a two-run bomb in the seventh. Vasquez pitched eight innings and retired the last ten men he faced. Mariano Rivera got the save.

Rodriguez's homer was memorable because he didn't know where the ball went. On an 0-2 pitch, he put a good swing on an outside fastball. The ball scooted over the right-field wall, on a low-line, in a hurry. But Rodriguez didn't pick the ball up. He looked up, then around, clearly having lost the ball. Surprise, big fella, you just tied the game. Rodriguez's second homer of the season came on a similiar pitch that he hit his first homer on.

In his next at bat, against reliever Cliff Politte, Rodriguez had a beautiful swing on a 2-0 fastball that was out, over the plate. It was one of those swings that make you say, "oooohhh, man, he just missed it." Looking for an inside pitch, Politte came back with the same exact pitch for a called strike. Then Rodriguez swung over an inside fastball to end the inning. Rodriguez was visibly upset, an encouraging sign. It didn't look like he was frustrated, just pissed that he missed a couple of good pitches. He appears close to regaining his form.

Gary Sheffield had two singles, but along with a Javier Vasquez, Jorge Posada was the story of the night. Bubba Crosby started for Bernie Williams in center, lead off the game with a bunt-single, and was robbed of another hit by Magglio Ordonez in the ninth. Travis Lee played first, while Jason Giambi DH'd.

The Red Sox beat the slumping Blue Jays for the second-straight night.

Yanks 11, White Sox 8
2004-04-21 08:28
by Alex Belth

A Rod Bunts! Garbo Smiles! News at Eleven

Ah, just what the doctor ordered. It wasn't easy, or especially pretty, but it was a win. The Yankee offense broke out for seven runs in the top of the first, and they survived the big league debut's of Alex Graman and Scott Proctor to beat the White Sox, 11-8 on a rainy night in Chicago. The big first inning featured just the kind of breaks the Yankees have been looking for: Derek Jeter hustled out an infield hit, Alex Rodriguez bunted for a base hit, Jorge Posada snuck a two-run single through the right side, Ruben Sierra scored when Sandy Alomar couldn't handle a throw home. It was the shortest stint of Mark Buehrle's career. In fairness, he didn't pitch terribly, he simply didn't have any luck.

Alex Graman, a broad-shouldered southpaw had plenty to work with. He even struck out the first batter he faced. But that was about as good as it got (though he escaped the first inning via the double play after allowing a run). Graman looks like a young Fred Gwynne (circa "On the Waterfront"). His eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of his head, and I don't know if he closed his mouth once.

The score was 8-3 at the end of the second inning, when the game was delayed for almost an hour due to the rain. Graman returned when the game resumed but didn't last long. I turned the game off with the score 8-5, on the count of I didn't have the umph in me to watch the rest of this kind of high-scoring game on a school night.

Alex Rodriguez ended the night with three hits, as did Jorge Posada, who hit his team-leading 6th homer of the season. Jason Giambi had two hits. Hideki Matsui smacked his chin pretty good chasing a fly ball, but seems as if he's OK.

I Amuse You?
2004-04-20 13:25
by Alex Belth

In his latest column, Peter Gammons has this to say about Boston fans:

The inferiority obsession of a small group of Red Sox "fans" when it comes to the Yankees hit a new low this weekend when several saw Jeter and A-Rod eating at The Capital Grille on Newbury Street and hurled vocal and demonstrative obscenities at the pair...The current ownership's attention to security kept problems in the park at a minimum, and the chants of "you used steroids" with every Jason Giambi at-bat were amusing.

Why were the chants amusing to Gammons if he was offended by what Jeter and Rodriguez experienced? Because they happened at the ballpark? Unless of course, Gammons is saying that Giambi did use performance-enhancing drugs and therefore deserved to be knocked. His very next bullet point reads:

However, while one can debate the rights and wrongs of using supplements that were legal -- from andro to human growth hormones -- there are too many rumors that at least one of the players on the BALCO list did not tell the truth to the grand jury to think this is just going to fade away.

It sounds to me like Gammons is insinuating that Giambi was indeed a steroid-user--if not a liar--without flat-out saying it. What gives?

Red Sox 5, Yanks 4
2004-04-20 08:44
by Alex Belth

Sox it to me?

Finally, there was a good game to be had in Boston between the Sox and Yanks. But New York could not hold a 4-1 lead, and defensive mistakes by Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui helped give the Sox the victory.

Rodriguez continues to struggle, though he did line a solid single to left---his first hit of the series--in his final at bat. John Harper has a sympathetic look at the slugger's early-season slump in the News today. In all, it was a weekend to forget for the Yankees and their fans. But the resident Yankee-crank at the New York Times, George Vecsey reminds us why yesterday was a great day if you root for the Red Sox. Gee, thanks professor.

The Yanks move to Chicago tonight for a three-game series versus the White Sox before returning home to face Boston this weekend. Lefty-handed rookie pitcher, Alex Graman makes his big league debut tonight for the Yanks. This would be a good time for the Yankee offense to lend a helping hand, huh?

Baseball for Breakfast
2004-04-19 09:03
by Alex Belth

The Yanks and Sox cap their first meeting of the year later this morning at the Fens. Kevin Brown goes against Bronson Arroyo. If anyone out there is lucky to enough to be home watching the game, feel free to leave observations and updates in the "comments" section below. Thanks.

Yankees 7, Red Sox 3
2004-04-19 08:57
by Alex Belth

The Yankees finally got the big inning they've been looking for and it was enough to help them earn a win in Boston. New York scored six runs in the top of the third. It was encouraging to see that four of their six hits in the inning went to the opposite field (Giambi, Matsui, Posada, Williams). In the bottom of the third, the Yankees found themselves on the lucky side of two close calls, and they wriggled out of a jam. Manny Ramirez was called out on a bang-bang play at the plate, and then Jason Varitek was robbed of an extra-base hit by Travis Lee--who was making his first start as a Yankee. Lee flipped the ball to Paul Quantrill, and it looked as if the pitcher caught the ball off the bag.

But the Yanks got the call, and their bullpen shut Boston down for the rest of the afternoon. Derek Jeter had two hits and Gary Sheffield added two doubles. Alex Rodriguez went 0-4 and left seven men on base. Rodriguez is 0-12 in the series, although he did walk twice yesterday (in his third at-bat, Rodriguez hit the ball well, but right at Johnny Damon).

Neither starting pitcher looked good. And they didn't pitch well either. Derek Lowe was roughed up, but Jose Contreras couldn't make it out of the third inning either. Jack Curry, Joel Sherman and Mike Lupica all weigh in on the Yankee pitcher this morning.

You be Illin'

Kenny Lofton is headed to the 15-day DL with a sore quad, and Jorge DePaula could be lost for the season with an elbow injury. I'll be eager to see what Will Carroll has to say about the latest Yankee injuries.

Red Sox 5, Yankees 2
2004-04-18 09:42
by Alex Belth

I was at my mom's house in Weschester county yesterday afternoon to celebrate her big birthday. I made it a point not to check the score until after 3:30. (I actually wanted to enjoy the party, and no matter who was winning, if I looked at the game, I would be distracted.) When I did peep in, the Sox were leading 4-1 in the seventh. A bit later I caught the end of the ninth. Curt Schilling pitched well, and the Yanks put forth another uninspired performance.

The Sox must be licking their chops today, with Jose Contreras taking the mound for New York. Contreras has electric stuff, but he is an erratic pitcher, and it's hard to know what to expect from him on any given outing. The Sox handled him just fine last year. Derek Lowe goes for Boston.

The Yankee offense is going to have to wake up sometime soon. Maybe it'll be today.

Red Sox 6, Yanks 2
2004-04-17 10:41
by Alex Belth

Friday Night at the Fights

The Fenway Faithful had been waiting all winter to let out some much-needed steam in the general direction of the New York Yankees, and last night, in the first meeting of the year between Boston and New York, they had their chance. The Yankees continued to play sloppy baseball, trailed from the first inning on, and never really made it a game, falling to the Sox by the score of 6-2. Tim Wakefield's knuckler was operating in fine form, as he shut down the Yankee offense, while Javier Vasquez wasn't particularly sharp at all.

Things started off poorly for the Yanks and stayed that way for the duration of the game. In the first, Jason Giambi muffed an easy ground ball off of the bat of Johnny Damon to start the game. Next, Bill Mueller lined a high fastball into the right field seats to give Boston a 2-0 lead. Vasquez came back to strike out the Cookie Monster, David Ortiz, and for Yankee fans used to the struggles of Jeff Weaver, it was a relief to see that Vasquez hadn't lost his composure. He pitched Ortiz aggresively, and blew the fastball by him for the third strike. He blazed a fastball past Manny Ramirez for a first-pitch strike too. But on the 0-2 pitch, Ramirez sliced a ball into the short right field corner. The ball bounced off of the top of the wall, but the umpire called it a home run.

And that's just the way things have been going for New York. What should have been a triple became a homer. Manny smiles! and the Sox lead, 3-0. Kevin Millar followed and blasted a single off of the Green Monster. It was the hardest hit ball of the inning; a true Fenway Park single. Vasquez couldn't get his pitches down, and the Sox were making him pay. He threw two good splitters past the next hitter, Ellis Burks, and then Burks slapped one to the left side.

Derek Jeter moved to his right, dove and stabbed the ball. He rolled over onto his right knee (his left leg extended) and fired the ball side-arm to second base. Ha! Take that Jeter-haters of the world. A nifty play from the World's Worst Shortstop. But Vasquez walked Mark Bellhorn, and then Doug Mirabelli tapped an easy grounder to short, but Ho! it bounced off of Jeter's glove, and through his legs. Burks scored Boston's fourth run and the Jeter-haters were rolling, "Right back at you!"

Once again, the Yankee offense had their opportunities. With runners on first (Alex Rodriguez) and second (Jason Giambi) and one out in the sixth, Gary Sheffield was ahead in the count, 3-1. Joe Torre put the hit-and-run on and after Sheffield took strike two, Rodriguez was thrown out at third. The announcers assumed that Rodriguez was stealing on his own--a big no-no in that situation--but after the game, Joe Torre said that he had put a play on. Down 5-2, Tim Wakefield threw a magic knuckler on the next pitch to strike Sheffield out looking.

In the next inning, the Yankees had two runners on again, and just one out. But pinch-hitter Tony Clark struck out and Kenny Lofton grounded out to first. And in the eighth, with two out, Manny Ramirez muffed an easy pop-up. Jason Giambi, who hit what looked like a routine out, was so discouraged that he didn't run hard at all. He sulked with his head down. Instead of winding up on second, he was on first. It was truly a horrible play on Ramirez's part, and an awful one on Giambi's part as well. The next two batters walked, and the Yankees, down 6-2, brought the tying run to the plate.

Alan Embree came in to face Hideki Matsui and struck him out on three pitches. And so it goes. I don't think there is anything to be alarmed about. If the Yankees keep putting men on base, eventually, they will start knocking them in.

Alex Rodriguez played poorly and the Fenway Faithful were all over him. The crowd chanted "Bal-Co" and "Ster-iods" at Giambi and Sheffield each time they came to bat. Every time the Sox squashed a Yankee rally, the crowd erupted. It wasn't so much joy that was coming from them, but the "In-Your-Face: USA, USA," Homer Simpson brand of adreneline.

As I mentioned, they are entitled. After another long, uncomfortable winter, this was just the kind of game to help Red Sox fans feel a little bit better about themselves. Not all of the crowd was acting like this was a playoff game. There are plenty--nay, a majority?--of Sox fans who are way too cautious to go in for that kind of celebrating. After Ramirez's error, when the Yankees loaded the bases, you could feel the crowd bracing themselves for the worst.

I didn't find the game upsetting. (What was upsetting was the pathetic "kids-friendly" computer graphic that Fox showed off.) Frankly, it's always easy for me to rationalize early-season losses to Boston. I almost invite them. Let Red Sox fans be happy now. Let them kick the Yankees around and feel good about themselves in April, May, June, and July. Come August, things will start to change. Happens every year, like the seasons.

Now, I'm not saying it's going to happen like this every year forever, but so far, that's what happens. The happier Sox fans are now, the more miserable they will be later. I'm just going on what I know. Last night a good time was had by (almost) all at the Fens, but remember the saying about those who laugh first.

I don't mean to be downer here, but I wouldn't be surprised to see more of the same from the Yankees today. I expect Schilling to be terrific this afternoon. Hopefully, Mussina can build on his last start, and continue to regain his form.

Don't Believe the Hype (It's a Sequel)
2004-04-16 08:31
by Alex Belth

There are plenty of articles in the New York and Boston papers today about the white-hot rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Quite frankly, none of it is either new nor terribly interesting. I have to admit that I haven't been eagerly anticipating watching these two teams play again either; it brings out the worst in me. My stomach starts to turn, my fists clench, I begin to yell, and soon, I want to start throwing things. Everything goes out of whack, and the feelings of pleasure and dispair are heightened all out of proportion. I feel like David Banner, a mild-mannered baseball fan going about my own business; then I see the Yanks vs. Sox I want to say, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Hell, I don't like me when I'm angry. Not this early in the season at any rate. I'm still hung-over from last year's ALCS, and all the mishigoss that went on this winter. This feels like waking up with a hangover and cracking a beer to start the day. But I'm just moaning here. I'm exaggerating of course; no matter what happens, it still is early. However, shortly after eight tonight, I'll be as excited as anyone and ready to see what unfolds. Of course, I can't wait to see how Rodriguez does, but if Boston fans are looking for a Yankee that personifies the image of the Evil Empire, I think Gary Sheffield is their man. We are having a 60th birthday party for my mom tomorrow, so I will miss the majority of the game, but I assume Schilling will be great.

The funny thing is, as ennervating as it may be for sensitive fans like me to watch, I suspect that this series will bring out the best in both teams. Sox fans will be in a sour mood after Pedro Martinez was roughed up yesterday in a 12-7, extra-inning loss to the Orioles. Fortunately, as a collective, they are not shy about expressing their hostility. Hey Rodriguez: Welcome to the Terrordome. (Y'all come back now, ya hear?)

For a comprehensive take on the series, check out the Red Sox and Yankee blogs listed under the "Local Color" links to the right.

Too Good to be True?

Newsday is reporting that the Yankees are considering moving Kenny Lofton as a way to resolve their roster once Travis Lee returns to the team. Man, it would be great if they could get rid of him and have Bubba Crosby back up Bernie instead. But I don't want to get too excited; it sounds too good to be true.

Doggin It
2004-04-15 13:32
by Alex Belth

The last hot dog I ate was at Shea Stadium during a heat wave last summer. It was the night Dontrelle Willis made his New York debut, and I won't forget watching Willis pitch any time soon. Unfortunately, I'll best remember that night for what happened to me after I ate the hot dog. I won't go into sordid details, but needless to say, it wasn't pretty. I won't be able to stay off dogs forever, cause every so often I really get a craving for one. However, I'll probably enjoy the next one I eat in the comforts of my own home.

Even though baseball season has started, I hadn't thought about hot dogs until I read R.W. Apple Jr's long piece about Chicago cuisine yesterday in the Food section of the New York Times. Man, I just love the way they pile on the fixings out in Chi-town. The article covers a lot more than just dogs, but it seems as if food in the windy city is just plain bad for your health, and completely delicious at the same time. Can anyone give me a first-hand report of what eating a hot dog in Chicago is like? How are the dogs at Wrigley? Are they served Chicago-style as well?

Toast of the Town
2004-04-15 08:37
by Alex Belth

I asked my good pal Rich Lederer who he thinks was a better team: The 1986 Mets or the 1998 Yankees. Since Rich is a California native, so I thought he'd have a measured take on the whole issue. Here is an e-mail I received from him this morning:

1. The Yankees won 114 games in 1998, the Mets won 108 games in 1986.

Edge: Yankees.

2. The Yankees won their division by 22 games, the Mets by 21 1/2 games.

Edge: Yankees.

3. The Yankees swept the the Rangers in the ALDS 3-0, beat the Indians in the ALCS 4-2, and swept the Padres in the World Series 4-0. The Mets beat the Astros 4-2 in the NLCS and the Red Sox 4-3 in the NLCS.

Edge: Yankees.

4. The Yankees outscored their opponents during the season by 310 runs, whereas the Mets outscored their opponents by 205 runs. Another way of looking at it is to say that the Yankees scored 1.47 runs for every run allowed. By comparison, the Mets scored 1.35 runs for every run allowed.

Edge: Yankees.

5. The Yankees scored runs at a rate of 1.19x the league average and allowed runs at .81x the league average. The Mets scored runs at a rate of 1.16x the league averages and allowed runs at .86x the league average.

Edge: Yankees.

6. The argument against the Yankees based on such league comparisons is that they benefited from the expansion in the A.L. that year. 1998 was the inaugural year for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team that finished in last place with the worse record in the league (63-99). The Yankees beat the Devil Rays, 11 games to one in their season series. Backing out the Yankees' record against Tampa Bay produces a won-loss record of 103-47 and a winning percentage of .687. By comparison, the Mets had a winning percentage of .667 in 1986.

Edge: Yankees.
As such, no matter how you slice or dice it, the Yankees' superiority in 1998 exceeded the Mets' superiority in 1986.

A clean sweep for the Yankees, according to Lederer. Can anyone punch any holes into his findings?

Yankees 5, Devil Rays 1
2004-04-15 08:29
by Alex Belth

You think the D Rays are getting tired of seeing Kevin Brown? Although he wasn't especially sharp, walking four batters, Brown was helped out by three double plays, and allowed just one run over seven innings (again). It was the 200th victory of Brown's career and the third time he's faced and defeated Tampa so far this season. The Yankees became the first team to have pitchers win their 200th career game in back-to-back contests. Jason Giambi jacked a three-run blast in the first. Later, Gary Sheffield added an RBI double and Jorge Posada hit a solo homer.

Today gives a day off; the Yanks begin a four-game series against the Red Sox in Boston tomorrow night. Gentlemen, start your keyboards...let the hyping begin. Alex Rodriguez will be the center of attention. There are already several pieces on him in the papers today. Here's what erstwhile Yankee bench coach, Popeye Zimmer thinks:

"A-Rod has probably been booed very few times in his life," said Zimmer, a veteran of each side in the bitter rivalry. "But I am sure he will be booed in Boston for two reasons. One, he is a Yankee, and the other is he was going to be a Red Sox and didn't."

I think Rodriguez knows what it is like to be booed. The 2001 season wasn't exactly picnic for him, and I'm sure they still don't love him in Seattle.

Braggin Rights
2004-04-14 13:50
by Alex Belth

Former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman has new book about the 1986 Mets titled "The Bad Guys Won" due out this spring. I was 15 years old in 1986 and remember absolutely hating that Mets team. After all, they were arrogant, volatile and exciting, and I was a loyal Yankee fan. The Bombers had good players, but they weren't necessarily a compelling team. The Mets were the story in New York during the mid-eighties and were far more popular than the Yanks; remember, all of the current fair-weather Yankee fans were fair-weather Mets fans back then. Truth is, I lost many a school yard chop session defending the Bombers.

I recall rooting for the Cardinals a lot (Willie McGee was one of my favorite players), and I even committed the ultimate Yankee sin and pulled for the Red Sox in the World Serious. (Lot of good that did me, but hey, I didn't have to go to school with any Red Sox fans.)
Jeremy Heit ran a fine interview with Pearlman earlier this week (and here is another good one--conducted by Joe McDonald).

Here is one bit that struck me:

Pearlman: I've been saying for several years now that the '86 Mets were a much more complete team that the current Yankee dynasty. Their starting pitching was so deep, and they were very well balanced all the way around. I think they'd really give a lot of teams trouble at the top of the lineup. With the exception of the Marlins, who today has three guys like Dykstra, Backman and Mookie-guys who can get on and really mess with a pitcher's head.

What hurts the Mets, dynasty-wise, is that they only really lasted one year. So it's a poor comparison to, say, the Big Red Machine or the A's of the 70s. But for one season, one game, you've gotta like that '86 team.

Pearlman doesn't specify any one year of the current Yankee dynasty, but it got me to thinking: Were the 1986 Mets better than the 1998 Yankees? I asked Rob Neyer, who wrote "Baseball Dynasties," an extremely entertaining book, with Eddie Epstein. Neyer responded:

We (mostly) ranked teams based on what they did over three-year periods, which hurts the Mets because they didn’t even win their division in ’87 (though they did play well). But if we just look at one year, the Mets do have a case. Not a great case, maybe, but a case. If you look on page 377 of "Baseball Dynasties," you’ll see the Mets are No. 7 on the one-year SD Score list. And they should actually be No. 6, because we got the Giants wrong. Only two post-1927 teams are ahead of the Mets: the ’84 Tigers and the ’98 Yankees.

The Tigers are just *barely* ahead of the Mets, and in retrospect (look at what they did in ’83 and ’85) it’s pretty clear the Tigers were playing well over their heads in ’84.

The Yankees are No. 1, but do we have to discount them just a bit because it was an expansion? I’m not saying Pearlman’s right. But his claim is not absurd.

I've got to spend some time mulling this one over. On the one hand, the '86 Mets were a powerhouse. They sure weren't dull. But they almost didn't make the World Serious and then of course, they came one out--no, one strike--from losing it all, before Boston let it slip away. Aside from trailing the Indians in the ALCS 2-1, the '98 Bombers were never really in a tight spot.

Hmmmm. What do you think? I'm curious to get some reactions to this debate. Food for thought on a rainy spring day in New York.

Meet the Mets
2004-04-13 08:21
by Alex Belth

The Mets won their home opener yesterday, beating the Braves 10-6. The affable Mike Cameron made a terrific impression on fans and newspaper men alike. Harvey Araton pines for the days of the "You Gotta Believe" Mets during these dark days when the Yankees rule the town.

The Mets can't compete with baseball's money machine, but beyond six summer days, they don't really have to. What they do have is an opportunity to create a very different kind of baseball summer in New York. If they can be competitive, make a run at a wild card or more, then they can pump some fresh air into an atmosphere that has become the stormy, stodgy domain of the blowhard in the Bronx.

Along with George Vecsey and Mike Lupica, Araton often takes shots at the big, bad Bombers. Come August, I wonder what Araton's going to write about the Shea-Hey Mets? We know what he'll be saying about the Yanks.

Off the Top
2004-04-12 13:15
by Alex Belth

Just some quick thoughts here:

--Just how aesthetically appealing is the idea of watching G. Anderson and my man, Vlad Guerrero hit back-to-back? Anderson's swing is smooth like butter, while Vlad looks like he's trying to chop down a redwood with each hack. I love the contrast. Angel fans will love the results.

--I caught the highlight of Albert Pujols' home run off of Randy Johnson yesterday. How many guys can catch up to a fastball that high over the plate? It reminded me of a couple of the shots George Brett hit off Goose Gossage back in the day.

--I saw Cliff Floyd strain his right quad running to first base yesterday. What a shame. The guy can't seem to stay healthy. My girlfriend Emily likes his name but says it has too many "f's" in it. She pronounces it, "Cli' Fffloyd." And how about Piazza getting run over at first base? That was fugly.

--My man Richie Allen chimes in from the other side of the Atlantic with an interesting look at the troubled, but talented slugger, Dick Allen. Stop by and give it a look.

--Former Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte was placed on the 15-day DL on Saturday. Accoring to Lee Sinins:

Pettitte suffered a strained left elbow while checking his swing in his Astros debut. There had been rumors that the Yankees were concerned about his elbow. Pettitte seems to deny that the Yankees were concerned, stating that "They offered me $40 million over three years. If they thought I had that bad of an elbow, why would they offer me that?" On the other hand, Pettitte claimed he received multiple offers and the Yankees were by far the lowest. So, if he is to be believed, what would appear to be a big offer would in fact be a lowball one.

--William Rhoden had a nice piece on Barry Bonds and his godfather, the King of Cool, Willie Mays on Saturday. Worth a peek.

--Rich Lederer takes a close look at Scott Rolen's Hall of Fame chances this week at Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT. Rolen may not be Mike Schmidt, but he's no slouch either.

--Not for nothing, but it's painful to see Hideki Matsui batting in front of Jorge Posada. It's tough seeing him hit any higher than seventh in the order for that matter.

Day off for the Yanks today, then two games at the stadium vs. the Rays in the middle of the week. Tampa will face Kevin Brown for the third time this season. Then it is on to Boston. I wonder if Rodriguez will break out of his early season slump then?

Yankees 5, White Sox 4
2004-04-12 08:23
by Alex Belth

It was a chilly, overcast Easter Sunday in New York. I was at my mom's for the holiday, and when I turned the game on, the White Sox had just scored their third run of the first inning. It's going to be another long day, I shrugged. But Mike Mussina settled down, allowing just one more run after the first, and he pitched well enough to finally earn his 200th career victory. He wasn't brilliant, but yesterday's performance was an improvement over his first two starts.

The Yankee offense showed some signs of life as Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield each collected two hits, but the story of the day was rookie Bubba Crosby who made a pair of nice "Pete Reiser" catches at the wall in center (thank goodness for the padding, huh?), and hit a big three-run homer. The home run knocked off the facade of the upper deck in right field, and Crosby knew it was gone once it left the bat. He even held his right arm out, frozen for just a moment, after he swung, to style the homer properly.

A folk hero is born in the Bronx. Kenny Lofton has to deal with this? Good luck, Kenny. Crosby may find himself on the Columbus Express this summer, but he's already got a following at the Stadium and in the press.

It was good to see Sheffield get a couple of hits. He doubled home the winning run. He also smacked a single to center that was hit so hard that the center fielder had to make a diving stop as if he were an infielder. Yikes.

The Red Sox won in extra innings yesterday on David Ortiz's solo blast over the Green Monster. Curt Schilling made his Fenway Park debut as a Red Sox. Boston played several exciting games last week, picking up where the 2003 team left off.

The drama continues this coming weekend when the Yankees play four in Boston. I talk about the rivalry again this week over at The Hardball Times with Ben Jacobs, filling in for Larry Mahnken, who will return next week just in time for all the juicy stuff.

White Sox 7, Yanks 3
2004-04-11 10:53
by Alex Belth

Welp, it looks like it's getting worse before it's getting better for the Bronx Bombers. The Yanks took another one on the chin yesterday on a beautiful afternoon at the Stadium. How do you know when your team is really out-of-whack? Let's look at Hideki Matsui again. In the 7th, Matsui took a weak hack a pitch that rolled foul up the first base line. The ball was on the right-hand side of the base line, so Matsui didn't think to run. But the ball kept spinning, and then it inexplicably hopped back into the field of play. It was a freak play and it all happened quickly, yet in slow-motion. By the time the pitcher fielded the ball, Matsui was making a mad dash for first. It was too late though, and Godziller looked foolish for the second game in a row. Dem's da breaks when things ain't going your way.

The weatherman says it's going to rain this afternoon, so I don't know if they'll get the game in. If they do, it would be nice to see the Yankee offense do a little something for us on Easter Sunday. Equally as important though, I hope Mike Mussina can put together a good outing. I've been thinking back on his 2002 season, when he was in a funk for a prolonged period of time. We shall see if his first two starts are a omen of things to come, or just a couple of early-season he-coughs.

Oh, and I guess Pedro bounced back just fine, huh?

2004-04-10 11:52
by Alex Belth

After waiting all this time, it's finally here: spring in New York. Just this week, the buds started popping up on trees all over the city. This morning, I jumped on the train and headed down to Union Square to the farmer's market. At about 9:00 a.m. I was walking on the sunny side of 14th street (the south side) to the market and I've got it tell you, it felt to be great to be alive and living in New York. Each spring, I'm reminded about how much I love this town.

The farmer's market is a treat. It's too early for lots of produce yet, and the stands are still dominated by rooted vegetables, and potatoes and apples. I'm going up to my mom's for Easter tomorrow, so I thought I would stop by and get her a little something, something.

Like many Belgians, my mom is a terrific cook. Don't know why they are so good in the kitchen, but it's true. My mom is a foodie without an ounce of pretension. She lives up in the suburbs so she doesn't have access to some of the froo-froo items you can get in the city.

She happens to love fingerling potatoes, small, stubby little guys that look like links of sausage, or cigar butts, or thick fingers. Trouble is she can never find them up where she is. So I find a stand at the market that features five different kinds of fingerling's. Who knew? So I got her a sampler: French fingerling, Austiran Crescent, Rose Finn, Russian Banana, and of course, the Purple Peruvian.

Not only that, but I found some ramps too, which is the ultimate sign of spring. Ramps look vaguely like scallions, but they are younger, smaller, and more pungent. Actually, ramps are a curious combination of the garlic and onion families. It can be used as a substitute for either, and it gives off a special flavor.

My aunt Biece is a bonafide foodie and for years she told me about ramps. The catch with ramps is that they aren't around long. It all depends on the weather, but the colder it is, the longer they hang around. Still, it won't be much longer than three weeks a year. After Biece hipped me to them, I think I missed them for two or three straight seasons, either because I didn't get to the market in time, or because the weather effected the crop. When I finally had them, I have to admit I was let down. They aren't all that, but they are a nice variation.

Turns out, this is the first week they are around. Since I was at the market early, there were still plenty to choose from. How could I pass up this opportunity? Running into fresh ramps unexpectedly like this. Heck, I know that mom will get a kick out of em.

The ramps are out and baseball is back in the city too. How is this for a spring welcome? Joe Torre received a contract extension for life yesterday, signing a three-year, $19.2 million contract. After that, he'll make a half a million a year as a advisor. Ten years ago, who ever thought that we would be able to take such news with a straight face? And maybe Torre won't serve the duration of the contract, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did either. I certainly feel more confident about Torre sticking around than I ever with any manager under George.

The Torre deal was announced on Friday afternoon before the game against the White Sox. In all, it turned out to be a forgettable day on the field for the Yankees as they got pounded by Chicago, 9-3. And it's not only that they lost, but they looked badly doing it. You know you are going to have a long day when you team draws four walks in an inning but can't score a run. Hideki Matsui and John Flaherty had particularly embarassing games. But no matter how disapointing the game was, it doesn't take away from how pleased Yankee fans must feel that Joe Torre has got the keys to the executive warshroom and he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Actually, the game was entertaining for several reasons. First of all, before it was over, came news that the Blue Jays had won their first game of the year, 10-5 over the Red Sox, at the home opener at Fenway. I'm not nuts enough to be overly concerned with the standings in April, but I can say that any day the Red Sox lose is a that much better of a day for me, especially if the Yanks happen to lose as well.

Next, the game was curious because it started at 4:00 in the afternoon. How often do you see a late afternoon game on a Friday? Plus, the light at this time of the year is specific, that it casts its own personality on the game. The light in the spring is much whiter, brighter, and cooler than the kind of light we'll see in August or September, which is much warmer, and more yellow.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed watching how the light was a major character in the proceedings. I think New Yorkers are especially sensitive to light because it is often rationed out in such small, specific doses. I guess that would hold true for anybody who lives in a city, but it is especially intense in New York. In between buildings, for a certain amount of time, light in New York is fleeting, especially during the winter months. You got to catch it when you can. It's not like living in Los Angeles, where the light and space washes over everything. You can't get away from it out there. In New York, you have to hunt around for it.

The sharp--even harsh--spring light really makes the blue of the stadium stand out. The grass isn't lush yet, but it's a damn sight greener than anything we've seen in months, so who is complaining? Watching on TV, you can almost feel the chill in the air just looking at the images. For me, it was just another friendly reminder that spring is finally here. And if I haven't already told you, spring is my most favoritest season of the year.

Jose Contreras has wonderfully dark skin and looked imposing and cool in the brilliant sun. He hass thick, puffy features, and the navy blue mock-neck shirt that he wore under the pinstriped uniform made him look sharp. As the game started, a ring of shadows, a crescent moon of sorts, covered the area behind home plate and the stands behind the plate moving toward first base side.

By the second inning, the umpire and then the batter's were in the dark. Slowly, the ring crept towards the mound, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching how the moving light progressively altered the playing field and the stands. In the spring, everything can feel new, so watching concentrating on something like the light in a late afternoon game--something the average baseball fan experiences plenty of times each year--feels like it's the first time I ever noticed such a thing.
The weather brought a mix of sun and clouds. The batter's were at a distinct disadvantage for the first four innings, and both pitchers benefitted accordingly. By the fourth, the entire area from the pitcher's mound to home plate was in the shadows. The pitcher's stood shinning in the sun, while the batter's were muted in the shade. But even after the hitter's were covered speaks and flashes of light refelected on their helemets and faces and shoulders.

When Sheffield came up for the first time, he looked the Prince of freakin Darkness in the shadows, glimpses of light splashing off him (he ripped a double into the left field corner). After the shadows had moved safely behind the mound, it was the fielder's who were at a disadvantage. And even the base runners too. In the third, Hideki Matsui was standing in the sun off of second base. The infield dirt around him was a deep orange, and it looked like a great place to be. Chicago starter Jon Garland--effectively wild for the most part--had walked the first two men of the inning and Matsui got to be in the sun. Perhaps he couldn't see the catcher too well, because before you know it, the ball came screaming into second, and Matsui was easily tagged out.

(There is a hilarious photograph of Matsui sliding back to second in the Daily News today. Matsui has his hands stretched out ahead of him, making like a super hero flying. His body is flat on the ground except his feet. His head is down in the dirt, and as the announcers mention, he probably wants to bury it even further into the earth. The slide looks good, the form looks perfect. The only problem is that he is a foot-and-a-half away from the bag.)

Contreras labored from the begining. In the fifth, the Magglio Ordonez tagged him for a three-run homer. He hit a ball, low and inside, and really glicked it. It was somewhere between a line drive and a high fly ball. Actually it had the speed and arc of a golf ball being smacked from the driving range. It got into the seats but fast.

Felix Heredia wasn't much better and the defense was even worse, as the White Sox scored all of their runs--four in the fifth, five in the sixth---in two innings. By the sixth, the only part of the field that was still in the light was center. Looking in, it was clear that the outfielders couldn't see the ball coming off the bat. Bernie Williams looked like a deer caught in the headlights on several fly balls.

The one bright spot of the day came when Bubba Crosby hit his first major league home run. A fan favorite grows in the Bronx. But the Yankee offense is still tight. Who knows how long they will continue to struggle. The good news is that they can explode at any moment. Let's hope it happens over the weekend.

Cooperstown Confidentail
2004-04-09 13:14
by Alex Belth

By Bruce Markusen

April 8, 2004

Regular Season Edition

A Home Run For The Ages

Three decades ago this month, the major league baseball season opened with the exalted Babe Ruth still the all-time home run champion—but barely. Ruth’s total stood at 714, but there was an able challenger waiting for the new season to begin. It was underrated Atlanta Braves slugger Henry Aaron, who was threatening to overtake “The Great Bambino” as home run king, a title Ruth had held for 53 consecutive years.

By the end of the 1973 season, Aaron trailed Ruth’s career total by one home run. His 713th home run came on the second-to-last day of the season, and only because teammates begged him to re-consider his decision not to play, so that three Braves would have a chance to finish the season with 40 or more home runs. Sure enough, Aaron came through, hitting his 40th home run to join teammates Darrell Evans [41] and Dave Johnson [43] in the history-making 40-40-40 home run club. Aaron then elected to play the final game of the ‘73 season, but did not hit a home run as part of a three-hit day, making sure that 1974 would truly become a season of anticipation.

Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth's record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others even implied or dictated threats on his life.

When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. Aaron noted that he received over 900,000 letters in 1973; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. Aaron, with help from the Braves, hired a personal bodyguard named Calvin Wardlaw. Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, equipped with a .38 revolver in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.

In addition, Aaron faced other obstacles and controversies as the 1974 season approached. In February, Atlanta president Bill Bartholomay had announced that the Braves would bench Aaron for their season-opening series against the Cincinnati Reds, which would be played on the road. Under that scenario, Aaron would have a better chance of both tying and breaking the record at home. The Braves’ announcement drew rounds of criticism from members of the baseball media. A number of writers contended that the Braves were assaulting the game’s integrity by playing a lineup that was clearly not their best. After all, Aaron had batted .301 with 44 home runs and 96 RBIs in 1973. He was still their best player, even as he turned 40 years of age. Longtime baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News summarized the feelings of some naysayers when he wrote, “Baseball has gone crooked.”

After several weeks of heated debate, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped into the fracas. In a carefully worded statement, Kuhn announced his disapproval of the Braves’ decision to sit Aaron. “Barring disability,” the commissioner went on to say, “I will expect the Braves to use Henry Aaron in the opening series in Cincinnati, in accordance with the pattern of his use in 1973, when he started approximately two of every three Braves games.” Kuhn stopped short of “ordering” the Braves to use Aaron, only because he had no such power to tell a manager whom to play. Yet, the message was clear to the Braves, who eventually reinstated Aaron to the starting lineup on Opening Day.

Aaron had anticipated his Opening Day matchup against Jack Billingham for several months; he had actually been thinking about his confrontation with Billingham during his off-season honeymoon. “I thought all winter about what he would throw me,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography I Had A Hammer, “even lying on the beach in Jamaica with my bride.”

Aaron was ready. Facing the Reds’ right-hander in the Thursday afternoon sun of Riverfront Stadium, Aaron patiently watched the first four pitches thrown to him. With the count now three-and-one, he unleashed his first swing of the new season. A few seconds later, Billingham’s fifth delivery landed beyond the left-center field wall at Riverfront Stadium. In an instant, Aaron had tied Ruth as the all-time home run champion.

Although the Braves obviously didn’t want him to break the record on the road, Aaron remained in the game. He grounded out, walked, and flied out in his final three plate appearances. Not wanting to take any more chances with fate, Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews (a longtime teammate of Aaron) removed him from the game in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with journeyman Rowland Office, who then gave way to pinch-hitters Ivan Murrell and Frank Tepedino. Without Aaron, the Braves went on to lose in extra innings, 7-6.

After the traditional off day following the opener, the Reds and Braves resumed their series on Saturday afternoon. Given the commissioner’s spring training “recommendation” that Aaron play “two out of every three Braves games,” Mathews decided to sit his venerable superstar. Mathews moved Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr from right field to Aaron’s spot in left, with rookie Ivan Murrell taking Garr’s place in right. Murrell went 1-for-2 in Aaron’s absence, but the Braves lost to the Reds, 7-5.

Mathews’ decision prompted an angry reaction from the Commissioner’s Office. Concerned that the Braves were reading his declaration a bit too literally, Kuhn “requested” that Mathews return Aaron to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Mathews asked the commissioner if he was giving him a direct order. According to Mathews, Kuhn responded that it was indeed an “order” and that “severe” consequences would result if Aaron did not play.

So Aaron returned to the lineup for the series finale, but failed to play one of his vintage games. He struck out twice—each time on three pitches—and bounced weakly to third base before being lifted for “defensive reasons.” Covering the game for the Daily News, Dick Young wrote that Aaron had never looked “worse in his life.” After the game, the caustic writer asked Aaron if he was even trying to hit a home run. He seemed to imply that Aaron was not giving his all—that perhaps he was “saving” himself for the team’s home opener. Aaron replied to Young’s interrogation calmly and without a hint of anger. “It’s not easy walking up there and hitting a home run. Not as easy as they think.”

Not that easy, given the intense round of media scrutiny being placed on Aaron. Not that easy, given the stacks of hate mail and death threats that Aaron was continuing to receive. Some of the threats seemed so genuine that the Braves hired extra security to act as Aaron’s personal bodyguards.

On Monday night, April 8, the Dodgers faced the Braves in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. Al Downing, a veteran left-handed hurler and onetime 20-game winner, was on the mound for the Dodgers. National League umpire Lee Weyer took a look at the crowd of 53,755 fans, a record for the ballpark, and remarked, “I’m glad I’m here. History might be made tonight.”

Aaron drew a walk in his first plate appearance, eventually scoring a run. Interestingly, when Aaron touched home plate, he broke Willie Mays’ record for the most runs scored in National League history, a record almost entirely overlooked in the midst of media and fan attention surrounding Hank’s home run pursuit. The fans, however, wanted a home run and were unhappy that Downing did not give Aaron a pitch he might hit. After all, most fans were not only excited about the possibility of a record being broken, but nervous as well. There was no guarantee that “The Hammer” would deliver that night; yet many fans had tickets only to that game.

In the fourth inning, Aaron came to bat again. With the Braves trailing 3-1, two men out and a runner on first, Aaron patiently watched Downing’s first pitch, a change-up in the dirt. Ball one. Now behind in the count, Downing threw Aaron a slider. The pitch was low, but down the middle. Using his classic top-hand swing and follow-through, Aaron lifted the pitch deep toward left-center field. Dodger outfielders Bill Buckner and Jim Wynn raced in the direction of the warning track, converging just a few feet from the outfield wall. Placing his arms on top of the wall, Buckner tried to prop himself higher, above the boundary of the fence. The valiant attempt fell well short. Both Buckner and Wynn watched the ball land in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, who was standing in Atlanta’s bullpen.

Two overly enthusiastic fans accompanied Aaron on his tour around the bases. Security forces must have cringed at the site of the intruders, but they carried neither weapons nor ill intentions. By the team Aaron had reached home plate, his entourage of followers and well-wishers numbered nearly a dozen, mostly Braves’ teammates and coaches. Aaron then spoke to the crowd at Fulton County Stadium. “I’m happy it’s over,” Aaron said of his grueling chase of Ruth’s record, once thought unreachable by baseball historians. “Now I can consider myself one of the best. Maybe not the best because a lot of great ones have played this game—DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson… but I think I can fit in there somewhere.” Few would argue with Aaron’s conservative assessment.

During the brief ceremony following the historic home run, rain started to fall on Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. For a few moments, some of the fans worried about the rain, knowing that five innings had not been completed. Fortunately, the rain stopped, allowing the Braves and Dodgers to continue the game and make it official. Aaron's home run stood, as did the new record. The Braves went on to win the milestone game, 7-4. One of the most memorable home runs in baseball history would not be wasted in a losing cause.

Aaron’s landmark blast received vast nationwide coverage. Many daily newspapers reported Aaron's achievement in front page headlines. A number of major publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and Sport Magazine, all featured Aaron on their covers. Companies like MacGregor Sporting Goods even took out full page advertisements saluting the game’s new home run king.

By first reaching and then eclipsing Ruth, “The Hammer” set a career standard for all other power hitters, past and present. Aaron ended his major league playing career two years later, with a grand sum of 755 home runs. Although Aaron’s total was once considered unbreakable, the recent spree of home run hitting in the 1990s and the early 2000s has placed several players within earshot of Aaron’s mark. Barry Bonds ranks as the favorite among the short-timers, while Alex Rodriguez may have the inside track amongst the younger set to walk with some of the game’s elite company in the 700 club. Just as Henry Aaron himself did 30 years ago when he forced people to mention his name in the same breath with a fellow named Babe Ruth.

(Editor’s Note: Ron Visco, a teacher in the Hall of Fame’s education department and the holder of a PH. D. in research, co-wrote this feature about Aaron’s milestone blast. For more—much more—on Aaron’s dramatic and successful pursuit of 715 home runs, be sure to read Tom Stanton’s excellent new book, Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America. An award-winning author, Stanton has previously written The Road To Cooperstown and The Final Season.)

The Nickname Game

Hank Aaron’s nicknames—at first “Hammerin’ Henry” and then the less formal “Hammerin’ Hank”—originated at the typewriters of sportswriters, who saw a chance to make an alliterative play on his first name while also paying tribute to Aaron’s thunderous bat. The nickname was later shortened to “Hammer,” which was easier to say and fit more easily into smaller headline space. Unlike other superstar players with unique nicknames (Willie “The Say Hey Kid” Mays, Stan “The Man” Musial, and Babe “The Bambino” Ruth), Aaron’s nickname was eventually “borrowed” and attached to players of later generations. Slugging John Milner, who made his big league debut with the New York Mets in 1971, became “The Hammer,” largely because he considered Aaron his boyhood idol. While Milner never came close to matching Aaron’s greatness, he accomplished far more than perennial Oakland A’s prospect Bobby Brooks, who also earned the moniker for his hard-hitting style in the minor leagues. And in perhaps the most interesting “Hammer” to emerge in later generations, A’s front office official and glorified go-fer Stanley Burrell received the label from Oakland superstar Reggie Jackson. Burrell couldn’t hit like Aaron, but did carry an uncanny facial resemblance to the longtime Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves star.

Card Corner

As a tribute to Aaron’s impending achievement, the Topps Company issued a unique set of “Hank Aaron Special” cards as part of its 1974 set, including miniature reprints of all of his previous Topps cards. Issued as the No. 1 card in the set of 660, Aaron’s primary (or main) card was unlike most of the 1974s, which featured a vertical design with colored banners at the top and bottom of the card. The Aaron card featured a horizontal arrangement, with a gold interior border running along the edges of the card. Rather than fill most of the card with a full-sized photographic image, Topps used a smaller portrait photo of the future Hall of Famer, creating an image that filled two-thirds of the card. That allowed Topps to create a special segment with the other third of the card, which featured a blue and gold crown, the name “hank aaron” in a lower-case gold font, and the words “NEW ALL-TIME HOME RUN KING” emblazoned in upper-case purple letters toward the bottom of the card… In producing the card, Topps did something that it rarely did in creating cards to commemorate special occasions. Rather than highlighting a record-surpassing feat after it had happened, Topps actually anticipated Aaron’s breaking of the record. Keep in mind that the card was issued in March, when Topps traditionally used to release its first cards of the new year, or about a month before Aaron had even broken, much less tied the record. In a sense, Topps took a gamble in issuing the card, albeit a small one, so early in the season. What if Aaron had suffered a season-ending injury during spring training, or had endured the calamity of a broken leg on Opening Day? That would have left Aaron waiting until 1975 to tie and break the record, leaving Topps with what would have been probably its most famous “error” card of all time. Thankfully, no physical adversities came to pass, spring training progressed without injury, Aaron tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day, and then eclipsed the milestone the following Monday in front of a nationally televised audience. In what amounted to a happy ending, Topps successfully produced a memorable card that paid homage to one of the game’s true greats and one of the most indelibly-marked moments in its history.

Pastime Passings

(Editor’s Note: Thanks to and for supplying us with much of the information appearing in these obituaries.)

George Bamberger (Died on April 4 in North Redington Beach, Florida; age 78; cancer): Considered one of the great pitching gurus of the 1960s and seventies, “Bambi” enjoyed a successful run as pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles from 1968 to 1977. Under his guidance, Orioles pitchers helped the team win three American League pennants and one World Championship from 1969 to 1971. During his tenure, four Orioles claimed Cy Young Awards, two for future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and two for left-handed craftsman Mike Cuellar. In 1971, Bamberger’s staff reached its pinnacle as four starters remarkably posted 20-win seasons, including Palmer, Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Dave McNally. No team has come close to matching four 20-game victors since Bambi’s Orioles… Bamberger’s work as a pitching tutor so impressed other teams that the Milwaukee Brewers hired him as their manager after the 1977 season. Bambi led the Brewers to two finishes of 90-plus wins before a heart ailment requiring bypass surgery cut short his managing days, forcing him to retire in the middle of the 1980 season. Bamberger’s retirement didn’t last; he came back to guide the rebuilding New York Mets in 1982 and ’83, before returning to the helm of the Brewers in 1985 and ’86. Including his two stints in Milwaukee, Bamberger accumulated a more-than-respectable record of 377-351 as the manager of the Brew Crew.

Bob Cremins (Died on March 27 in Pelham, New York; age 98): Pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Cremins made his major league debut under the most stressful of circumstances, having to face Babe Ruth of the hated New York Yankees in August of 1927. The young left-hander retired Ruth with relative ease, inducing a ground ball to first base. Yet, Cremins appeared in only three more games after that and then decided to leave the game the following season. Cremins achieved success in his post-playing days, becoming a cartoonist for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper and working as Pelham’s town supervisor. A war hero, Cremins also worked on an air-sea rescue vehicle for four years during World War II. At the time of his death, Cremins was the second oldest former major leaguer, just behind Ray Cunningham. The 99-year-old Cunningham played 11 games in two seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jim “Pig” Harris (Died on March 22 in Mobile, Alabama; age 84). A veteran of Negro Leagues baseball in the 1940s, Harris played as a catcher for the Mobile Black Bears, the Mobile Black Shippers, and the Weinacker Indians. In one of the highlights of his career, Harris once homered off legendary Negro Leagues ace Satchel Paige. Harris later signed contracts with the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians organizations, but never advanced past the minor league level.

Marvin Moran (Died on March 1; age 80): Moran never played or managed, but did gain some notoriety when he successfully battled polio and then became the official voice of the National Anthem for the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s and early 1960s. Moran sang the Anthem at the 1955 All-Star Game and in the 1957 World Series, with Milwaukee’s County Stadium serving as the site for each performance.

Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at and at Borders Books. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004. Markusen is also host of the Hall of Fame Hour, which airs each Thursday at 12 noon on Radio.

Yankees 3, White Sox 1
2004-04-09 08:37
by Alex Belth

Javier Vasquez pitched with poise and confidence yesterday and handled the explosive White Sox offense, allowing one run and three hits in eight innings of work. I was able to catch most of the game on Yankee Rewind last night, and it was a pleasure watching Vasquez pitch. Unlike the dearly-departed Jeff Weaver--who pitched well in his Dodger debut--and the hulking Jose Contreras, Vasquez displays a classic, compact pitching form. It looks as if he uses his entire body, especially his legs. After the game, the new Yankee received raves from his peers. According to the Times:

After watching Vazquez for the first time at Yankee Stadium, Mussina is a believer.

"He threw whatever pitch he wanted whenever he wanted to," Mussina said. "He looked like he was in control. He was in control of himself physically; he was in control of his emotions. He looked comfortable. He looked like he had been out there the whole season."

...[White Sox catcher, Sandy] Alomar explained that Vazquez throws his fastball at 92 or 93 miles an hour, not exceedingly fast. But his curveball, Alomar added, makes the fastball seem faster. "It looks like he's throwing it 150 miles an hour," Alomar said.

"He throws the breaking ball for strikes," Alomar said. "You don't know where it's going to land. He changes speeds with the breaking ball. He throws it hard. He throws it at you. He knows how to set you up. He is a very smart pitcher. He would have beat everybody in the major leagues today. Nobody would have beat him today with the stuff he had. We have a good offensive team, but he was on today."

The Yankee offense hasn't found its groove yet; hitting coach, Don Mattingly thinks that his guys are pressing. It's been great to see Mattingly in the dugout so far. For longtime Yankee fans, it's comforting to see him along with Willie Randolph--now in Popeye Zimmer's seat next to Torre--Roy White and Mel Stotlemyre on the bench. White has a gaunt face, with puffy eyes. I was trying to think who he looks like, and the closes thing I can come up with is E.T.

At one point during the game, Mattingly was on the bench talking with Giambi. I can't exactly explain why, but the image got me all soft and fuzzy. I didn't have a Steinbrenner moment, but it was a cool sight all the same. You know what I love about baseball? Players and coaches sit cross-legged on the bench. Often they have their arm behind the guy next to them, as they sit on their side, deep in conversation. When was the last time you saw a basketball or football player sitting cross-legged? For me, it's another example of how baseball players are like regular guys. That doesn't mean they are refined. One look at the dugout floor is enough to put you off your bread and jam for a week. But it suggest a kind of ease and comfort with each other that is appealing.

Oh, here's something that should enrage Derek Jeter's many critics. The shortstop was charged with an error in the second inning when he couldn't field a hard-hit ball by Joe Crede (who made three fine plays at third base himself). Joe Torre lobbied to have the call reversed after the game, and the official scorer, Bill Shannon, complied. To be fair, it was a tough error, but it seems cheesy to have it over-turned. But I understand what Torre was doing. He understands that Jeter is going to take a lot of flack this year for his fielding, and he is trying his best to protect his guy.

Down in Baltimore, the Orioles walked on by the Sox in thirteen innings, and in Atlanta, the Braves beat the Mets for the second consecutive night. The hot-hitting Mike Piazza did collect two more hits, however.

Home Opener
2004-04-08 12:37
by Alex Belth

I won't be able to catch the game this afternoon. Can you imagine: I've got to work. Ugh and oy. But for those of you who will be watching it, please feel free to leave updates and observations in the comments section below. I would appreciate it. I'm especially interested in how our man Vasquez performs. Go Yanks.

Yanks 3, Devil Rays 2
2004-04-08 08:38
by Alex Belth

It wasn't pretty, or especially impressive, but it was a win. The Yankee offense hasn't started rolling yet, though Jason Giambi is looking a heck of a lot better than he did at this time last year. Kevin Brown was excellent again, and has been as good as Mike Mussina has been bad. Mariano Rivera allowed three hits and a run in the ninth, but escaped disaster when Brook Fordyce bounced into a double play to end the game. Previously, Alex Rodriguez allowed Eduardo Perez's shot down the third base line to skip under his glove. According to the Times:

Rodriguez dived to his right but could not stop the ball. "That's a play I need to make, and I'm not making it," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez did turn the game-ended double play however. Gary Sheffield and Say Hey! Bernie "Snow Cone" Williams made nice plays in the outfield during the sixth inning.

The Yankees will play their home opener this afternoon against the White Sox. Magglio Ordonez and Frank "17-pitch at-bat" Thomas bring the lumber into the Bronx for a four-game series. (Thanks to "Clutch Hits" for the Thomas link.)

Meanwhile, Roger Clemens pitched well in his first start as an Astro. After intentionally walking Barry Bonds, Clemens struck out the greatest player on earth in the next two at bats. Bonds was called out both times, and both calls---particularly the first one---were questionable.

I actually enjoyed watching Clemens pitch. It's nice being able to see him without being invested in the outcome. Of course, before he came to the Yankees, I loathed the guy. But now, I don't have any hard feelings toward him. Curiously, I'll root for the Rocket more this year than I will for Pettitte. Those who read Bronx Banter throughout the 2003 season know that Pettitte was one of the few Yankees than I liked less and less as time passed. Early in his career, Pettitte was a favorite. He was a home-grown player and his game 5 performance in the 1996 World Serious went a long way, right? But all of that good faith had dried up by last season. He was a good pitcher, but not the ace I had expected him to be. Perhaps that is unfair of me, but for all his success, Pettitte was maddeningly inconsistent, and I just never liked watching him pitch.

Furthermore, I'm still put off by the fact that he chose the Astros over the Yankees, no matter how valid his reasons were. Look, if he does well, that's great, but I won't be shedding any tears if he has a terrible season. And to be honest, I'm rooting for him to be mediocre. I may change my mind, but for now, that's how I feel.

The Red Sox rolled over the O's, and the Mets couldn't hold a big lead, and got bombed by the Braves. At least Mike Piazza is blazing hot, going 5-5, with two homers. The second shot was the longest in the history of Turner Field.

Opening Day Redux: D-Rays Cream Mussina, Yanks
2004-04-07 08:41
by Alex Belth

Devil Rays 9, Yanks 4

Staked to a four-run, first-inning lead, things were looking good for Mike Mussina and the Bombers. But the Yankee ace was off his game again. When he was ahead of hitters, he couldn't put them away; but often, he fell behind them, unable to locate a tepid fastball, and his breaking pitches. Mussina lasted four innings, and allowed six runs on nine hits. He walked two and struck out one. After the game, he told reporters:

"Nobody's more upset about the way I'm pitching than I am," said Mussina, who unraveled again in the Yankees' 9-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday night. "I know it's early. I know it's only two games and all that. But I don't pitch like this. It's upsetting."

Mussina has not lost the first two decisions of the season since his rookie year. How likely is it that he would pitch so poorly in two consecutive games? Not very. I expect he'll bounce back shortly. The bullpen wasn't especially sharp either, though Jorge De Paula was decent.

The top of the first inning felt like a blueprint for how this Yankee offense will operate when they are on their game this season. Kenny Lofton lead off and flew out on a full-count pitch. Victor Zambrano walked Jeter, and then Alex Rodriguez pounded an outside fastball over the right field fence to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Next, Giambi worked the count full, fouled off an outside fastball and then walked. Gary Sheffield swatted the first pitch he saw--a fastball eye-high over the plate--into the right-center field stands, and the Yankees were quickly up, 4-zip.

I let out a yell when Sheffield hit his homer. It was a real "Hasan-Chop!" hack. It looked as if the Yankees were going to blow the game open in the bottom of the second. With two out, Jeter and Rodriguez walked and then Giambi just got under one and flew out to the wall. I yelled again, but my "home-run-call" timing was rusty; I snapped my fingers--"drat"--and sat back down.

The Yankees would only collect two more hits after the first inning (Bernie, Giambi), and overall it was a frustrating evening. The worst swings of the night came from Enrique Wilson, who was doing his best Ruben Sierra impression, swining from his heels (ironically, Sierra pinch-hit for Wilson and did his best Wilson impression and went down swinging on a swing that produced a mighty wind). Zambrano walked a career-high seven, in five innings of work, but the Yankees were unable to capitalize.

The one thing that did impress me was Rodriguez's arm at third. He pegs the ball over to first with power and accuracy. I can't remember the last Yankee third baseman who had that strong of an arm. Can you?

Elsewhere, Andy Pettitte was not effective in his Astro debut, and Houston fell to the Giants for the second straight night. As I expected, Curt Schilling pitched well in his first start as a Red Sox, and Boston won their first game of the year (Manager Terry Francona spoke with Pedro Martinez, and the first non-story of the year appears to be resolved). And in Atlanta, Kaz Matsui smacked the first pitch of his major league career over the wall in straight-away center for a dinger. He had a perfect night, going 3-3 with two walks as Tom Glavine and the Mets beat the Braves. Mike Piazza also homered and it was a good night for Met fans.

The Bombers are Back
2004-04-06 08:44
by Alex Belth

According to the New York Times, the Yankees may be interested in signing Aaron Boone to play second base. Tyler Kepner reports:

General Manager Brian Cashman expressed interest to Boone's agent, Adam Katz, when Katz called last week. Cashman said his interest in Boone is primarily for next season, and that if the Yankees signed him, it would be to a two-year deal.

"It's nothing extensive at this point, but just a recognition that he's going to be back," Cashman said. "I don't know if he's going to be back this year. Any thoughts I would have are more toward next year."

Meanwhile, the Yankee season resumes tonight in Tampa Bay. Opening Day starters, Mike Mussina and Carlos Zambrano will face off again, and Bernie Williams returns to the Yankee line up as the DH (yay!).

I can't wait to watch the game.

Trouble in Mind

There is a long, but wonderfully entertaining interview with historian Glenn Stout over at (kudos to the guys at Red Sox Nation, they did a terrific job). I like Stout because he's a good writer, and a straight-shooter. For starters, he isn't one of the dreamers pining for a Cubs-Sox World Serious this year:

GS: I think a Cubs/Sox World Series would be over-hyped to the point it would almost be unendurable -- definitely a Series to watch only with the sound off and with the newspapers left piling up in the driveway. But I don’t think losing to the Cubs would be worse than what happened last year -- let’s face it, the ALCS was the World Series last year, the Red Sox and Yankees were the two best teams in baseball and that series was one of the most compelling in the history of the game.

Further, here is Stout's take on the current Red Sox team:

RSN: The 1967 “Impossible Dream” team was as beloved and storybook as any in team history. How do they compare to the 2003 squad in terms of team chemistry and the adoration of the fans?

GS: I don’t think the 2003 team compares at all, really. I think much of the vaunted “chemistry” was marketing BS, the result of a protective press and the club’s ability to keep problems below the radar. 1967 was real and genuine and happened all on its own. 1967 will never be forgotten; 2003 will just be another year in the larger view, albeit a painful one.

RSN: What is your opinion of the 2003 Red Sox?

GS: Personally, I never bought into last years’ team. I never saw they were all that different from dozens of Sox clubs’ over much of the last century -- they were a slow, poor defensive team built around hitting and self-obsessed stars with not enough pitching. I didn’t see anything new in any of that.

On that note, the Red Sox are making headlines today for all the wrong reasons. Evidentally, Pedro Martinez left the ballpark in the middle of the game on Sunday night. Dan Shaughnessy asks: "Why does this stuff always happen with the Red Sox? Why can't it just be about the baseball? Even for one day." Does new manager Terry Francona really have a situation on his hands? Nick Cafardo reports in the Globe:

Now the public is waiting to see how Francona handles this, just as it waited to see how Grady Little handled Manny Ramirez's situation last season. A couple of Sox players were also interested in how their new manager would handle the situation, one indicating, "I don't think it's a big deal, but right off the bat Terry has to handle a situation. I know he'll handle it and be fair because that's the way he's been so far."

Sox fans should feel better by tonight, when Curt Schilling makes his first start for the old towne team.

Oh yeah, it didn't take Barry Bonds long to pick up where he left off last season, huh?

O's Thump Bosox in Opener
2004-04-05 13:08
by Alex Belth

The Red Sox lost a poorly-played season opener to the Orioles in Baltimore last night. Migeul Tejada, Javey Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro all played well in their Baltimore debuts (for Palmeiro, it is a redebut of sorts). Pedro Martinez wasn't sharp in the second inning, and although he managed to escape major trouble, it was enough to do Boston in. What hurt more were all the scoring opportunities the Red Sox wasted. Considering how good their offense is, that is not likely to happen often.

I sat in for Larry Mahnken this morning in the weekly column he writes with Ben Jacobs about the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry over at The Hardball Times. Ben put it well when he said the loss was more annoying than anything else. Ed Cossette isn't too bothered either.

I didn't watch all of the game, but I did enjoy seeing hairy Johnny Damon. He's really too much, this guy. Talk about a guy who is going above and beyond to cultivate an image as the anti-Yankee; it's good to see that the spirit of Bill Lee is still alive and well in Boston. My favorite play of the game came when Miguel Tejada flew out to deep center to end the second inning. Damon, running towards the track, recorded the out, and then jumped at the fence like he was taking a lay up, and dropped the ball in a fan's lap.

2004-04-04 22:31
by Alex Belth

Opening Day Special

Play Ball

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Bill James, the world's most famous sabermetrician. James is a wonderful writer who is currently employed as a special advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His latest book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers," written with Rob Neyer is due out later this spring. I thought our discussion would make ideal banter on the first full day of the season. Hope you enjoy.

Bronx Banter: Where did you grow up and when did you become a baseball fan?

Bill James: I grew up in Mayetta, Kansas, a town of about 200 people. I became a baseball fan in the spring of 1961, when POST cereals put baseball cards on the back of their cereal boxes. I was just completely captured by them.

BB: Who were your favorite writers, and players growing up?

BJ: Among my first favorite players were Tito Francona, Minnie Minoso, Warren Spahn, Ron Santo, Norm Siebern, Jerry Lumpe and Dick Howser. Among my favorite writers were Jim Murray, whose column was syndicated in the Topeka paper, which I saw every day, and a couple of local guys. . .Jim Hentzen and Dev Nelson.

BB: Can you talk about the influence that Jim Murray and Leonard Koppett had on you.

BJ: Jim Murray was somebody that I read every day in the time when I was learning to write. Murray was a very talented man, able to make almost any subject entertaining by swinging wildly through an unusual mix of figures of speech. From this I learned a) How to construct a figure of speech, and b) The value of not letting an article get too linear, too straight. But what I do is, in a sense, almost the opposite of what Murray did. Murray picked a position on an issue and honed in on it like a laser, logic be damned. I'm the exact opposite; I start with the issue itself and dance all around it before I approach a conclusion. What I do is more like what Koppett did.

BB: Were you a fan of “Sport” magazine during the 1960s and 70s? In particular, did you enjoy Ed Linn and Ray Robinson? Also, who were your favorite radio and TV announcers growing up?

BJ: I'm a huge fan of Ed Linn. Greatest baseball books ever written--"Nice Guys Finish Last," "Veeck as in Wreck," "Thirty Tons a Day." I read Sport magazine religiously from 1961 to 1967, which contained a lot of Ed Linn and Arnold Hano. These guys weren't looking for a quick hit; they wanted to really take on the subject.

BB: I read Maury Wills’ biography "On the Run" this winter because you made mention of it in one of your books. He claims to have revolutionized the game stealing all those bases. Is that accurate? Do you think Lou Brock rode on Wills' coattails?

BJ: It is not accurate in my opinion. The stolen base revolution started more with Aparicio than with Wills, and was driven mostly by the conditions of the game. Runs were scarce; therefore it made sense to try to manufacture them. Brock was always generous in crediting Wills, and it is impossible to step between them in this way, and say that Brock did NOT owe to Wills what he was so willing to pay to him. But I always thought he had overstated his debt to Wills, frankly. Wills made a huge deal out of getting the biggest possible lead, and he would lecture anyone who would listen about how to get the biggest possible lead. Brock, as a young player, tried to copy that; he tried to study pitchers, as Wills had, and figure out how to get the biggest possible lead. But eventually Brock realized that this was a mistake, that getting a big lead was delaying his break from first base, and that it was much more productive to "time" the pitcher and get an early jump from first than it was to get a big lead. Suppose that two guys are sitting at an intersection, trying to get away quickly when the light turns green. One guys sticks his bumper as far as possible into the intersection and revs his engine. The other guy lays back, waits for the cross streetlight to turn yellow, then gets a rolling start. Who gets away quicker? Of course, the guy who lays back and gets a rolling start gets away much quicker. Same thing; Wills was the guy who tried to get as far into the intersection as he could, never realizing that this was nailing him down in terms of getting an early getaway. Brock finally realized he could steal more

BB: I only remember Brock in his last year, but I grew up watching Rickey Henderson, Rock Raines and Vince Coleman. Do you think baseball will return to the stylistic balance of the 70s and 80s, or will it indefinitely remain a power game?

BJ: I am absolutely certain that neither of those will happen.

BB: Speaking of small ball, do you think Negro League stats will ever be collated in a way that would allow a good analyst to filter the noise out and compare them in some meaningful way to major league stats? Is this project worthwhile or does it just ask a false question?

BJ: I doubt that it can be done. The problem is not simply missing events. The gaps are more profound than that. The schedule was never very regular. You simply don't have 150-game samples against relatively balanced competition. The games were never played that way. One can never guess what the people of the future will know, and certainly much progress has been made, and certainly more progress will be made. But I don't see how these stats could ever be pulled up to something approximating the level of American or National League stats from that era.

BB: What do you make of the wealth of baseball writing on the Internet? Does it hold any interest for you?

BJ: I can't keep up. Reading stuff on the Internet is not natural to me, as it is to younger people. There are zero web sites that I check every day. Also--and this is one of the most critical differences between myself and regular journalists--I can't keep current on what could be called the general baseball discussion, and I make very little effort to do so. I never have. Why? Limited brain cells. I'm not that smart; I have a limited number of synapses. I always figure if you fill them up with stuff that's going to change in 24 hours, you have less capacity to really think about the problems you are trying to puzzle through. I know what the BIG stories in the game are, but the little stories that come and go. . .I can't keep track of them, and I don't try to.

BB: The amount of baseball writing on the net is overwhelming. I follow the Yankees, and yet there is so much about the team--like their minor league system--that I very little about. It amazes me that some guys can write with authority about more than one team, let alone an entire league. Do you follow of all the stories--large and small--with the Red Sox however? Do you know what's going on with the team through your relationship with the front office, or do you read the Boston press to find out the scoop?

BJ: Well, I communicate with the front office every day, usually many times a day. But even with the Red Sox, sometimes I miss stuff. Following up on the earlier question. . .you were close to something worth talking about there. It is the instinct of all young writers to walk toward the game, to get as close as possible to the game, to immerse themselves in it. This instinctive behavior then becomes a commandment of sports journalism: they assume, because they're all doing it, that this must be the right thing to do. I'm sure it is the right thing to do--for them. But I made the decision, 25 years ago or more, to do the opposite: to walk AWAY from the game. I study the game passionately and thoroughly and without end--but from a distance. My decision was to try to see the game as an astronaut would see the planet earth--that is, with a different perspective. Try to see the big picture. Constantly immersing yourself in the details of day-to-day news coverage interferes with your ability to see the bigger picture of the game, at least for me.

BB: During the 2003 season, was your experience working with the Red Sox front office different from what you expected it to be?

BJ: This question requires me to think in ways that I simply don't think.

BB: After all those years as a baseball "outsider" what's it like to be on the inside?

BJ: Different.

BB: How many Red Sox games did you watch/attend?

BJ: I saw 23 Red Sox games in person, I believe--3 in Kansas City, 1 in Oakland, and 19 in Boston. I watched all or virtually all of the Red Sox games on TV, taped them and studied them.

BB: Are you enjoying your work with the Red Sox?

BJ: Very, very much. I love Boston. I hate traveling, but I love being in Boston once I get there. And the people I work with there, from John Henry and Theo down to the shoelaces of the organization, have just been fantastic.

BB: Have you met any of the players on the Red Sox personally? Does meeting and talking with ballplayers interest you?

BJ: Ballplayers are simply people. They are as interesting as your neighbors, as interesting as the people you work with--no more and no less.

BB: Other than when Derek Lowe is on the hill, there has been a good deal of debate as to whether second baseman Pokey Reese is as valuable to the Red Sox as he might be to another team. Will his defense be all that valuable behind pitchers such as Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, neither of whom relies on keeping the ball on the ground to retire the opposition?

BJ: Well, certainly it is going to be MORE of a priority to maximize the infield defense when Lowe is on the mound. But every pitcher appreciates (and needs) defensive support, and we do have other ground ball pitchers, such as Kim and Mendoza. We get an average or above-average number of ground balls. We're going to go into the bottom of the ninth with a one-run lead sometimes, and we'll want the best defense out there no matter who is on the mound.

BB: You've always championed players like Brain Downing, who was great with the Angels in the eighties. Are there any players like that on the current Sox team? Which Red Sox players are you especially fond of watching?

BJ: My favorite player to watch on the Red Sox is Jason Varitek. Jason has a lot of hustle and a lot of leadership, plus he has a lot of subtle skills that you don't see unless you focus on him.

BB: What subtle skills does Varitek possess?

BJ: I don't know if I can describe it. He's very interactive with the other parts of the game. He interacts with the umpire. He interacts with the other infielders. He interacts with the dugout. He interacts with the pitcher. Of course, much of this is the nature of the catcher's position, but there are catchers who just go through the motions. Jason's very alert to how all of those other parts of the game are moving, always looking for ways to contribute.

BB: You have a book that you’ve written with Rob Neyer coming out this spring called the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. What does this book give us that we've never had before?

BJ: A source for specific information about pitchers--who threw a curve ball, who threw a slider, who threw a change. Not on a hit-and-miss, catch-as-catch-can basis, but systematically and thoroughly.

BB: What can we do with it? Will it be a useful tool for further understanding of the game?

BJ: Well, we would certainly hope so. Suppose that you want to study the question of whether the screwball is hard on the arm, or the question of whether pitchers whose best pitch is a sinker reach their peak later than pitchers who best pitch is a curve. This book gives you a starting place to research those questions, or any of a thousand others.

BB: In view of the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers book soon to be published, do you think that a deception pitch like Rip Sewell's eephus ball could ever be effective in today's game?

BJ: Oh, absolutely. Beyond any question it could.

BB: I wanted to ask one Yankee question. In Ben McGrath’s New Yorker profile on you which appeared last summer, you said something about how people in Kansas City root against New York more than they do in Boston. Or something to that effect. Have you hated either the Yankees or New York City since you were a kid?

BJ: Well, I love New York City, to begin with, and I wouldn't exactly say that I hate the Yankees. I root passionately against the Yankees, and I have since I was a small child. It's like, if you're watching a car race. . .if you hate somebody you root for them to have an accident. I've never rooted for the Yankees to have a car accident. I just want them to lose.

BB: Like Downing, I know you’ve always liked Bernie Williams. Do you think he’ll be a hall of famer?

BJ: Well, I try to stay out of Hall of Fame arguments. Bernie Williams is one of my favorite players, but I think it is clear that he is not a Hall of Famer based on what he has accomplished yet. He starts the 2004 season with 1,950 career hits. That's not a Hall of Fame number. Maybe it is if you're Sam Thompson and you drive in a fantastic number of runs; maybe it is if you're Earle Combs and the Hall of Fame voters don't know any better. But in general, Bernie's numbers are nowhere near Hall of Fame standards.

The Greatest Show on...the East Coast
2004-04-02 08:50
by Alex Belth

Gordon Edes has a nice, long column today about the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. Dan Shaughnessy, Michael Holley, and Jackie MacMullen chime in as well. Meanwhile in New York, John Harper takes a look at Pedro Martinez. Lock and load folks, here we go again: All the Hype you have to hate. (And just luuuvv too.)

Cooperstown Confidential
2004-04-01 13:04
by Alex Belth

By Bruce Markusen
Spring Training Edition

From Madness To A Miracle?

After the stench of last year’s odious mess at Shea Stadium, fans of the New York Mets should be excused for excessive hyperventilation this spring. For the first time since the pennant-winning season of 2000, the Mets have a team that borders on the likeable. More importantly, they may have the makings of a club that can set a reasonable goal of competing for the National League’s wild card berth. Yes, it’s amazing what can happen when a new front office adds one of the game’s three best defensive center fielders, finds a powerful rookie shortstop who resembles nothing close to the feeble limitations of Rey Ordonez, and fortifies a shredded bullpen with a playoff-tested veteran and a group of hardball-humming youngsters.

At the very least, the Mets will be a much improved defensive team in 2004. Mike Cameron, who’s used to playing spacious outfields, should have little trouble making the transition to the tricky winds and mind-numbing airplane noise of Shea Stadium; the Mets can point to pages of statistical analysis that declare Cameron as the game’s best defensive center fielder. With Japanese sensation Kaz Matsui and sophomore stud Jose Reyes (assuming his hamstring problems don’t become chronic) manning the middle infield, the Mets may have the kind of athleticism and range that the rival Yankees can only dream about at second and short. (Let’s just hope that Super Joe McEwing receives a minimum of playing time this summer.) The decision to flip-flop Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips is long overdue, improving the team’s catching while doing minimal damage to first base. And if Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia end up platooning in right field, they’ll be more than adequate (and better than wrong-way Roger Cedeno); both are limited in range, but are surehanded and can throw, with Garcia possessing one of the game’s most underrated outfield arms.

All of the past transactions aside, the Mets may have some options on the trading block for future improvements. Several teams have called to inquire about the availability of Vance Wilson, one of the National League’s better backup catchers. The Mets are saying no for now, but they’ll change their minds for the right price, knowing that they have both Phillips and Piazza available to catch immediately, with top prospect Justin Huber primed for arrival in 2005. The Mets also have depth in their bullpen, thanks in part to the luring of ex-Marlin Braden Looper, which is always a nice springtime commodity. Some members of the Mets’ brass would like to make room for 26-year-old Orber Moreno, who has resuscitated his career after suffering a torn labrum during his days with the Royals. (And no, he’s no relation to “Omar the Outmaker,” the original O. Moreno.) The much improved Grant Roberts is one pitcher who has drawn interest from other teams; he could end up as the Mets’ fifth starter, in the bullpen, or in some other major league market during the season. Tyler Yates is another attractive commodity to rival clubs, but the Mets have no intention of trading the hard-throwing right-hander, who will probably start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

With catching and pitching to spare, what do the Mets want in return? They’re still on the lookout for outfield help and have talked to the Blue Jays about Jayson Werth, who’s out of options but is still only 24, and to the Pirates about Sabermetric favorite Craig Wilson, who just can’t seem to win the favor of manager Lloyd McClendon. Both Werth and the underrated Wilson would make sense in right field, either as everyday players or in a platoon with Garcia. Another possibility is Baltimore’s Jay Gibbons, who can be had for the right package of young pitching. A left-handed swinger, Gibbons could platoon with Spencer, who has never mastered right-handed pitching (a .313 OBP and a .371 slugging mark over the past three years)—and probably never will.

Like hundreds of other professional teams, the Mets are also interested in bolstering their starting rotation. They’re not convinced that Roberts, Aaron Heilman, or Scott Erickson are answers as potential fifth starters, but also realize that the springtime market for starting pitching is about as thin as Kent Tekulve’s waistline at diet time. If the Mets can establish themselves as an early-season contender, they might think seriously of putting together a package that could bring them someone like Montreal’s Livan Hernandez or the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo later in the summer. A rotation featuring either Hernandez or Nomo, along with Al Leiter, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, and Jae Seo, might be good enough to let Mets fans breathe even more heavily in the humid summer air of Shea Stadium.

The Rumor Mill

Two interesting trade scenarios made the rounds last week, both of the interleague variety. According to the St. Louis Cardinals newsletter (, the Redbirds have had talks with Anaheim about a six-player deal that would land Adam Kennedy, Darin Erstad, and Jarrod Washburn in St. Louis, with Bo Hart, Woody Williams, and another player downloading in Southern California. Unless that third player is one of the Cardinals’ top-notch prospects, the “ST.” in St. Louis should signify STEAL. Kennedy, who is only 28, is a much better hitter and defender than Hart, who has struggled in the spring after a sensational debut in 2003. The athletic Erstad could fill the Cardinals’ gaping hole in left field, or take over in center, allowing Jim Edmonds to slide over. While Erstad is really not suited to batting leadoff, he’s better than the Cardinals’ current leadoff options, which are currently nonexistent (and weren’t helped by the recent acquisition of Tony Womack). The Williams-for-Washburn part of the deal might give the Cardinals some cause for hesitation, but the 29-year-old Washburn is eight years younger than Williams and would provide some balance to an all-right-handed rotation… Another interesting rumor involved the Dodgers and Royals, who were said to be discussing a swap of Carlos Beltran for LA’s two top prospects, pitcher Edwin Jackson and first baseman James Loney. While Beltran would do wonders for the Dodgers’ moribund offense, there’s no way that Los Angeles can surrender two minor league studs (one of whom, Jackson, is ready to pitch in the majors) for a player who might be nothing more than a one-year rental. As Baseball Primer’s Eric Enders points out, the Dodgers could reasonably expect to give up either Jackson or Loney, but certainly not both, in trying to lasso one of the game’s great center fielders.

Card Corner—Everything in Repoz

In this week’s segment, I’ll pay tribute to Baseball Primer’s historian extraordinaire and collector of obscure references, “Repoz” (AKA Darren Viola), by featuring one of the Topps cards for the original Repoz—the lyrically named Roger Repoz (pronounced re-POZE). Thirty-five years ago, Topps issued its 1969 card (No. 103 in the set) for the California Angels slugger, who was at one time a top prospect in the Yankees’ organization. Regarded by some as the next Roger Maris, the hawk-nosed Repoz settled for a career that was more like that of Roger Freed or Roger Cedeno (well, perhaps not that bad). As if the Maris comparisons weren’t stressful enough, many writers and fans began referring to Repoz as the “next Mickey Mantle,” in part because of the blonde crew cut and powerful pull swing that he and Mantle shared. Playing for the Toledo Mud Hens and employing a newfound batting stance in 1965, Repoz emerged as a top-flight Yankee prospect, prompting manager Frank Verdi to call him the best everyday player in the International League and soon earning him a mid-season promotion to the Yankees. (Curiously, the Yankees made room for Repoz by sending mediocre infielder Horace Clarke to the minor leagues; that exchange itself should have been a harbinger of doom.) Repoz seemed like a can’t-miss superstar in waiting. An excellent defensive outfielder with the speed to play center field, Repoz also owned the kind of left-handed pull hitter’s swing that made him a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium… So what happened to Repoz? Using a smooth, picturesque stroke but often changing his batting stance, Repoz struck out too much, tried to pull the ball too frequently, couldn’t touch left-handers, and struggled to lift his average above the .220 mark. Quickly realizing that he would never transform himself into Mantle or Maris, the Yankees traded Repoz to the Kansas City A’s, who soon sent him to the Angels for pitcher Jack Sanford and outfielder Jack Warner (not the actor). Repoz’ fortunes continued to flutter in Anaheim, but he did play better for the Angels than he had for the Yankees. In 1968, the year before this Topps card was issued, Repoz put together his finest season, an ironic occurrence given the development of “The Year of the Pitcher.” He batted a not-so-terrible.240 and reached career highs with 13 home runs and 54 RBIs, totals that would have been even higher if he had not missed nearly 30 games while serving as a private first class in the National Guard. In assessing his 1968 breakout, Repoz gave much of the credit to his use of an Exer-Genie, an exercise machine developed by NASA for astronauts who needed to work out in the confined quarters of a spacecraft… After a miserable 1969 season—the only bright spot was a career-high 60 walks—Repoz rebounded in 1970, launching a career-high 18 home runs in 407 at-bats. The Angels rewarded his power surge by trading for Gold Glove center fielder Ken Berry (again, the ballplayer, not the actor who played on F-Troop), which made him the odd man out in the Angels’ outfield. With Berry flanked by Alex Johnson in left and Tony Conigliaro in right, Repoz’ days as an everyday “Angel in the Outfield” had come to an abrupt end… By 1972, Repoz’ career reached a crossroads. Now sporting some of the worst sideburns in the game (see his final Topps card in 1972) and no longer in California’s plans, Repoz found himself traded to the Orioles’ organization, where he resurfaced in minor league Rochester. Playing for the Triple-A Red Wings, Repoz earned the nickname “Rocket Man” because of the lengthening distance of his home runs. In August, he took a backward turn, enduring a 4-for-45 slump that resulted in a barrage of boos from Rochester fans… Repoz’ 1972 struggles convinced him to seek employment in another country. He signed an incredible contract for $123,000 with the Taimeiyo Lions of the Japanese Leagues, making him more highly paid than many established stars in the major leagues. Of course, the big 1973 contract brought a new set of expectations in Japan, where fans no longer anticipated that he’d become the “next Mickey Mantle” but merely expected him to emerge as the “next Sadaharu Oh.” Yeeesh… By the way, the current-day “Repoz” should be writing a column of his own. Send him an e-mail and tell him the same thing.

The Nickname Game—Crazy Like A Horse

Earlier this month, Mike Cuellar’s name entered the realm of sports news when Jim Palmer mistakenly referred to him as one of three former teammates and coaches who had died from the ill effects of smoking. (Palmer also mentioned Dave McNally and Cal Ripken Sr. but probably meant to include Mark Belanger instead of Cuellar.) Thankfully, Cuellar is alive and well, and working as an attendant for a golf course in Florida. In addition to being one of the best pitchers of the late 1960s and early 1970s—he had a terrific screwball—Cuellar owned one of the most colorful nicknames of that era; he was referred to as “Crazy Horse” by many of his Baltimore teammates. For an explanation, let’s turn to James Skipper’s wonderfully useful book, Baseball Nicknames, published by McFarland. Skipper cites research done by a man named David Petreman, who uncovered the origin of the nickname. According to Petreman, Cuellar believed strongly in the spirit of a special baseball cap, which he felt that he had to wear in any game he pitched. On one occasion, Cuellar forgot this particular cap and demanded that the Orioles fly the cap back to Baltimore before he would pitch in his next scheduled start. With beliefs like that, the moniker of “Crazy Horse” soon evolved… At least one other major leaguer was known by the nickname of Crazy Horse. Journeyman shortstop Tim Foli was given the appellation during his early days with the Mets, and the label stuck for most of his career, which included stops in Montreal, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, California, and the Bronx. Unlike Cuellar, Foli didn’t possess overly superstitious tendencies, but he did have a feisty temper that bordered on the extreme. Foli’s legendary tantrums made him a logical candidate for the title of Crazy Horse.

Pastime Passings
Gene Bearden (Died on March 18 in Alexander City, Alabama; age 83): Bearden compiled one of the most memorable rookie seasons in baseball history, winning 20 games with a league-leading 2.43 ERA in 1948. Bearden’s unexpected excellence, both during the regular season and the World Series, helped the Indians’ organization to its last World Championship. A left-hander with an overwhelming knuckleball, the 28-year-old Bearden pitched a tie-breaking play-off game against the Boston Red Sox on one day’s rest, receiving the nod over expected starter, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. Bearden’s five-hit performance lifted the Indians to the 1948 American League pennant, setting the stage for a World Series encounter against the Milwaukee Braves. In the third game of the Series, Bearden pitched a five-hit shutout and banged out a double and a single at the plate. He then pitched in relief in Game Six, recording the final five outs of the game to wrap up the World Championship for the Tribe… Unfortunately, Bearden never again matched the success of his rookie season. Often struggling with control of his knuckleball and knuckle-curve, Bearden twice led the league in wild pitches and never won more than eight games in a single season. Later pitching for the Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox, he finished his journeyman career in 1953, forging a career record of 45-38 with an ERA of 3.96.

Roxie Campanella (Died on March 14 in Woodland Hills, California; age 77; cancer): The widow of Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, Mrs. Campanella helped operate the Roy and Roxie Campanella Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping the victims of spinal cord injuries. The foundation had been established after the three-time Most Valuable Player suffered career-ending paralysis following a 1958 car accident. Even after Roy’s death in 1993, Roxie continued to run the foundation and remained a prominent public figure in her later years, often attending Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, New York, and making frequent visits to Dodger Stadium.

Vedie Himsl (Died in March; age 86): Operating under the Chicago Cubs’ unusual rotating “College of Coaches” in the early 1960s, Himsl was designated to serve as the team’s “head coach” for the first two weeks of the 1961 season. Under his leadership, the Cubs won five games and lost six to start the season. Himsl was then replaced by Harry Craft, but then returned to the head coach’s chair for stints of 17 games and three games later in the summer.

Hersh Freeman (Died on January 17 in Orlando, Florida; age 75): A relief pitcher during the 1950s, Freeman toiled for the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs. The tall right-hander reached the pinnacle of his career in 1956, when he won 14 of 19 decisions for the Reds and notched 18 saves while logging over 108 innings. Two years later, the Reds traded Freeman to the Cubs for fellow pitcher Turk Lown. After his playing days, Freeman went to work for a juvenile detention home and as a high school baseball coach.

And Another Thing
The Hall of Fame will have a special visitor this spring, as acclaimed actor James Earl Jones comes to Cooperstown to take part in a Legends Series event. A veteran of several baseball films, Jones will be interviewed by film critic Jeffrey Lyons in a program exclusively for Friends of the Hall of Fame members on Saturday, April 17. Jones will discuss his role in three baseball-themed movies, including Field of Dreams (which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year), The Sandlot, and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Friends of the Hall of Fame members can reserve tickets beginning April 5 by calling 607-547-0397.

Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at and at Borders Books. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams (Greenwood Press) is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004.

2004-04-01 08:55
by Alex Belth

Don Malcolm has an interesting analysis of the 2004 Red Sox over at Baseball Primer. He isn't convinced that Boston is as good as many people think they are. Sadly--and I'm not being facetious---Nomar Garciaparra was placed on the DL (joining Trot Nixon) with Achilles' tendinitis:

"It will be three weeks without playing in games, for sure," Epstein said. "It's similar to Trot's situation. The whole point of an aggressive rest and rehab routine like this is to knock the injury out. It's a long season. It's a long career. We want to make sure we put this behind us so it doesn't become more chronic."

..."The doctor ordered a lot of rest and sitting on my couch," Garciaparra said. "He says he'll talk to me once a week. I'm sure it'll be more to make sure I am sitting on my couch, which I will be. It'll definitely be hard, but I'll be cheering them on."

Pedro Martinez was smacked around in his last outing of the spring. Michael Holley has a good piece on the mercurial Dominican in the Boston Globe this morning. Jayson Stark reports:

Behind the plate, a section full of scouts scratched their heads. Martinez had touched 90 mph on just a couple of fastballs. He delivered them from an arm slot noticeably lower than the Pedro of old.

"I could never give that guy a three-year contract," said one scout. "He's got two years left in him. Tops."

...Pitching coach Dave Wallace chalked it all up to a case of the "spring-training yips."

"He's just anxious to get going and get through spring training," Wallace said. "I've seen a lot of strange stuff happen this time of year."

But this was, in reality, as strange as it gets. And Martinez's body language had communicated real frustration -- such as the time he got so irritated over not getting a low strike call from plate ump Marty Foster that he caught Varitek's toss back to the mound with his bare hand.

Never a dull moment with Martinez and the Red Sox, huh? Yankee fans should resist the temptation to feel smug here. I suspect that Boston and New York will go back-and-forth sending players to the DL during the season. Like Boss George says, it's how you finish that counts.

Stir it Up
2004-04-01 08:31
by Alex Belth

I went back and re-read Robert Ward's infamous "Reggie Jackson in No-Man's Land" article last night (it is in Glenn Stout's collection of Yankee writing, "Top of the Heap"). Man, it's still funny. They sure don't make 'em like Jackson--or Billy the Kid, for that matter--anymore. Ward spoke with Jackson during the slugger's first spring training with the Yankees, but the article didn't appear until June (in Sport magazine), by which time tensions had eased considerably between Jackson and Thurman Munson. When the piece came out, the feud was fired up all over again. It would continue throughout the 1977 season, ending of course when Jackson hit four home runs on four consecutive pitches (with a base on balls inbetween) as the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Serious.

Anyhow, here are some of Reggie's finest moments from the article:

"I've got problems other guys don't have. I've go this big image that comes before me, and I've got to adjust to it. Or what it has been projected to be. That's not 'me' really, but I've got to deal with it. Also, I used to be known as a black athlete, now I'm respected as a tremendoous intellect.

...You know...this flows from me. I've got to keep it all going. I'm the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson...but really he doesn't enter into it. He's being so damned insecure about the whole thing. I've overheard him talking about me...I'll hear him telling some other writer tha he wants it to be known that he's the captain of the team, that he knows what's best. Stuff like that. And when anybody knocks me, he'll laugh real loud so that I can hear it...

You see, that is the way I am. I'm a leader, and I can't lie down...but 'leader' isn't the right's a matter of PRESENCE...Let me put it this way: No team I am on will ever be humilated the way the Yankees were by the Reds in the World Series! That's why Munson can't intimidate me. Nobody can. you can't psyche me. You take me one-on-one in the pit, and I'll whip you...It's an attitude, really...It's the way the manager looks at you when you come into the room...It's the way the coaches and the batboy look at you...The way your name trickles through the crowd when you wait in the batter's box...It's all that...The way the Yankees were humilated by the Reds? You think that doesn't bother Billy Martin. He's no fool. He's smart. Very smart. And he's a winner. Munson's tough, too. He is a winner, but there is just nobody who can do for a club what I can do...There is nobody who can put meat in the seats [fans in the stands] the way I can. That's just the way it is...Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir bad."

Catfish Hunter, who had played with Jackson in Oakland years before, told Ward, "The thing you have to understand about Reggie is that he wants everyone to love him."

Alex Rodriguez is no Reggie Jackson, but I get the feeling that he wants everybody to love him too. I don't think Rodriguez is capable to making any "straw that stirs the drink" comments, but I wouldn't put it past him for his mouth (insecurities) to get him in trouble sooner or later.