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It Ain’t Over…

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

                       – Yogi Berra, 1925-2015

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Let’s get this disclaimer out of the way. I ain’t no Yankee fan, but who could not love baseball and not also love Yogi.

Lawrence Peter Berra

Lawrence Peter Berra

I have nothing original to say about the squat, barrel chested catcher, the Hall of Famer, the guy behind the dish who won ten World Championships with – OK, the Yankees – the best bad ball hitter in the history of the great game, a guy who managed champions in both leagues, the maestro of mangled syntax. It’s all been said.

After reading and listening to all the appropriate tributes for the late Lawrence Peter Berra, laughing out loud again at the “Yogi-isms” – my favorite, which might well be appropriated by Donald Trump, “I didn’t say all the things I said” – and again quietly reflecting on his abilities as a ballplayer, human being and D-Day veteran, I’m left only with this: Yogi was the real deal.

No chiseled, cheating hunk like A-Rod, no arrogant bat flipper like Harper, no trash talking, no umpire baiting – well maybe a little umpire baiting – and no apparent ego. What comes through time and again in the stories about Berra is that the little backstop was a great guy. A genuine guy. A warm and funny guy. A teammate, the term ballplayers and office co-workers use when they describe someone they really like and value. Yogi was a great teammate. That about says it all.

Yogi Berra leaps into the arms of Don Larsen after Larsen pitched the Perfect Game against the Brooklyn dodgers in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series at Yankee Stadium October 8, 1956.

Yogi Berra leaps into the arms of Don Larsen after Larsen pitched the Perfect Game against the Brooklyn dodgers in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series at Yankee Stadium October 8, 1956.

The best and most enduring photo of Berra, when Yogi leapt into the arms of perfect game World Series pitcher Don Larsen in 1956, should have focused on the other guy in the picture – the only guy still and ever to pitch a perfect freaking game in the World Series. But the eye automatically goes to Yogi.

He, of course, called and caught the Larsen perfect game and gets some of the credit for that remarkable performance, but it was Yogi’s exuberance, his sheer joy in the moment of that historic moment that makes the picture so wonderful.

In a game that is too often dominated by talented individuals you wouldn’t invite over for dinner, Yogi was the guy we would have all invited to a Sunday barbecue. You suspect Yogi would have brought a six-pack.

When Berra had his famous feud with George Steinbrenner you didn’t need a psychology degree to know that Yogi was right and that it was The Boss who was being the jerk. Now we know, big surprise, which Yankee received the outpouring of affection, the tears and the laughs when the last line-up was handed in.

The catcher’s position is the unique position on the diamond. The catcher is involved in almost every play. The entire game unfolds in front of the catcher. The catcher has the greatest opportunity to screw up and get banged up. It’s not an accident that the catcher’s protective gear was long ago dubbed “the tools of ignorance.” But there is nothing dim or dull about a truly good receiver and Berra was one of a handful of the games truly great catchers. The record speaks for Yogi’s place among the elites even if he might not have made the case so smoothly himself. Berra was simply a great, great catcher and a superb hitter.

You gotta love this from a hitter, and Berra was a hitter with both power and average, who was once asked if he was in a slump. “I’m not in a slump,” Yogi says, “I’m just not hitting…”

Yogi's 1953 Topps baseball card

Yogi’s 1953 Topps baseball card

Yogi’s passing is sad in many, many ways. He had of course a full life of 90 long years, but I’m sure he would have enjoyed one more post season, particularly with the pinstripers in contention. But the real sadness, at least for my generation, is that Yogi’s passing marks another fading away of that generation of post-war ballplayers who now mostly flicker back to us in black and white, suited up in their baggy flannels and properly worn socks.

Whether it was or not, it seems like a more innocent time. Guys wore hats, the snap brim type, to ballparks and doubleheaders were played on Sunday. Washington was in the American League and Texas wasn’t in either league. Players weren’t perpetually fastening and unfastening their batting gloves because no one wore a batting glove. The facial hair consisted of day old beards what would inevitably face a razor once the last out was recorded. And a 5’7” catcher could be the biggest man on the field.

Yogi was right about many things, some of which he even said, but he was wrong about it being over when it’s over. Some things and some people are so special that they just go on and on. Yogi isn’t gone. They’ll be taking about him, quoting him, laughing along with him, smiling at him in Don Larsen’s embrace for as long as little boys toss around the horsehide.

Real deals like Yogi Berra get remembered even for things they didn’t say.


A Baseball Purist Faces Facts…

Winter is officially over. Baseballs are being tossed around in the Sonoran desert. I know because I sat in the sun this week and took in a spring training games in the cactus-leagueCactus League. The adoring fans were in their seats – we San Francisco Giants fans tend to be a well behaved group – the brats were pretty good, the beer reasonably cold, the pitchers predictably rusty and the guys wearing uniforms with numbers like 79 and 93 looked a little stunned. Perhaps it was all the sun after a long, cold winter.

Or it might have been the one big surprise of spring training: the clock in the outfield.

One of the many things I love about baseball, at least until this year, is that there has been no clock. Theoretically a baseball game could last forever. What bliss. There is a shot clock in basketball. Periods are timed in hockey, football and (sort of) soccer, but baseball just unfolds slowly and at its own considered pace. However, it apparently unfolds more slowly than some in the Commissioner’s office think it should. So now we have a clock in the outfield specifying how long pitchers have to get ready between innings and how long the warm-up period lasts when a manager brings out the hook and a new thrower jogs in from the bullpen.

Pace of Play BaseballAnd the new rules designed to speed up the venerable game do not just involve pitchers. Hitters, some of whom treat each at bat as an orgy of unnecessary movement, are now expected to keep at least one foot in the batters box between pitches. No more, the theory goes, the endless and mindless stepping away from the plate, knocking the bat on the cleats, adjusting the batting gloves fourteen times, pulling up the sloppy pants, taking eleven practice swings and praying that you’ve guessed correctly that the next pitch is a fastball.

I predict pitchers will adapt better than hitters, but the throwers best get ready since a clock timing pitches is looming. The Arizona Fall League experimented with that concept last year and the average length of games dropped to 2:51. Double and Triple A will continue the experiment this summer. The big leagues can’t be far behind. Pitchers will protest the effort to make them work faster, but they should take it up with men and women on an auto assembly line. Greater production is the American way, even if it is not the way of a $20 million a year baseball pitcher.

The crack down is sure to come, as well, for hitters. Mike Hargrove, who during his pg2_g_hargrove_350
twelve year career played for the Indians, Rangers and Padres, was so slow making his way to the batter’s box with endless adjustments of his equipment and tugs to his uniform that he was dubbed “ the human rain delay.” Hargrove reportedly contended his routine – he did it between every single pitch – only took 19 seconds, but under the new rules ol’ Mike would likely be fined. Indians’ manager Tony Francona joked recently that were Hargrove playing today he would “be playing for free,” with all his salary consumed by fines generated by all his fluttering and flapping around home plate.

Major league baseball has finally decided that the game of the endless summer needs to unfold a little faster. Last year the average game took 3:08 and more than once – many more than once – I’ve sat until the last out of a game that took three and a half or four hours. Particularly if the beer is cold and the restroom a long walk those games do seem like endless summer.

I’m a baseball purist. I still don’t like the designated hitter, enclosed stadiums and too many night games. I like the players to wear their pants correctly, put a slight curve in the bill of the cap and wear the headgear straight on their heads. And like show girls, I like a ballplayer to show a little sock. Aluminum bats at the college level are about as welcome as a Clinton-Bush presidential match-up next year. I like guys who don’t wear batting gloves and do wear sleeves. Fake grass is just that – fake. I like pitchers who work quickly and batters who get in the box, stay there and take their cuts. I like fans that keep score and stay in their seats. I’m old school about baseball and proud to be.

But even a purist has to admit the typical game takes too darn long to play. Look at some old game summaries from the 1930’s and 1940’s and you will see games that took an hour and three-quarters to play. The average length of game in 1950 was 2:21; hardly time enough to get a second beer. A doubleheader (a thing of the past, sadly) in the old days could often be played as quickly as a single game today. I’m reluctant to embrace any change in the great game, but I hope the clock in the outfield cuts a few minutes off a game and that the hitters adjust their batting gloves before they get to the plate.

We may well continue the tradition that there is “no crying in baseball,” but we can’t say any longer there is no clock. We’ll see how it works. As a purist that hopes to see the game return to the old, quicker model – and if I could be Commissioner of Baseballty-cobb for a while – I would forget the clock and demand players again wear those big, heavy wool flannel uniforms and dress in stuffy locker rooms without air conditioning. Ban Gatorade from the dugout. Play mostly day games, particularly in July and August. With the arrival of August’s really hot weather in places like Washington, Detroit and Atlanta the speed of play would surely increase. Players would decide, as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb surely did in their day, that the only relief was a cold shower and a colder beer.

A more realistic purist might say it would be better if the players, managers and umpires just had a little talk and decided among themselves to speed up the game rather than introduce a clock to a game that has never had one, but every fan knows that is about as likely as the next 30 game winner or the Cubs winning the World Series.

There is so much to see at a baseball game, even when there isn’t much going on, but now we add the clock and one more old and dear tradition fades away. What next? Dodger fans arriving early and staying late? Yankee fans suddenly turning humble? A pennant in our nation’s capital? The Cubs in contention in September? Even on the clock a purist can dream, can’t he?


Let’s Play Two

Oh the irony. It just ain’t fair.

As the paralyzing cold of January gives way to the anticipation of warm sun and pitchers and catchers reporting in a few weeks, and just as the wise the guys of winter pick next October’s World Series winner – oh the bitter irony, some actually pick the Cubs to win – Ernie dies.ernie-banks

Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, the greatest Cub in that lousy losing franchise’s pathetic history is gone. I thought he would live forever. If anyone should have Ernie should have.

It would just be like the baseball Gods to finally – after a short interval of 107 years – permit the Cubs to win the World Series this year. We know that it will have to be a matter of divine intervention when it does happen. The Cubs, with more than a century of championship futility blowing in their faces like a stiff wind off Lake Michigan, can’t possibly do it with mere players on the field. A good general manager in a luxury suite won’t get it done. And inept owners like the Ricketts family can’t possibly make it happen. Blame poor Steve Bartman all you want. It’s a sure thing. God will have to intervene for the Cubs to win. I hope she is listening.

Who among us who love the great game would deny that its time for Wrigley to host a World Series? Long-suffering Cub fans deserve to have something to do during the playoffs. “Wait until next year” is the baseball equivalent of “mistakes were made.” It’s old and worn out. But, oh the irony if – OK, when – it happens the greatest Cub of all will have to watch on the ultimate satellite TV hook-up. Mr. Cub is gone.

Ernie Banks died, one must surmise, with a smile on his mug. He was probably thinking about stepping in against Bob Gibson, looking for a fastball and planning to drive it into the ivy. Ernie, it seemed, President-Barack-Obama-awards-Baseball-Hall-of-Famer-Ernie-Banks2never had a bad day. During a long and illustrious career that began in the Negro Leagues he hit 512 of them out of ballparks. He was the best power hitting shortstop to ever play the game. He signed autographs. He charmed crusty writers. That White Sox fan in the White House gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He deserved it.

Ernie really did say on a hot afternoon during another long hot summer at Wrigley that it was such a nice day that they oughtta play two. No one plays doubleheaders anymore. Ernie would have played a twin bill every day and then hung around for extra batting practice and to take a few more ground balls.

Just as the Cubs are looking better Mr. Cub has left for the ultimate spring training.

When he checked in up there – Ernie was always early – he probably showed St. Peter his highly polished spikes, pumped his left hand into the pocket of his glove, offered the old gatekeeper an autograph and asked where he could suit up.

If heaven really exists, it must be like Wrigley on a long, bright summer afternoon. The sky is deep blue. The clouds are fluffy and white. The breeze is cool. The seats are filled with smiling folks and the organ music is loud and just a little off key. Four of five guys dressed in red and white striped shirts and wearing straw boaters are playing ragtime in the concourse under the grandstand. Everything is green and there are no owner’s boxes and no obstructed views. The hot dogs and mustard are plentiful, the peanuts are fresh, the beer is cold and it’s all free in this heaven.

Ernie will trot out to short, shouting encouragement to his teammates. Is that Joe Cronin at second? Gehrig at first? Ernie shouts to the pitcher – today its Lefty Grove – and says, “Groove it, Lefty. This guy’s got nothing.” Honus Wagner steps in and smiles. Musial is on deck, smiling. Everyone is smiling. Even Ty Cobb in center is smiling. Joe Jackson is smiling in left. Ernie knows he didn’t do it. The umps are smiling. Ernie is smiling. Of course, Ernie is always smiling.

If there is a God, Ernie is working on her. “It’s about time,” he’ll says. “Like George Will said, everyone can have a bad century. Don’t you think it’s about time? Wrigley is such a nice place in the fall. Maybe we should play two.”

She’s smiling. It might work. How do you say no to Ernie Banks?  When the Cubs do make it, credit Ernie.

The Value of Team

Loyal readers know that I am a long-time fan of the San Francisco Giants. I’m hard pressed to identify why precisely I have been190px-San_Francisco_Giants_Logo.svg following the Giants since the days of Mays and McCovey, Marichal and Cepeda, but I have. They are my team and with the events of last night – if you missed it a 3-2 Game 7 win in the World Series – I may just make it through the winter.

There was much to like about the just completed World Series: two wild card teams playing for the big rings, a team in the Kansas City Royals who electrified their town and region and came darn close to a championship, two old school managers, some great pitching and some marvelous defense. While I’m glad my squad won, I love baseball and it was a good series to remind us again why we love the great game.

I’ve been following this Giants bunch even more closely than normal this year. The MLB app for your iPhone lets you listen to the radio broadcast of any game and I have been through all the ups and many downs of this Giants’ season, as broadcaster Jon Miller would say, “on the radio…”

My comments about the Giants are based on watching – or listening – to the evolution of a team that, let’s be honest, had little right to expect to win it all – again. Like all teams the Giants had injuries, tough breaks and a monumental losing stretch in mid-season that might have doomed many other teams. Some how this team kept scratching and winning.

World Series - Kansas City Royals v San Francisco Giants - Game FiveI have absolutely nothing original to say about Madison Bumgarner’s historic pitching performance in Game 7 and I’ll leave it to others to proclaim the franchise located South of Market as “a dynasty.” My thoughts on this first day until pitchers and catchers report turn to that one word: team.

In a game that seems fixated most of the time on individual performance: earned run averages, batting averages, on base percentages and some of the new metrics I can’t explain to my wife, I love that the new World Champions really seem like a team in a game that often celebrates the individual.

Taking nothing from the World Series MVP, who will be mentioned all his days for his 2014 Series performance, I revel in the small things that teams do that make for success. A young second baseman who few had heard of in August turns a spectacular double play at a pivotal moment. A defensive left fielder not hitting much above his weight makes a key catch. A wacky journeyman DH with enough hair and tattoos to star in a Harley commercial understands that his role as a teammate is to hit a fly ball to the outfield that scores a run and later take an outside pitch to right field to score another. An even wackier right fielder – what is with those Hunter Pencepants Hunter Pence – brings a head-long infectious enthusiasm, not to mention intensity, to everything he does and you can’t escape the fact that it rubs off on his locker room pals.

During one sweet moment in the game the camera caught Bumgarner in, what for him, was an unusual spot – siting in the bullpen between a couple of his relief pitching teammates. Starting pitchers don’t sit in the bullpen very often – maybe only in the World Series – and Bumgarner was there, of course, to do precisely what he ended up doing in the World Series. But before any of that, the star ace put his arm around the guy to his left, I think it was relief specialist Jean Machi, and just kind of casually patted him on the back. It didn’t appear that words were exchanged, just a knowing pat on the back of a teammate. It was non-verbal communication that said more than words, including that we’re in this together – the biggest big game pitcher and the guy they send in to get one out and then send to the shower.

I’m as cynical as the next guy about the big salaries and the even bigger egos in professional sports and I hesitate to make too much of isolated gestures and small, even routine events, but I think I detect in the San Francisco Giants what every corporate manager or Marine Corps platoon leader strives to create and sustain: teamwork. Teams need leaders, of course, and the Giants have their share – Manager Bruce Bochy, catcher Buster Posey and the wacky and wonderful Hunter Pence. But all leaders know you can’t lead well if your team doesn’t first want to be a team and doesn’t understand the power involved in being good teammates. Being part of a good team covers a multitude of individual shortcomings and that, I think, is why the Giants went all the way.

From the office conference room to the neighborhood Little League there is absolutely no substitute for team. A few good teammates can make the best player look and be even better. Unless your game is chess, we all need teammates. It makes the game more fun and enhances dramatically the chances that you will win all the marbles. Just ask the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

Boise and Baseball

BoiseHawksStadiumColor8-17-10-1It is likely good news that the Boise Hawks baseball team has a new Major League affiliation. At first blush, the Hawks’ four-year development deal with the Colorado Rockies makes more sense than the former relationship with the hapless Chicago Cubs. The Cubs never seemed to pay much attention to Boise and it’s been amazing to me that one of the most popular franchises in the great game (not withstanding 100-plus years of World Series futility) never figured out how to help market the local team. Just for example, you can buy any kind of Cubs’ merchandise in any shopping mall in the country, but not at Memorial Stadium.

The Rockies seem like a more natural fit, geography included.

A new, more engaged ownership group also seems to be a positive sign. The previous ownership of the Northwest League team were the worst kind of disengaged, absentee landlords. It’s no secret that they have been shopping the team for some time. Here’s hoping the new owners follow up on initial promises to breath new life into the organization and get really engaged in the community.

But what about a new facility? New ownership can help bring new focus to the decade-long conversation about the need for a new ballpark in Boise, but the underlying dynamics impacting a plan for a new sports venue really don’t seem to have changed very much. I hope I’m wrong.

With full disclosure, I’ve been riding this “new stadium” hobby horse for a long time and I continue to think the logic speaks for itself – secure professional baseball (and maybe soccer) for the long-term, create a new multi-purpose entertainment center, revitalize a neighborhood that needs some love, and create more local economic activity. If only it were that easy.

As I’ve written in the past, local governments in Idaho have been placed in handcuffs by the state legislature and the Idaho Constitution. The ability to support and finance local projects in Idaho is extremely limited. The miners and cowboys who wrote the state Constitution wanted to make certain that the state – and local governments – operate on a cash basis, so Idaho mostly does. The ability to create a special taxing district or levy a tax on entertainment tickets or rental cars, the types of financing tools available in most other places, just doesn’t exist in Idaho. In order to get a project like a new baseball (or soccer) venue off the ground – assuming there must be a role for government – requires a near immaculate conception of united interests. A city, a redevelopment agency, an auditorium district, and a private developer must align interests to pull off a four-way bank shot of financial and political support. It rarely happens and never will happen without local political leadership.

For a long time I’ve thought that the Northwest League with teams from Vancouver, B.C. to Boise, from Spokane to Eugene would do almost anything to keep a team in Boise. zwhillsborobaseball098jpg-bd16f1c282f8ce34Southwestern Idaho represents a large market by minor league baseball standards. Boise is a sports town. There is a track record. But, the announcement this week that the Hawks will have new owners and a new Major League affiliation for four years, while good news, may also represent the last chance – really the last chance – for professional baseball in Boise.

Here’s why: In the season that just ended, the Hawks had the second worst attendance figure in the Northwest League. Boise narrowly kept out of the attendance cellar by besting only the Tri-Cities at the turnstiles. Spokane, with an older, but lovely facility, lead the league in attendance, as it often does. The Indians drew in excess of 100,000 more fans than Boise and actually had one less home game than the Hawks. The newest team in the League – Hillsboro, Oregon – drew 50,000 more fans than Boise and won the league title for good measure. Hillsboro, a bedroom community west of Portland, has a spiffy new ballpark that came about when nearby Portland opted (perhaps wisely) to be a soccer town. Without a new facility in Boise, baseball’s importance will continue to decline right along with the league’s patience for a large market with a shrinking fan base. There is nothing inevitable about professional baseball staying in the Treasure Valley, particularly when other places can  and – as Hillsboro has shown – will step up and create exciting venues where fans want to go.

Here’s hoping the new Hawks’ owners sharpen up their promotions, create new engagements in the community, and do what the previous owners never did – put a monetary commitment and not just a rhetorical one behind a new facility. And here is also hoping that some local political leadership finally emerges to knit together the necessary coalition of interests that keeps Boise a baseball town. Local elected officials do this all the time in other communities and you can bet that it won’t happen in Boise unless local officials decide a new facility and new opportunities for professional sports is a real priority.

Just Google “new baseball parks” and you’ll find, among others, that Kokomo, Indiana has a 4,000 seat stadium under construction. Kokomo? Yup. And the team that will inhabit that new stadium next year won’t even have a relationship with a major league team.

What was that Joni Mitchell song? “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

The Great Gwynn

Tony GwynnRemembering Tony Gwynn

He certainly didn’t look like much of a ballplayer. He lacked the classic physique of a DiMaggio or an Aaron, but with a bat in his hands he became a baseball Toscanini, a maestro who could orchestrate his base hits with a flick of his wrists.

Tony Gwynn was arguably the best pure hitter of a baseball since Ted Williams, or maybe since Ty Cobb. The baseball world and the rest of the world mourns his untimely passing.

Statistics tell only so much of the Tony Gwynn story, but they tell a lot. Fifteen times an All-Star, a consensus first ballot Hall of Famer, 3,000 hits, a lifetime .338 hitter in an era when the long ball was too much celebrated. Think of this: 19 straight years batting at least .300. When Gwynn lead the National League in hitting in 1985 he went to the plate 675 times and struck out 23 times. Amazing.

Tony Gwynn was also something else just as important to baseball and the rest of humankind – he was a class act, a gentleman, loyal always to a usually less than stellar team, a great teammate and, like Ernie Banks and Cal Ripkin, an ambassador for the game and what it can be when it is played at its best.

“My mom and dad always used to tell me the best approach is just be humble,” Mr. Gwynn once told the Sporting News. “Be humble, go on about your business, do what you got to do and, when it’s all said and done you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I gave it a great run,’ or ‘Hey, I didn’t,’ or ‘Hey, I fell short,’ but as long as you prepare yourself every day to go out there and give it your absolute best effort to get it done, you can look at yourself in the mirror when it’s over.”

Good words for a baseball player and a person.

I always thought Gwynn would be an outstanding major league manager, but unfortunately he never got the chance. He was, as George Will wrote in his book Men at Work, not only a deeply devoted student of the game, but a scientist who had his own sophisticated theories about hitting a baseball, which, by the way, may still be the single most difficult thing to do with any consistency in sports. Gwynn was, like Williams, so committed to excellence as a hitter that he had his own hitting room constructed.

“It is a long, narrow batting room,” Will wrote, “big enough for a pitcher’s mound at regulation distance from a plate, and an ‘Iron Mike’ pitching machine with a capacity for about 250 baseballs. The room is lit at 300 candle feet, exactly as the Jack Murphy field is lit.”

Tony Gwynn has died much too young at 54 from cancer. He was a great player of the great game. When fans talk about baseball in 50 years or a 150 years Tony Gwynn will be in the conversation. He was that good and his passing is cause for both sorrow and joy. Sorrow that he’s gone too soon, joy that he brought such passion and perfection to the great game of baseball.