Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

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.

Ethical Standards

Bart_GiamattiI’d be willing to wager, if that weren’t an inappropriate thought, that Bart Giamatti is smiling today.

I hope, and believe, that the late, great former Commissioner of Baseball smiles in a peaceful place where everyone is surrounded by green grass with a brilliant blue sky overhead. A doubleheader is scheduled and Walter Johnson is pitching to Lou Gehrig. But, the real reason the great Commissioner, whose tenure came and went much too fast, is smiling today is because he knows that what Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, did yesterday was all about preserving a public trust.

Bart Giamatti, a president of Yale and a Renaissance scholar, was both an unorthodox and brilliant choice to run major league baseball. He got the job just in time to ban Pete Rose for life for betting on games and lying about it. As the first President Bush, an Eli and a great baseball fan, said in 1989 on hearing the news of Giamatti’s shocking death at age 51, he ”made a real contribution to the game, standing for the highest possible ethical standards.”

That’s it – the highest possible ethical standards. That’s what Giamatti stood for and now Adam Silver, too.

Fay Vincent must be smiling today, as well. He had the guts and the high ethical standards to ban the insufferable George Steinbrenner back in 1990. Unfortunately, that ban was later rescinded, but it had its impact. George, the blustering billionaire bully, became a punchline on Seinfeld and we delighted in debating whether the Yankee owner depicted on the show – and in real life – was a bigger boob than his hapless employee George Costanza. “Were’s Costanza? I need my Calzone…”

How Did He Do It?

There are many lessons from Commissioner Silver’s action yesterday; action that banned L.A. Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling for life from involvement with his team or the NBA, fined the racist and misogynist billionaire the maximum allowed, and set the wheels in motion to force the sale of his team. There are also many questions left hanging, one being how does a guy like Donald Sterling survive so long and thrive so well economically when, it would appear, that everyone who knew him knew him to be a first class jerk?

The simple answer is that the highest reaches of a capitalist system don’t always equate with either merit or – that term again – ethical standards. At some level Sterling survived because he was rich and litigious, and apparently because he was able to purchase protection for his personal behavior from the NAACP, among others, by spreading around a few six figure charitable contributions. By most accounts Sterling’s Clipper’s have consistently been among the most inept professional sports franchises, run by a rich guy with no class and little regard for quality who now stands to walk away, if indeed he does walk away, with hundreds of millions made on an investment of just $12 million. The guy has been characterized as an L.A. “slum lord,” a fact long known to the NBA’s leadership and his other owners. Yet, that sordid past only caught up with him when his girlfriend recorded his racist and sexist inner most thoughts.

Ironically it took an eloquent, dignified, classy African-American coach, Doc Rivers, to help make Sterling’s clueless Clippers a playoff contender this year. Also ironic is the fact that the nerdy Alan Silver, scrambling to establish his credibility as commissioner – and just like Bart Giamatti before him – does the right thing, and having upheld the highest ethical standards, now enjoys and deserves vastly enhanced respect and power.

When I tried to play basketball a lot of years ago we had a term for that once-in-a-while moment when you’re all alone and about to kiss the ball gently off the glass for an easy and uncontested lay-up. Such a shot was “a bunny” and no one wanted to miss such an opportunity. The 29 other NBA owners, all business people in a customer service and entertainment industry, now have their own uncontested lay-up. They better not blow it. They may not want to acknowledge it, but the owners now clearly have a public trust to maintain and not merely a business to run. If they buck themselves up and uphold the highest ethical standard they will honor the old adage of doing well by doing good.

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell might not be smiling today since he must know that once the Sterling hubbub dies down attention will inevitably shift toward his handling – or avoiding – of the demands that the owner of the Washington NFL franchise do something about the name of his team. Goodell’s and the NFL’s moment of truth cometh.

The Larger Institutional Issues

Todd Purdum, writing in Politico today, quotes Santiago Colas, who teaches a course on the “Cultures of Basketball” at the University of Michigan, as saying the sad Sterling episode seems like an important moment in the on-going national struggle to deal with race. “I hope it’s a moment that’s not lost,” Colas said. “The problem is that we get really excited about spectacular demonstrations of racism, and in the process of our excitement, we overlook the larger institutional issues that endure.”

As Neal Gabler wrote today, “Sterling is not only a pariah; he is irredeemable. His sentiments are so out of fashion that no one can defend him.” No one save the nation’s top blowhards-in-chief, the representative of the larger institutional issues that endure, Trump and Limbaugh.

Perhaps it was completely predictable that the champion of the Obama birth certificate “scandal” would take the edge of Sterling’s words by suggesting that the poor guy was set up by his girlfriend. “He got set up by a very, very bad girlfriend, let’s face it,” Donald Trump said and, of course, he said it on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” Trump did add he thought Sterling’s words were “despicable,” but I would suggest only slightly more despicable than having Trump comment on anything.

Rush Limbaugh went even farther into the weeds suggesting that Sterling was a victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy to force him to sell his team to a group led by Magic Johnson. You can’t make this stuff up. Trump and Limbaugh and Sterling do prove one point about America – you can be worth a lot of money, command a lot of attention and still be an idiot, while completely overlooking the issues that sadly endure.

No Problem With That

Back before Bart Giammati became baseball commissioner he was the President of the National League. A guy who had never really played the game, but had written books about Dante, was suddenly in charge of a big chunk of baseball. Naturally he ruffled feathers among some players and managers when he insisted on cracking down – ethical standards again – on enforcement of the rules, including the legendarily difficult to enforce rule about a pitcher’s balk.

In a game in 1988, Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Jim Gott balked three times in one inning and, as a result, gave away a key game to the New York Mets. The next day, Gott was quoted as saying about Giamatti: ”A guy who’s a fan governing the National League – I have problems with that.”

Not many remember Jim Gott today and his life-time 56-74 pitching record, but most every fan remembers the guy who upheld the ethical standards of the game he loved. He’s smiling today. God rest his soul. The old baseball commissioner has found a fellow traveler in the new NBA commissioner and, I for one, have absolutely no problem with that.

 

The Last Hero

AaronHenry1I think he may be the greatest baseball player ever. I’ve always thought that.

He still has – and likely will for a long time have – the legitimate record for most home runs in a career. An astounding 755 and he never hit more than 47 in any one season. Across 23 seasons he was the soul of consistency. All those home runs, a career batting average of .305, he led the league in RBI’s four times and averaged 113 runs batted in over a long, long career. He made it to the post season three times and hit .393. He had all the tools – hit for power, hit for average, run, throw and field his position. The complete package. The real deal.

Throwing a fastball buy him, the pitcher Curt Simmons once said, “was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” He was that good.

Tonight in Atlanta the Braves will remember that cold spring evening 40 years ago today when he broke the most storied record in baseball, the Babe’s record that is now his record. Oh, Bonds may have his name first in the record book, but we all know that story. The real record – no asterisk – is his and he’ll be there tonight like he has always been there since 1954 – dignified, a little reserved, elegant, patient, always, always the very personification of professional.

When Howard Bryant wrote his biography he called him “the last hero” and it’s a fitting title. He came of age in the old Negro Leagues, then played in Milwaukee, then Atlanta and finally back to Wisconsin. His life and career traced the arc of our society’s racial transformation; a sad and vital journey still not finished. His life covered all the distance from his native Alabama, the home, as Dr. King famously of it in 1963, of “vicious racists” and a governor “his lips dripping with the words of  interposition and nullification” to the Hall of Fame.

While he marched on overtaking the Babe’s record in 1974 the death threats piled up. Hard to believe that a great baseball player needed guards to protect him from those who both denied his greatness and his manhood. “Three decades later it still pained him,” Bryant writes, to recall “how a piece of his life had been taken from him and how it had never come back.” It was one of the game’s worst moments, made good only by his grace and greatness.

His was a quiet and oh-so-effective example that told racism it would eventually always strike out. He put up with all the downside of stardom and celebrity, the pressure and pain of a black man quietly, and always with great dignity, making it known that he was the best that there ever was. He missed much of the really big money in the game, but never played for the glory or gain, but for the love.

He was the first player, well Willie too, that I really started to care about. I became a Braves fan because of him and a Giants fan because of the Say Hey Kid.

When he turned 75 a few years ago they threw a big party for him in Atlanta. Bill Clinton came. Barack Obama had just been elected and he said he was “thrilled” that a young black man was in the White House. Not many heroes in sports any more. Maybe too much money and too many egos. Tonight in Atlanta one of the heroes – maybe the last in the greatest game – will be back on the green grass that was his stage.

On this day 40 years ago he made history, but Henry Aaron will always be a genuine American hero.