Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

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.

 

The Doper at Third

AP_arod_alex_rodriguez_tk_130805_16x9_992Major League Baseball waited so long to get serious and was in denial so long about its doping scandal – remember Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire – that it is impossible to outfit Commissioner Bud Selig and his minions with white hats even while the guy who should be remembered as the greatest player of his generation boots away what little is left of his career, not to mention his credibility.

This is really all you need to know about Alex Rodriguez and his creams and shots and lozenges: Major League baseball accepted the word of a “drug dealer” over that of a guy with 654 home runs. Now A-Rod, never one to handle himself with anything other than blind self-interest, is swinging away with lawsuits aimed at nearly everyone – including, unbelievably, his fellow players. I guess if you have enough money and bluster you can convince your lawyers to adopt a legal strategy that doubles down on foolishness.

The tragedy of A-Rod begins, as many tragedies do, with what might have been. When the supremely talented, handsome and sure to be superstar arrived in Seattle years ago literally the entire baseball universe was his to command. But Seattle was always too small a stage for an ego so big. Rodriguez had to have it all – the money, the houses, the celebrity girl friends, Cameron Diaz’s popcorn, the hookers, the records, even if it meant bending, breaking and shattering the rules. I remember sitting in the stands in Seattle when Rodriguez made his first visit back to the Northwest after bolting for the still ridiculous contract the Texas Rangers lavished on him. The fake dollar bills cascaded down from the upper decks as one-time fans chanted “Pay-Rod..Pay-Rod…”It turns out those fluttering fakes were a metaphor for the doper at third.

Next, the Yankees bought into the hype and doubled down with an even bigger contract. A-Rod and Derek Jeter should have made for the best left side of the infield in modern baseball history, but the chemistry and selflessness was never there with Rodriguez. Baseball, for all its individual statistics and records, is still a team game. Jeter was a teammate, a superstar with his ego in check. A-Rod, who grumbled on moved from Jeter’s position to play third base, nevertheless acted like he’d been born there after hitting a triple. I’m pretty certain suing the Player’s Union will enhance his standing in the clubhouse – or maybe not.

As the New York Times reports, the lawsuit Rodriguez has filed has the ironic side effect of putting into the public domain the very investigative report Major League Baseball used to suspend him in the first place. “The report, attached to the legal filing Monday,” the Times reports, “relies on the testimony of [Anthony P.] Bosch [A-Rod's dealer], as well as his phone records, his patient notes, text and BlackBerry messages. It also incorporated the findings of investigators hired by Major League Baseball, and the testimony of a senior baseball official and a senior Yankees executive, among others.”

Rodriguez’s complex drug regime looks like what a recovering cancer patient might require rather than a guy who plays baseball for a living.

But, back to what might have been. With all his natural tools and his good looks Rodriguez could well have conquered the baseball heights just by showing up, working hard and acting like a human begin. He chose the path that took his gifts and broke them like a used syringe.

Rodriguez, of course, will always have his defenders and the sordid details of how Major League Baseball amassed evidence against him will make any fair-minded person uncomfortable. Still, when all is said and done, Alex Rodriguez isn’t going to jail Bernie Madoff-style for his cheating. He’s just losing a few million dollars, 162 games and a chance to be in the Hall of Fame one day. The Yankees save some money and will find they are better off without him. Rodriguez never thought that the game he reportedly loves was even a little bit bigger than him. It’s always been about him. Now, its about him alone with his denials and with more bluster – always more bluster.

When baseball’s enforcers were closing in on Rodriguez he arranged a hotel meeting with his drug supplier during a Yankee road trip to Atlanta. “Try to use service elevators,” Rodriguez wrote in a text message. “Careful. Tons of eyes.”

Rodriguez’s basic defense is that Major League Baseball is out to get him even as he refused a chance to make a deal that would have saved his career. He couldn’t even testify in his own defense. On one thing he is right. They were out to get him and it’s about time. As for the doper on third, it’s hard to think that the service elevator isn’t too good for him. The tons of eyes that A-Rod has depended upon to supplement his drug-enhanced career are looking away, ashamed and sad for what might have been.

 

So Long to The Stick

Bat BoyThis photo could have been taken during the first game I saw at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. I think it was 1987 or maybe 1988. Will “The Thrill” Clark was thrilling that afternoon and had a career day – seven RBI’s my memory says – and about 1,500 people showed up for a game in the middle of the week. I loved it all on a beautiful summer day. Love the Giants still and, while I’m ready for Christmas I’m really ready for spring training and harboring a strangely nostalgic feeling about The Stick.

The 49ers football team will play the last game at The Stick tonight and one more old ballpark will go the way of the wrecking ball. Most will say “good riddance.” I’ll be left, like so much that is my life with baseball, with memories. I fell in love all over again with the great game at The Stick all those years ago.

With some friends on another trip to see the Giants we left Union Square in the heart of downtown San Francisco for the bus ride out to Candlestick for a night game. It was August and a glorious Bay Area afternoon – sunny, about 72 degrees with a pleasant light breeze. By the third inning the notorious Candlestick Point fog was rolling across the stadium and from our vantage point in seats up above the third base line you could barely make out Kevin Mitchell in left field. The wind was swirling, hot dog wrappers were circling the field faster than a player could circle the bases, and beer was out of the question. Too cold. Stocking caps and gloves came out – it was August remember – and ballpark vendors were hocking hot chocolate. It wasn’t very good hot chocolate, but it was selling fast. I held the cup to keep my hands warm.

NPR had a great piece this morning on The Stick. Reporter Tom Goldman remembered that Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham signed the deal to build at Candlestick in 1957 during a morning visit when the wind was calm. Stoneham subsequently visited later in the day. “It’s said he asked a worker,” Goldman recounts, “Does the wind often blow like this? Yeah, every day, the worker replied. But only in the afternoon and early evening.”

Willie Mays played a good deal of his career at The Stick and slapped his 3,000 hit there in 1970. The Beatles packed them in during a 1966 concert. In recent years, with the Giants off in the cozy confines of their new park South of Market, Candlestick has been the football home of the 49ers, but that will end next year when the team decamps for a new stadium further south in warmer Silicon Valley. It can’t possibly be as cool as The Stick and in more ways than one.

I’ve reached the age where I don’t like to see anything torn down. OK, maybe, the Berlin Wall, but not old buildings and not icons like Tiger Stadium in Detroit or the real old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. [Every rule has its exceptions. Mine would be the Kingdome in Seattle. Good riddance to that concrete monster.]

Instead of humming Christmas carols today I have the old Sinatra song stuck in my head.

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here

While the kids wait for Santa in a couple of days, I will note that there are about eight weeks until pitchers and catchers report. Once The Stick is gone they’re putting up a shopping center. Not a fair trade – memories of The Say Hey Kid for a Dillard’s. I hope its windy and cold when they open.

Pleasures of the Ear

JoeCastiglioneI’ve spent the World Series with Joe Castiglione. I hope he’s enjoyed it as much as I have.

For baseball fans who have been glued to the tube during this remarkably engaging World Series, I should mention that Castiglione is one member of the radio broadcast team for the Boston Red Sox. Along with the great Vince Scully and Jon Miller, he has one of the wonderful and distinct voices in the game. I’ve been without television for this Series and frankly haven’t missed a thing. Once again I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of the ear – listening in the dimming twilight to a baseball game on the radio. I highly recommend it.

I grew up in South Dakota listening to the Minnesota Twins’ flagship radio station WCCO in the days before baseball on television amounted to little more than “The Game of the Week” on CBS. Ray Scott, Herb Carneal and Halsey Hall – what a great baseball name – did the play-by-play and helped make me a life-long fan. WCCO was, and is, a monster station, 50,000 watts and “clear channel.” The signal was so strong that on a summer night in the Black Hills Herb Carneal could have been sitting in my bedroom. In fact, I think he might have been.

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday on another of the Midwest’s monster stations KMOX in St. Louis, the home of Cardinals baseball and the station that produced Jack and Joe Buck and, in an earlier day before too many Buds, a guy named Harry Caray. Reporter David Waldstein set out to see if he could literally drive out from under the KMOX signal in the length of time it took the Red Sox and Cards to play Game 4. He drove more than 300 miles during the game, ending up in Mississippi with a strong, clear signal on his car radio.

Waldstein reports near the end of his wonderful story “the reception is so clear, I probably could have driven straight into the Gulf of Mexico and still heard the sad postgame show. [The Cardinals lost.] Instead, I listen to the hissing report — the content of the show is hissing, not the signal reception — as I head toward Memphis and the Blues City Cafe for a well-deserved plate of ribs, full rack, and a last pit stop at a West Memphis gas station.”

FOX and Turner Broadcast have paid millions – billions? – for the television rights to baseball playoff games. I hope they’re getting their money’s worth. I’ve never shopped in a Shaw’s Market – a major sponsor of Joe Castiglione’s broadcasts – but I can tell you the specials this week. Joe keeps reminding me.

More than any other sport, baseball is a game every fan plays inside their head. You wonder if the pitcher is getting tired? Should someone be warming up? Is David Ortiz really going to get another hit next time? Shouldn’t the Cardinals pitch around the real Mr. October? I can even see Mike Napoli’s awful beard on the radio. That guy, by the way, needs an appointment with a pair of scissors. The great game is the most cerebral game and the most personal. Listening in on radio, bathed in the sound of Joe’s New England twang, God is in his heaven and God is a baseball fan and this year God may be a Red Sox fan.

On the radio I can see my dad crouching in the catcher’s position to catch a strike from my brother who only had a fast ball, never a curve. I can see Harmon Killebrew at the Old Met in Bloomington. And Junior at the awful KingDome. I can imagine Ruth at Fenway and Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to home.

I’ll be near a television tonight and I might watch Game 6, but I also might turn off the too much, too obvious commentary of Buck and McCarver and listen to a few Shaw’s grocery spots instead. Let’s get on with it. I can’t wait and I never want it to end.