Take Your Base

One of my favorite baseball moments occurred on October 18, 1972. The Oakland A’s, who had not yet attained the status and respectability that was surely coming and would cause them to begin again to refer to themselves as the “Athletics”, were up two games to none on Cincinnati in the World Series. It’s hard for many folks to imagine now, I am sure, but long before today’s ubiquitous tattoos and body piercings, the Oaklanders were considered eccentric and somewhat rebellious just because they allowed, even encouraged, facial hair. Consequently, to aspiring hippies such as myself, they were the favorite compared to Cincinnati, the clean shaven middle American organization that had not yet become the Big Red Machine but were very good. The Reds were not really representative of the Spiro Agnew element in America, at least not the players, but we used to be really polarized around certain things like the war in Southeast Asia, racism, and women’s rights back in those days. Not like today. So the whole thing became an us versus them thing in my mind, at least, and I was a big A’s fan.

As for the players, it made for a great match. It helped me root against the Reds that they had the loathsome Pete Rose, who was playing the outfield at age 31, hitting lots of doubles, getting lots of walks, stealing the occasional base and otherwise being his usual pain in the ass self. They also had the outstanding second baseman of all time, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion at short, and strong power hitting Tony Perez at first base. The big deal that year, though, was 24 year old Johnny Bench who was merely the best catcher in baseball and hit 40 home runs and drove in 125 to boot. The pitching staff was strong that year with another 24 year old, Gary Nolan, posting a 15-5 won lost record with an earned run average of 1.99 and Jack Billingham and Ross Grimsley doing well enough for a short series, especially with Clay Carroll, Tom Hall, and Pedro Borbon in the bullpen.

Oakland’s pitching staff was even better than that once Vida Blue ended his holdout and joined Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, and Blue Moon Odom in the rotation with the very deadly Rollie Fingers and Darold Knowles in the pen. Lots of people played second base for the A’s and none of them came close to being Joe Morgan, but otherwise they were solid on defense with Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson (yes,him), Sal Bando, and Dave Duncan. Mike Epstein played well at first base and led the team with 26 home runs. The other thing that made me an A’s rooter was that they had knocked off Billy Martin‘s Detroit Tigers in the playoff. That Tigers team was very interesting, but what bothered me was that, after the season lost a week or so to a labor dispute, the Tigers finished 86-70 to the Boston Red Sox’ 85-70, and they were given the Easter Division title without any kind of playoff. That irked my fair minded young soul.

So back to October 18. The third game of the ’72 series was being played in Oakland (in daylight, by the way) and A’s fans were excited because their team had already won the first two games back in Ohio. The Reds took a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning and were threatening for more in the eighth. Rollie Fingers was pitching to Johnny Bench and the count was three and two. Manager Dick Williams of Oakland, sporting a moustache, visited the mound and emphatically pointed toward first base, leading most people concerned to believe that ball four was to be pitched. Catcher Gene Tenace signals for the intentional walk and it made sense, since there were runners at second and third base and the big slugger at bat. Instead, Fingers fired a strike and Bench was out looking. The Reds won the game after all, but it was still a great moment.

So, the powers that be can save a total of 6.4 minutes per season by enforcing a new rule that intentional walks skip the throwing of the four wide ones if they like. It won’t make the game more fun, especially if there has to be replay to see whether or not the manager actually held up four fingers. Plus, what about wild pitches or passed balls? Back to the drawing board, folks. Try cutting the commercial breaks. Whoops, I blasphemed.

A Real World Series

I’m putting my money–all 63 cents–on the Dominican Republic in the upcoming World Baseball Classic to be held from March 6 to March 22. But first, a couple of unpaid advertisements. Putting a runner on second base for free to start any extra inning? Take whoever came up with that one to the woodshed.There are enough cheesy clown tactics filling up our everyday lives already and the bid from the new commish to cater to short attention spans is lame to the extreme. Some less than intelligent individual suggested another way to hurry things along would be to limit the number of throws to first base to hold runners. Let’s see now, the pitcher only gets two throws to first, so, if I’m the runner, I guess I just wait and then go. Brilliant. Maybe we could have a mandatory game of pickle with that free runner on second to start the tenth inning so that he could possibly score without even one pitch being thrown. I think that these calls for “speeding up” the game come from two directions. One, there is a saturation point for writers and other media types because they work with deadlines and get too many free passes to major league games whereas, at least when I was kid back in the Slide Rule Age, if I ever got a chance to go to a real major league ballpark, I wanted doubleheaders and extra innings in both games. Also, the proliferation of frantic, multiple sources of over stimulation of the senses and over taxed brain cells does indeed make for short attention spans. One of the best things about baseball is that it is an antidote to that stuff.

The way the WBC goes now is a mixture of good and bad, chiefly because of WHEN it gets played, which is bad, and HOW it is organized by countries, which is good. Many of us, especially multi-millionaire team ownership groups, worry about players pushing themselves too hard too early in the season because of the competitive instincts and damaging their bodies before the REAL season begins. That’s a real concern. At the same time, it is wonderful that players are able to represent their geographic homes and it probably does help spread the joy of the game around the globe. Perhaps if it were held at the end of the major league season or, better yet, in the middle of it, it would be more fun for everyone. If we really wanted to go off into dreamland, how cool would it be if the major leagues truly were global with teams from Cuba, Australia, Japan etc. that had territorial rights to players in their boundaries? Futbol teams in Europe mix national sides with multi-national professional leagues fairly smoothly already, so it’s not as though it can’t be done. Of course, Rupert wouldn’t like all of the time zone differences but it could be worked out. It is a global economy now, ain’t it?

At any rate, the Dominican team is bad ass. Just look at the pitching staff: Dellin Betances, Santiago Casilla, Johnny Cueto, Bartolo Colon,Edinson Volquez, Fernando Rodney,and Jumbo Diaz. Wellington Castillo at catcher. The infield is super:Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Manny Machado,Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Carlos Santana. Outfielders? How about, as Joe Buck would say, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco? This is a pennant winning team in my opinion.

Mexico would be formidable with the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Sergio Romo, Yovani Gallardo,Joakim Soria and Oliver Perez. Cuba has Yoenis Cespedes and a bunch of guys we haven’t heard much about that I’ll bet are pretty good. Puerto Rico would of course be well represented with J.C. Romero, Hector Santiago, Yadier Molina, Javier Baez, Roberto Perez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Eddie Rosario. Australia would not be favored but they have pitchers Travis Blackley, Liam Hendriks, and Peter Moylan.

Venezuela, managed by Omar Vizquel, will be very tough with Jhoulis Chacin, Jeanmar Gomez,Yusmeiro Petit, Salvador Perez, Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Alcides Escobar,Felix Hernandez, Frankie Rodriguez, Martin Prado, Freddy Galvis, Victor Martinez, Ender Inciarte, Carlos Gonzalez, and Odubel Herrera.

Would this strip the United States of too many good players? Hell, no. The USA will have Chris Archer, Buster Posey,Jonathan Lucroy,Tyler Clippard,Eric Hosmer, Daniel Murphy, Brandon Crawford, Adam Jones, Andrew Miller, Danny Duffy, Tanner Roark and Paul Goldschmidt. That would be definitely a contender.

It would be a bunch of fun, which I think used to be the idea. Let’s do it around all star game time, and the winning team gets to host the next one. Play ball!

Smoking I

We were lying in the outfield grass, tired and happy after a long session of baseball. Patty Fulkerson was my age,9, while his older brother Dicky was 11 and my brother Jimmy was 10. Dicky and Jimmy were conspiring about something and Patty and I were about to discover what it was. They wanted to smoke.

We had no cigarettes, so that was a problem. A plan was hatched. The older boys had the stronger desire to smoke. They had possibly gained some experience prior to this occasion whereas Patty and I had not but the hatched plan nevertheless involved Patty and Jerry taking the chance and obtaining the smokes for the four of us. This often seemed to be the case when adventures were planned. If a fall was to be taken,the younger guys would be the ones to take it. Somebody produced a quarter and I proudly took hold of it and went off to score with Patty. Up above the ball field was the truck stop Bailey’s, a noisy, usually busy place that had diesel and gas pumps, a garage for maintenance and minor repairs, dormitories and a restaurant. The greasy spoon had a pinball machine and next to that a cigarette machine. The vending machine made our quest much easier since no adult would need to be involved. We were ever so clever and careful. As we came through the door I said to Patty in a voice clear enough to be heard, “What kind of cigarettes did my dad say he wanted?”

“Marlboros!” he replied on cue. In slid the quarter, the proper lever was pulled, and out popped our pack of Marlboros. Our fast walk soon turned into a hurried run and soon we were back to the outfield, worthy earners of the reward to follow. I don’t recall how the matches were obtained but soon we were puffing away and pretending to like it, far enough away from parents, neb noses and tattletales. Dicky and Jimmy scolded their younger brothers for not inhaling properly and soon coughing ensued. We weren’t yet men but we were on our way. In those days, of course, smoking was anything but a crime except for those , like us, who were deemed too young to freely enjoy all the good things in life. Mickey Mantle bragged about smoking Viceroys in an advertisement in a national magazine and other athletes did the same. I don’t recall any of my beloved losers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, appearing in smoking ads but that was probably because they didn’t have the fame that New York stars like Mantle and Duke Snider enjoyed. There were probably adults I knew who didn’t smoke but there weren’t many.

Well, we couldn’t smoke the whole pack right then, so now we had another problem. Much discussion followed that dealt mainly with the fact that none of us wished to be caught holding the goods. The Fulkersons’ father frequently spoke of wringing people’s necks and Jimmy and I knew that our parents were not averse to corporal punishment either. Finally, a solution was arrived at that suited the situation. We walked past the outfield to a more wooded area, selected a tree, and one of us, probably Patty, climbed it a bit and carefully tucked our Marlboros on a branch just as though it was a bird’s nest. That way it would be there for us next time we wanted it. Sure it would.

Vladimir si, Trevor nyet

In January of 1979, 23 voters did not vote to allow the newly eligible Willie Mays to enter the baseball Hall of Fame. Assuming that those 23 voters were still alive at the time, the only way to look at that fact is as proof that yes, anything can, indeed, happen. So far as we can tell, there was no involvement on the part of the Russians.

Fortunately, 409 voters thought that the Say Hey Kid qualified for the hall, so he made it. It is also fortunate that human beings still do the voting on these matters rather than having the task assigned to some soulless computer evaluating ballplayers based on what the corporate types now refer to as the metrics. One does have to wonder sometimes, though.

Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, and Ivan Rodriguez will each deservedly join Mr. Mays in Cooperstown this summer along with the car salesman. Several athletes suspected of helping the owners regain prestige until blabbermouth Jose Canseco tried to squirrel the deal have not yet garnered enough votes to qualify. Two great players that came close without getting the requisite 75 per cent of votes tallied were not harmed by steroid suspicions and may, eventually, make it. Those two are Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman. I think that the slugger from the Dominican Republic should be there and the relief pitcher from Bellflower, California should not.

The career numbers on Guerrero are impressive if not sensational. Perhaps the fact that serious injury robbed him of part of the superb skills he demonstrated early in his days while he played in relative obscurity in Montreal has caused the voters to remember only his later seasons when he was slower and less agile in the field. You wouldn’t want to evaluate Mickey Mantle based on his last few seasons either but, like Mantle, Guerrero was still very dangerous as a hitter to the end. Okay, metrics: a career on base percentage of .379, career batting average of .318, 449 home runs, 477 doubles among 2,590 hits. Career slugging percentage:.553. 37 stolen bases in 2001 and 40 more in 2002. Plus, again, in the earlier years he was very good in the field, with a rifle arm matched by few in cutting down baserunners. Sixteen very above average seasons gets him to the hall in my opinion.

As for Hoffman, he was valuable with the deadly change up but Hall of Fame? Sorry, but it’s that over rating of saves thing. 601 saves in 18 years would impress me if saves really meant something. His best years were very good, between 1996 and 1999. He never appeared in more than 70 games or pitched more than 90 innings. I realize I am part of a growing minority but hey, if you don’t want to pitch the ninth inning (with a lead!) put me in, coach.

Opinions are like, uh, belly buttons–almost everybody has one. These are mine.

The Boring Games

Okay, when do pitchers and catchers report? Is it next week? Come on already. I suppose I could become a European soccer fanatic but I don’t have access to the kinds of drugs that would enable me to start watching live games at 3 o’clock in the morning and , besides, I’m not a total hermit. Yet. I know, many sports minded people are pacified by the NFL, the NBA and college basketball, the NHL or (gulp) golf. Not me, buddy. I parted ways with football for good after the Montana-Young 49ers dynasty stumbled back to Youngstown and they started putting actual bounties on quarterbacks. I think the whole twin towers and W thing put this great nation of ours into a bloodthirsty frenzy to show everybody who the meanest son of a bitch in the world was and football and all those weird new fighting games feed into that in a very end of empire sort of way so I stopped participating in even the typical passive American way of watching, downing beers and yelling. As for hockey, I’m with Rodney Dangerfield. Besides, my eyes are too weak to follow the puck.

As for basketball, well, I still enjoy the high school game. The Warriors I follow rather indirectly. I don’t watch games much, never the whole thing. I don’t mind reading about them the next day, but the games are too much for my nervous system and no, I don’t mean because they are exciting. A few simple rules changes would make hoops fun again, but they will never be made because Rupert and the others who now rule sports with their television money prefer Charles Barkley type collision ball with lots of time outs so players don’t get winded and bad food and lousy beer and irrelevant cars can get sold. Here’s what I would do. An offensive foul means the team loses possession. Period. On a defensive foul, the offensive team gets a free pass, meaning the defensive team can’t defend until the pass is received by an offensive player. Screw the boring free throws. Yellow cards would be issued for an unsafe obstruction with a warning that a second yellow card means that the offender is removed from the game. The first yellow, as in soccer, would require that offender to leave the game until the next time out. Red cards would be issued for flagrantly unsafe obstructions clearly meant to prevent a goal and the offender goes to the showers. No team would be forced to play with fewer than three players, however. In other words, let’s replace thuggery with real defense. Sorry, Chuck. Free throws would only be taken after shooting fouls, and then the team shooting the free throw would retain possession. A “technical foul” would earn a yellow card. Play ball, fools. Of course all of this means that the spectator would need to be paying attention. One other thing—a new circle, making all shots made within six feet of the basket score one point. For bonus points, let’s play fewer games so that the playoffs could begin in March and be finished by tax day. Attention, Donald Trump, that’s April 15. These changes would reward athleticism rather than brutality and result in fewer injuries. While we’re at it, let’s restore the guarantee of the first amendment to the NBA and forget fining players and coaches who dare to speak their minds. Okay, one last thing. Barkley would hereafter be confined to reporting on golf.

It’s not baseball to blather on endlessly about contracts and how much Mike Trout is getting paid and whether or not Eduardo Nunez is worth four million a year or why Danny Duffy got a five year contract. That’s business page stuff. No, I want some ball, damn it. Are there still winter leagues? Why aren’t they televised?