Play By Play

(Editor’s note: the following piece has been inspired by the clueless executives at MLB and ESPN who decided to schedule their first “prime time” baseball telecast of 2017 as a night game in Chicago which, someone should let them know, is situated pretty close to Lake Michigan)

Good evening everybody and welcome to our broadcast here from the Arby’s radio booth at Raytheon Stadium. This is Mike Swarthy and my partner Jake DeRayle will be back with the starting lineups after this word. (commercial break)
Jake: Thanks Mike and, folks, here is tonight’s lineup, brought to you as always by Sharkey’s Bail Bonds in Courthouse Square. (Jake gives the lineups)

Mike: Thanks, Jake, and we’re ready to get underway, brought to you by Osgood’s Funeral Parlor and Tobacco Shoppe. Lipschitz winds and here’s the first pitch and Olson fouls it back out of play. That foul tip was sponsored by Charles Schwab. Lipschitz fires again and this time it’s a called strike, sponsored by the UAW, whose motto is “where have we gone, anyway?” So it’s Oh and Two now and the next pitch is a high fly ball to right field where Kravitz is waiting and he makes the catch. Olson’s fly out is sponsored by the makers of RAID.
Jake: Mike, while Olson was batting I paid a visit to the restroom here at Raytheon Stadium and it was a pleasant experience, as always, thanks to the people at Charmin Tissue.
Mike: Now here is Jorge Espinosa and he swings at the first pitch and hits a UPS Ground ball to third…Regalado has it and throws oh! his throw is over Altobelli’s head at first and Espinosa is safe, just like you will be with homeowner’s insurance from Allstate! So there is a runner at first with one out and O’Brien steps to the plate, sponsored by Shenango China. Espinosa takes a short lead…Lipschitz will throw from the stretch, brought to us by the Aardvark Rubber Band Co. and here’s the pitch Oh! it gets away from the catcher Evan Gattis and Espinosa takes second base! That will be ruled a passed ball, sponsored by Metamucil…It may be time for a Slo Motion Replay, brought to us by the U.S.Senate, where the motto is “If you need a bill passed, get in line and bring money”

Watch Out For Climbing Rockies

Has the rest of the National League conceded it all to the Chicago Cubs before we even really get started? Well, certainly not the Dodgers, who are spending almost as much on ballplayers as the Secret Service does on the president’s children, er, advisers. The La La Land organization should breeze to another Western Division crown even though the health and safety of their pitching staff remains as a cause for manager Dave Roberts to fear the sandman. The team that will likely leapfrog the seemingly content San Francisco Giants and become the sharpest thorn in the Dodgers’ side is the Colorado Rockies.

The Dodgers finished six games ahead of the Giants in 2016 despite the fact that all-world left handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw was limited to 21 starts and Zack Greinke went to the Arizona desert to become mediocre. It doesn’t figure that Kershaw will be ailing again and he was fine when healthy with a 12-4 record and an earned run average of 1.69. However, the one vulnerability that Los Angeles has is the fact that so many pitchers have not pitched very many innings in recent years. Veteran righthander Rich Hill , who was plucked from Oakland mid season, pitched well when he pitched, with an overall record of 12-5 and a 2.12 ERA, but he missed several starts with blister issues. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a quality lefty hurler in recent times but pitched in just one game last year. Brandon McCarthy made just 9 starts with varying success last year and relievers Yimi Garcia, Josh Ravin, and Brock Stewart will all begin 2017 on the disabled list. So will lefty starter Scott Kazmir, who was 10-6 with a 4.56 ERA last season. The Dodgers will draw strength from Kenta Maeda, who made 32 starts and was 16-11 and great reliever Kenley Jansen, who is back in the fold for more late game success. Ross Stripling, who made 14 starts last year, starts this one in the pen. Perhaps the most intriguing addition to the Dodgers roster is Sergio Romo, the reliever with a 2.57 career ERA after 10 seasons with the rival Giants
The outfield is young and capable with Andrew Toles in left. Joc Pedersen in center, and the always interesting Yasiel Puig in right. Scott Van Slyke is a good man to have around to back each of those up while also occasionally spelling the soon to be 35 year old Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Gonzalez still had it last season, driving in 90 runs while remaining an elite defender.
Yasmani Grandal became the everyday catcher in ’16 with improved defensive work and good power numbers. Logan Forsythe comes west from Tampa Bay and adds sturdy defense and steady hitting at second base. Chase Utley got a lot of work there last season but both his offensive and defensive work , while still useful, are below his previous high standards. Cory Seager is a very good hitting shortstop and Justin Turner, who could hit even back in his Mets days, has worked himself into being a better than average third baseman. Kike Hernandez backs up infielders and outfielders and has occasional pop in his bat.
San Francisco was one of the worst teams in the majors for the second half of 2016 but managed to sneak into the wild card game with a strong final week thanks to a surprisingly good first half. Many folks blame their bullpen, which did, indeed, allow many late inning comebacks, but there was a lot of blame to share. So the Giants had a bit of a relief corps purge as Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt retired and Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla were set loose on the bay with little dinghies. Mark Melancon is going to be paid big bucks to fix all that but there may not be a lot to “save” this season.
They still have that incredibly good infield with Brandon Belt at first, Joe Panik at second, and Brandon Crawford at shortstop. Last year’s mid season acquisition, Eduardo Nunez, is no Jimmy Davenport at third but brings needed speed and adequate hitting. Of course, even as he nears the ripe old age of 30, Buster Posey is as good as it gets at catcher. However, the outfield is in general decline. Hunter Pence hasn’t slowed down much, but he’s not on the field every day anymore and, when he’s not, the Giants are not the same. Denard Span was signed a year ago to be what he’d been in 2014 in center field but it didn’t happen. His numbers were not awful but rather ordinary and he showed hesitance to go full speed after his hip surgery. Veterans Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan went floating on the same little boats that Romo and Casilla took, and that may have been appropriate if young stars were ready to take their place, but Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker are not that young nor apparently that good.
Madison Bumgarner won 15 games and left 8 other games with a lead in another stellar season for the big lefty. Johnny Cueto was better than many number one starters with an 18-5 record and a 2.79 ERA. After that, the starting pitching gets rather iffy with Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, and the seemingly finished Matt Cain. In the bullpen, the still very good Melancon joins a stable of largely inconsistent and untested young arms.

Things are looking up, meanwhile, for the Colorado Rockies.Can the team that won 75 games a year ago improve enough to head the pack? The lineup is solid, offensively and defensively, and the relief pitching should be more than adequate. The big question to be answered is: can new manager Bud Black, who did so well with pitchers in San Diego, get enough good starting pitching to pass those California teams in the standings for a change? What you generally want to do is, because of Lousy Beer Stadium, deduct about a run from a pitcher’s ERA to compare it with guys who pitch in saner yards.If you do that, Jon Gray (10-10, 4.61), Tyler Anderson (5-6, 3.54), and Tyler Chatwood (12-9,3.87)all had more than decent seasons last year. So did Chad Bettis, but he is out battling cancer now.
What helps those pitchers a lot is the defensive work of Nolan Arenado at third base and D.J. LeMahieu at second. They both hit a little as well, Arenado banging 82 extra base hits in 2016 and LeMahieu hitting .348 including 32 doubles. They are joined in the infield by Trevor Story, who is no Crawford at shortstop but hits with power, although he tailed off in that department as the season wore on. That brings us to Ian Desmond,who once played short and probably could again. The Rockies want Desmond at first base after his injury heals, but Mark Reynolds is capable there in the meantime. Charlie Blackmun provides speed and power at the top of the lineup and is a good center fielder, which you need at Lousy Beer Field. Carlos Gonzalez, still in his prime at 31, is a skilled right fielder who hit .298 with 100 RBI last year, and Manny Parra will help a lot in left field if he can play more than the 102 games that he did in 2016 because he can hit, run, and chase down fly balls well. Alexi Amarista, who does everything but pitch and catch, will be a good bench addition. David Dahl did a good job replacing Parra when he was injured last year and may eventually displace him.

The Arizona Diamondbacks may not look a lot better than they did last year because they still earn first prize in the ugly uniform contest. They should, however, play a lot better just because A. J. Pollock, who only appeared in 12 games last season, is looking like his old self again. That means severe danger at the top of the lineup along with superb coverage of center field. David Peralta also missed a lot of games in 2016 and he is also very good. Plus, Zack Greinke had, for him, an off year (13-7, 4.37), and Shelby Miller, a starting pitcher acquired from Atlanta to help the Snakes overtake the Dodgers,had a disastrous season instead. So can it get much worse? No, the Diamondbacks and new manager Torey Lovullo should improve but not contend. They improved the catching with Jeff Mathis, the bench with Jeremy Hazelbaker, and the starting pitching with Taijuan Walker from Seattle but that last move cost them Jean Segura, the excellent second baseman/shortstop who hit .319 for them last year. After Greinke the starting pitching gets a bit shaky and adding the inconsistent Fernando Rodney will not stabilize a bullpen that has to contend with a park that heavily favors hitters. Paul Goldschmidt is a great all around ballplayer at first, Jake Lamb hits the long ball but gives up runs at third, and the middle guys, Chris Owings and Brandon Drury, are journeyman types. Daniel Descalso will fill in adequately just about everywhere.

The San Diego Padres are currently a pretty good AAA team but, with their youth movement, may be considerably better by August. Wil Myers will represent them at the All Star game. Christian Bethancourt is both a catcher and a relief pitcher but he is not fast enough to catch himself. Hunter Renfroe is a possible star of the future.

Cleveland Almost Has It All

They were so good last season that Cleveland almost won it all before the Chicago Cubs finally managed to win the World Series. They have a shrewd, personable manager in Terry Francona. They have that most important ingredient of all, pitching. The pitching staff is not so brilliant that it brings to mind the glory days of Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, Ray Narleski, Don Mossi and Herb Score but it is very deep and young with the throwback bullpen work of Andrew Miller now available for the entire season. They have power and they have speed. For the most part, they also have the under rated quality of defense anchored by the brilliant young shortstop Francisco Lindor. There is only one thing that might jinx them and hold them back from ultimate success. That is that horrible, racist image of Wahoo Sam, the goony looking mascot that is ugly in the extreme and embarrassing to look at unless you are the sort of insensitive lout who thinks that Birth of a Nation is a great movie.

The Central Division of the American League should be theirs for the taking this year because two of their most recent rivals, Detroit and Kansas City, appear to be fading from contention at the same time that the Indians are getting better. Cleveland should be stronger because, in addition to Miller, they will have star left fielder Michael Brantley back in the lineup after he missed all but eleven games last year. Right now sterling second baseman Jason Kipnis and the usual right fielder, Lonnie Chisenhall, are on the disabled list but when they return Cleveland will have a wealth of talent and versatility. Tyler Naquin performed well in 116 games last year and can handle center field while Abraham Almonte is no slouch filling in for Chisenhall. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are the catchers and they both are strong defensively while each of them batted under .200 in 2016.
Jose Ramirez will man second base until Kipnis is back and then probably start at third base. The 24 year old played all over the infield and outfield last year and hit .312 with 76 runs batted in. Cuban import Yandy Diaz plays third now and projects to be the same type of versatile player Ramirez has been.
We all witnessed the work of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer late last season and with Tomlin the old man of the group at 32, chances are that we will continue to see the starters perform well for quite a while. Besides Miller, the bullpen features effective right handers Cody Allen,Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, and Bryan Shaw. Boone Logan joins Miller as the only lefties.

The Kansas City Royals were the team looking like the wave of the future in this division a couple of short seasons ago but they slipped badly last year to a .500 record and do not appear to be rebounding well. A solid core remains with shortstop Alcides Escobar, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and tower of strength catcher Salvador Perez. However the pitching staff, even before the tragic loss of Yordano Ventura, was not looking so solid. Now top notch reliever Wade Davis has been traded to the Cubs for right fielder Jorge Soler. A pair of ex-Cubs, starter Jason Hammel and reliever Travis Wood, are aboard to help out. You can’t say the Royals have bad pitching, but it’s not nearly as scary to opponents as it was in ’14 and ’15. Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy are pretty good starters and lefty Jason Vargas still has time to break through. Nate Karns, who was 6-2 with a 5.15 earned run average for Seattle, is also there.
Raul Mondesi is a good second baseman who may eventually hit and can already run. Mike Moustakas is back at third base after missing 135 games last year and Cheslor Cuthbert showed talent as his replacement in 2016. Christian Colon will again be around to spell people in the infield. Paulo Orlando emerged as a good hitter with speed in the outfield. So the Royals will be tough, but probably not as tough as Cleveland.

Detroit’s time of contention appears to be past. The combination of a smattering of speed mixed with guys who hit the ball hard but don’t move so fast produces nice looking offensive statistics but not so many runs and the Tigers seem permanently committed to using outfielders who cannot cover all of their vast outfield space. Thus, despite a high quality defensive infield of shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers are not a fun team to pitch for unless, like Justin Verlander (16-9,3.04),you strike a lot of batters out. Michael Fulmer has come along to help out. Francisco Rodriguez,one time fireballing closer, is now 35 but produced well for Detroit last season. I don’t put value on saves numbers (he had 44) but in 61 games he had a decent ERA and 52 strikeouts in 58 and one third innings. Jordan Zimmermann has had much better seasons as a starter than his 9-7, 4.87 year for the Tigers last year but he is not a strikeout type guy. Lefty Matt Boyd was mediocre and lefty Daniel Norris was pretty good in 13 starts. We all recognize Miguel Cabrera as a bad ass future hall of famer and Victor Martinez still stings the ball at 38 but much of his prowess goes for naught since the big leagues don’t permit courtesy runners. J.D. Martinez, currently confined to the disabled list, is another guy who clogs up the base paths if he doesn’t hit it out. James McCann is a first rate defensive catcher who hits well enough and he is backed by returning former Detroit catcher Alex Avila, who went off to the White Sox for a while. Nick Castellanos hits with power and is adequate at third base and Kinsler provides power and speed along with his great defense. Justin Upton will never win a gold glove in left field but he continues to hit with great power and he is not yet 30 years old. Andrew Romine is a valuable all around bench player.

A lot of dreamers are selecting the Minnesota Twins as the 2017 dark horse. While they don’t have to do much to improve over 2016’s 59 victories, the Twins are still far from contention, mainly due to their lack of pitching strength. They signed catcher Jason Castro to help with the young staff and he would seem to have his work cut out for him. Ervin Santana is a good ace at age 34, and lefty Hector Santiago has been okay. Adalberto Mejia is a highly touted lefty acquired from the Giants in the trade for Eduardo Nunez. Phil Hughes is well past the great expectations part of his career and I frankly don’t know jack about the rest of the staff for the twin cities.
Brian Dozier, who had 82 extra base hits, 18 stolen bases, and 99 RBI last year is a real star because he also plays a very good second base. Jorge Polanco at shortstop and Miguel Sano at third may be up and coming stars but they apparently both need to clean up their glove work. Sano hits the long ball. Joe Mauer, one time all world catcher, is now confined to first base and designated sitter after his concussion of 2013 and his batting numbers have dwindled to run of the mill but we’re all rooting for him. Byron Buxton is a speedy, strong armed center fielder but so far his offensive numbers are more like Rick Manning than Kirby Puckett. He will be flanked by Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right. All show potential and none are over 26 years of age.

Since they don’t have Chris Sale anymore, the Chicago White Sox might have Yoan Moncada some day. That’s their big story. In the meantime, they promise to be less boring if not more victorious than in their recent past. Once the next great Cuban star, Avisail Garcia has looked rather ordinary so far. He’s in right field and the largely unknown Jacob May is in center. Melky Cabrera patrols left field with a good arm and good power numbers. Todd Frazier plays third base and hits lots of home runs. Tim Anderson was impressive in 99 games as the shortstop last season. He hit .283 with 9 home runs and average defense. Tyler Saladino was similarly impressive at second base while Jose Abreu produced like a first baseman with size should, hitting .293 with 25 homers and 100 RBI.Omar Narvaez is the promising new catcher.
Without Sale, the White Sox still have quality on the mound with lefty Jose Quintana (13-12,3.20 last year),lefty Derek Holland, who was 7-9 with Texas,Miguel Gonzalez, and the somewhat puzzling James Shields, who was a combined 6-19 with a 5.85 ERA with the Sox and San Diego last year. The bullpen was pretty sturdy last season with right handers Nate Jones and Dan Jennings getting most of the work and David Robertson “closing”.
So it looks good for Cleveland. If they blow it, blame Wahoo Sam.

Not So Predictable N.L. East

Conventional wisdom is frequently more conventional than wise. For the last half dozen years, we have been led to believe that the Washington Nationals were the team to beat in the National League East and a probable World Series participant. In the event that the Nationals somehow failed to get there, the New York Mets would take their place and, actually, that did happen once, in 2015. If it is still the conventional wisdom in 2017 it may actually work out for once but we need to recognize that there are big changes coming in this division and therefore it may be advisable not to bet the farm, if one still has one.

The easiest thing to do as a baseball observer is  to look upon the veritable mountain of statistical information now available and decide that, well, so and so has had a remarkably good season or career. On the other hand, the most difficult  thing to do as  a baseball observer may very well be to look upon the actual, live performance of a very young player and evaluate his potential as a future major league ballplayer. Most of us are not so good as scouts; many of us can read numbers. Until the time comes when the Hall of Fame accepts members based on the average velocity of their fastballs or the speed of the ball as it rockets off the barrel of their bats, we will have to continue to base our evaluations on wins and losses or scoring more runs than the other guys. The expectations of success for the Nationals have largely been based on the assumption that Stephen Strasburg was going to be the next Roger Clemens and Bryce Harper the next Mickey Mantle. If you could make the Hall based on the number of words written or spoken in awe of talent, those two would already be there. They have each shown flashes of real brilliance and there is still plenty of time for Harper, who will be 25 in October and Strasburg, who will be 29 in July, to get it done. As for the Mets, the talented crew of young pitchers is the main weapon they have featured, and the talent is real. No one looks forward to facing Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, or Zack Wheeler. However, chances are they won’t have to because what they have consistently led the league in so far has been surgeries.

So, while those two teams are probably a bit over rated, some of their opponents in the division may now be under rated. For instance, the Atlanta Braves. We may not have to suffer through the “chop” or that awful warrior chant this fall when the playoffs begin, but the Braves are improving as they break in another new yard with another corporate name. It’s an interesting staff of starting pitchers they have assembled. Old man Bartolo Colon will be 44 next month and he was one guy that Mets manager Terry Collins could count on last season as he won 15 games with a 3.43 earned run average. He joins knuckleballer R. A. Dickey and veteran lefty Jaime Garcia in the new Atlanta rotation along with holdovers Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran. The Braves have the unpredictable Jim Johnson in the bullpen . Catcher Tyler Flowers has some pop with the  bat but doesn’t throw well.

The double play combination is also interesting as long time Cincinnati standout Brandon Phillips takes over second base with very promising youngster Dansby Swanson at shortstop. Adonis Garcia is merely adequate at third but Freddie Freeman continues to be a star at first base with good defense, a .302 batting average, 34 home runs and 91 runs batted in last year at age 27. Ender Inciarte covers center field as well as anyone but needs to reach base a bit more. Matt Kemp no longer has the range or arm strength of his youth and is confined to left field now but he smacked 35 homers and drove in 108 last season. Nick Markakis has lost a step and a half but is still more than adequate in right field and still hits well.

Washington ‘s Jayson Werth is comparable to Kemp as he now patrols left instead of right and turns 38. The difference is he’s not hitting so much anymore either. Adam Eaton was obtained in a trade with the White Sox to play center field for the Nationals. He’s got the arm and hits and runs well but his range is more suited to a corner spot. Offensively, right fielder Harper hopes to have a season more like 2015 than last year, when he fell off to .243 with 24 homers. With Eaton aboard, Trea Turner, another budding star, goes back to shortstop full time. He hit .342 in 73 games. Matt Wieters should approach replacing Wilson Ramos at catcher if he stays healthy. Anthony Rendon is great at third and steady at the plate. Ryan Zimmerman moved to first base because throwing was difficult at third, and he is okay there on defense but hits infrequently now. Daniel Murphy had an incredible season offensively last year. The way he plays second base, he needs to continue that. You know all about Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross, and Tanner Roark. They’re good. The real super star on that staff, however, is Max Scherzer. He’s rather old school: lots of innings, 20 wins, lots of strikeouts. So, yes, the Nats are very good.  Are the playoffs a certainty? No.

The Mets are not, of course, just about pitching. The great Cubano Yoenis Cespedes remains in left field with superior offensive and defensive abilities. Another supposed star of the future, Michael Conforto, may perhaps be more like the next  Ron Swoboda than the next Roger Maris. Jay Bruce, formerly of Cincinnati fame, retains his power stroke if not his powerful arm in right field. Curtis Granderson is in center field more or less by default, as a strained oblique  hampers Juan Lagares, their best defensive outfielder. New York could probably use somebody  like Gregor Blanco or Angel Pagan as a fourth outfielder. Jose Reyes will man third base as David Wright continues to battle age and injury. Asdrubel Cabrera has become an all around good player at shortstop with pretty good offensive numbers for playing in that home yard. Neil Walker is slightly better defensively than Murphy was  and showed some home run pop before back surgery became necessary. He will be watched closely. It looks like Lucas Duda is the dude at first base and he now needs to hit like one. Rene Rivera is their best catcher but Travis  D’Arnaud will play more because he hits more. I’m not writing a damned thing about those pitchers except to say that top reliever Jeurys Familia will not be involved in the first 15 games because he had familia problemas.

The Philadelphia Phillies could surprise people a lot. The infield is developing with Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez at short and second in their mid twenties and Maikel Franco only 24. First baseman Tommy Joseph is only 24 and he is already a big improvement over Ryan Howard. Cameron Rupp hasn’t made anyone forget Chooch yet but he’s okay and getting better. The pitching could be surprisingly good or really awful, I don’t know. They were kind of both awful and good last year and you can’t trust that damned ballpark. I’m a bad pitching scout because they all look like Sandy Koufax to me. This year they added the enigmatic veteran Clay Buchholz. He knows hitters’ yards. Odubel Herrera is a good center fielder who will get plenty of exercise being flanked by Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick. Kendrick is a helpful veteran who can still play infield too.

Don Mattingly has made a great career in baseball working almost exclusively for villainous owners but, as manager of the Miami Marlins, it looked to some of us as though his big reward might have been coming last year. Now, with the devastating loss of Jose Fernandez it is conventional wisdom to assume that the Marlins will flounder. Could not resist, sorry. There remains, however, a lot of winning baseball talent to be managed, and Mattingly is the kind of guy to do that. The biggest word in springtime is if. If Dee Gordon can perform the way he did before whatever he was doing was found out, that would be a huge plus. If Giancarlo Stanton plays all season, that would be bigger than Donald Trump’s inflated ego. J.T. Realmuto is a potential all star at catcher. Martin Prado is a steadying influence and should perform well once he comes off the disabled list. Among a crop of outstanding shortstops in the majors currently, Adeiny Hechavarria has people all over the world learning how to spell his name. So the left side of the infield and half of the other side is top notch. Justin Bour needs to hit many many home runs to keep his job at first base. The outfield rivals Pittsburgh’s in quality, with Marcell Ozuna getting better in left, Christian Yelich superb in center, and Stanton (27 homers in 119 games and a good arm) in right. As for pitching, the signing of free agent Edinson Volquez will help if he has a season more like some of his  previous ones than his awful season with Kansas City last year. He has had an up and down career to say the least, but when he’s been good he has won.Dan Straily was very good for the Reds last year, Tom Koehler is mediocre at age 31, lefty Adam Conley was impressive in 25 starts last year, but Wei-Yin Chen needs to improve over his 4.96 ERA. The bullpen will be helped by veteran Brad Ziegler this season, and A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough, and Junichi Tazawa are more than adequate.

It’s not going to turn out the way we think it will. That’s why it’s fun.

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.