Take Me Out, Coach

With almost incredible suddenness, spring training is upon us once more, and not a moment too soon - hallelujah! This is comfort enough even for those who don't follow baseball much, a sure sign that spring is coming despite the fact that many of us are still a mite chilly. There's a palpable sense that the players enjoy it almost as much as the fans; many of them seem genuinely glad to renew old friendships and shake off the cobwebs of the off-season. Or winter, as the rest of us call it. But amid all this joy there is always grumbling from some quarters that spring training is, if not unnecessary, then at least overrated and certainly overlong. This has been especially true in recent times, when sky-rocketing salaries have provided the motivation for ballplayers to work out regularly during the winter and report in tip-top shape. It's argued that many of them could play real games right now, a far cry from the days before free agency when most players were working stiffs like the rest of us and had to hold down winter jobs to make ends meet. Many of them sold cars or insurance or worked in factories; Richie Hebner famously worked as a gravedigger in his off-seasons. Whatever the job, the work tended to discourage much winter training, so many players would show up to camp ten or fifteen pounds overweight and use the sunshine games to work themselves back into playing shape. Ex-Blue Jay slugger Edwin Encarnacion provided a fairly eloquent argument against the value of more [...]

Stop the Insanity!

I promise to return to jazz matters soon, but first a few thoughts on the currently nutso baseball schedule.......... For years now, the major-league baseball season has been a 162-game marathon, almost twice as many games as hockey or basketball teams play. Part of the reasoning behind this is that, as baseball is (mostly) a non-contact sport, the players can weather playing so much. And fans love the almost non-stop daily flow of action throughout the spring, summer and early autumn, with apologies to Ralph Burns and Stan Getz. Also, as pitching is such a variable and huge determining factor in the outcome of any given game, it's thought that a season this long is needed to separate the good teams from the bad. The problem with this "separate the wheat from the chaff" rationale is that there's an illusion built into the baseball season that's hard to see until you look closely: by design, each team plays an unbalanced schedule. By this I mean that as things stand now, each team plays its four divisional rivals 19 times, accounting for 76 games (4 x 19 = 76.) Each team plays 20 inter-league games, bringing the total to 96. That leaves 66 games, which each team plays against the 10 teams from the other divisions of their respective leagues. Even to the math-challenged, this doesn't add up, as 10 into 66 works out to 6.6 games. Call me crazy, but there's no such thing as .6 of a baseball game. What this means is that an American League team such as the Toronto Blue Jays more [...]

The Hank Aaron of Third Base

Third baseman Adrian Beltre turned 37 this past April and is playing his nineteenth season in the big leagues. This puts him in the home stretch of his career, but he has shown no signs of slowing down whatsoever. He's hitting .292, a few points higher than his career average, and clubbed his 25th home run the other day (his ninth season with at least that many.) He also knocked in his 89th run, so it seems likely he will drive in 100 runs for the first time in four years, and for the fifth time overall in his career. He's still getting it done with the glove and arm in the field and remains the key leader on a very good Texas Rangers team that is poised to capture its second straight AL West title. Even at 37, Beltre would be an upgrade at third base for most teams, the exceptions being Toronto (Josh Donaldson), Baltimore (Manny Machado), Colorado (Nolan Arenado), Tampa Bay (Evan Longoria) and the Cubs (Kris Bryant). In a very real sense, he's been the Hank Aaron of third base. This is not to say Beltre is the equal of Aaron as a player - he isn't, not even close. But very few are, a player like Aaron comes along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. What I mean is that their career trajectories - the longevity, the quiet steadiness, the amassing of career totals which have snuck up on baseball observers gradually - are very similar. Hank Aaron hit 35 to 45 home runs a year like clockwork and nobody noticed because he was so consistent and there was always more [...]

Wrap Your Troubles in Bombs

A Notice/Warning. When I first caught the writing bug about eight years ago, long before this blog site existed, I wrote a lot of pieces about baseball and circulated them by e-mail to a growing list of baseball-fan friends, many of them fellow musicians. All in all, I wrote over 100 of these and kept them archived in a file on a computer at home. I've decided to revisit some of the better ones, make some changes and edits and post some of them here occasionally, mostly to have them somewhere public. This will also allow me to post things to keep the site going, while I toil away on some longer music pieces. A much busier work schedule and other distractions have slowed down my writing considerably, as some may have noticed. Those way-back readers who have already seen these baseball essays may want to re-read them as there will be substantive changes and, hopefully, improvements made. For those who don't like or care about baseball, my apologies, simply delete them when they're posted. There's no law that says you have to read them. However, as baseball reflects many things beyond itself, some of you may find them interesting and get something out of reading these pieces. I hope so, anyway. Here's the first in a semi-regular series: - - - At the very core of baseball's evolution is the age-old confrontation between pitcher and hitter. This can be seen in the micro-view of one at-bat or a series of at-bats in a single game, or in the macro-view of broad hitting and pitching more [...]

Ichiro: A Baseball Artist Reaches 3,000

At 42, Ichiro Suzuki is just a few hits shy of becoming the 30th player to reach the 3,000-hit milestone. He could get there as early as this weekend and, in his sixteenth big-league season he will become the second fastest to achieve this, behind only career hits leader Pete Rose. When he does crank out hit number 3,000, he will join Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor as the only players with at least 3,000 hits, 500 or more stolen bases and a career batting average over .300. That, ladies and gentleman, is what is known as select company. Reaching 3,000 hits speaks to both talent and endurance and is an achievement rivaled only by 300 wins for a pitcher, or 500 home runs for a slugger. It's always marked and celebrated, but Ichiro's case is special, more of an historic landmark that goes beyond the boundaries of baseball norms. He will become the first non-American player to reach this rarefied plateau. And, more importantly, he will become the first - and likely the only - player to do so after beginning his major-league career at the fairly late age of 27. He came to the majors with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after a sensational nine-year career in Japan with the Orix Blue Wave, which made him that country's most famous athlete, known simply as "Ichiro". He began his pro career in 1992 at 18 and might have become a star sooner, except that his hidebound manager Shõzõ Doi refused to accept his unorthodox batting stance and "pendulum" more [...]

Big Papi, Not Going Gently

David Ortiz, the Buddha-like designated-hitter of the Boston Red Sox known as "Big Papi", turned 40 last November. Shortly thereafter he announced that this season, his twentieth in the big leagues, would be his last. Ordinarily, when a star ballplayer reaches this stage their decision to retire is greeted by fans with a mixture of relief, admiration and a desire to look back misty-eyed over the satisfying achievements of a long and storied career. We think, "Whew, I'm glad he knows it's time and is going out on his own terms with some dignity while he can still get it done, instead of looking bad trying to milk one last pathetic season out of his decrepit body." Or something like that. Well, think again folks: Ortiz has turned all this on its head by having, even by his own lofty standards and at such an advanced baseball age, an astonishing season. He is not giving us a swan song, but more of a swan opera. He's currently leading all of baseball in four important hitting categories: doubles, with 26; RBI, with 55; slugging percentage, an amazing .728; and an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of 1.153. For good measure, he is also among the leaders in home runs (16, tied for sixth), batting average (.340, fourth) and on-base-percentage (.425, third.) Surprisingly, in spite of reaching base so often and playing on such a prodigious hitting team, he's scored just 28 runs, but the reasons for this are fairly obvious. He was never fast and is even slower now, so quite regularly after more [...]

A Goose by Any Other Name

So, I'm still making like Herman Punster, playing around with baseball names and song titles. Fortunately for all though, it's winding down. One of the challenges of doing this is negotiating the difference between how a name looks and the way it sounds. For example, a reader left one I really enjoyed - "Tiant Steps" - after John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and the ageless Cuban pitcher, Luis Tiant. It works beautifully on paper, a good visual pun, but Tiant's name is pronounced like "tea-aunt", making "Tiant for Two" a better ear-pun. The best song puns work both ways, but they're hard to come up with. I tripped up on pronunciations a few times in my first long pun-post and had to change a couple. My friend Bill Kirchner has huge ears and eagle eyes. He pointed out to me that even as a self-confessed "non-baseball fanatic", he was pretty sure Bobby Knoop's last name was pronounced like "Knopp", meaning it didn't really work for "What's Knoop?" ("What's New?"). So, "But Knoop For Me" would be better. It was the same with Clem Labine - I somehow got it into my head that his name was pronounced "Labeen" and used that for "It's Labine A Long, Long Time". But his last name rhymes with "fine", so I changed the song to "Labine & Dandy". Given that the general populace of North America numbers in the hundreds of millions and there have only been ten or twelve thousand major-league ballplayers, it's amazing that there have been such a disproportionately high number of funny, tongue-twisting more [...]

This Swobodes Well…..

Toward the end of yesterday's "Diamonds Are A Churl's Best Friend" post, I confessed to not being able to dream up any song-puns using the names Ron Swoboda or Sandy Koufax, and expressed a wish that readers would help out in this regard. Well, it didn't take long.....A first-time commenter sent this brilliant one using Swoboda: "You Swoboda My Head" - "You Go To My Head" A gem, a pearl, it made me swoon. It also made me think of another one almost as good: "(I'd Like To Get You On A) Swoboda China" Think Elmer Fudd singing it.... No good news on the Sandy Koufax front though - he retired with a sore arm and has left me with a sore head. However, I think I've met the Bill Wambsganss ("woms-gants") challenge: "I Wambs Ganss" As in "I wambs ganss, don't ask me. I wambs ganss, why should I? I wambs ganss, merci beaucoup..." Well, you get the picture... I also thought of one that amused me because it's bilingual and uses the name of a favourite old player - Earl Averill, who was a great centerfielder with the Cleveland Indians before World War Two. His life and career are so interesting I wrote a whole piece about him called "Show Me the Money" which is posted elsewhere on this site. 'Averill in Paris" (His name works pretty good for "April" in English, but even better in French - Avril.)                                                               *** Returning to Ron Swoboda, some may more [...]

The Heart Is A Lonely Bunter

Recently, a good friend who knows I like song puns sent me a list of unlikely ones involving soccer players' names and old songs, the work of her son and a pal of his. Their puns were very witty and amusing, combining an amazing knowledge of standard tunes with multinational football names - how many people know that much about either? I follow soccer a little, but mostly during the World Cup and Euro Cup, so I was only able to get some of the puns because I knew all the song titles and was able to extrapolate the footie names I didn't know. Three of the best were "Ribery Thought of You", using French star Frank Ribery; "Iniestadays", after his Spanish counterpart Andres Ianesta; and "My Favourite Frings", using my favourite soccer name, Torsten Frings, of Germany. Loving a challenge as I do - although my poor, innocent friend certainly wasn't throwing down the gauntlet - I thought, hmmm......I don't know many soccer names, but I do know baseball names. So I set about altering song titles with ballplayers' names to form a list of cringe-worthy song puns, what me might call "The Days of Wine and Rojas". I can't take credit for that one, I'm afraid. Let me explain......For a while back in the early '60s, the Philadelphia Phillies had a keystone combination of Bobby Wine at shortstop and Cookie Rojas at second base and they led the league a few times in double-plays turned. A Philly press-box wag dubbed the era "The Days of Wine and Rojas" after the famous movie, which came more [...]

Beachcombing

A baseball season is like a vast ocean of plays, numbers and events taking place in games that come at us daily, with the relentlessness of waves breaking on a shoreline. It's impossible to keep track of everything or take it all in, but if you pay attention randomly, you're bound to see things that haven't happened in a long time or perhaps ever, left like nuggets washed up on a beach. For example, on Thursday night I tuned in late to a game between the Texas Rangers and the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium. It was an extreme pitchers' duel, tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Texas reliever Keone Kela walked the first two Dodger hitters, not a great idea under the circs. But then he induced the next Dodger to tap into the pitcher's best friend, a double-play, the lead runner advancing to third base with two out. Perched there, the base-runner began feinting toward home, just enough to distract Kela, whose pitching arm made a tiny reflexive flinch, practically invisible, but not to the umpires. That's all it took, the ump called Kela for a balk and the winning run came home, it was a balk-off walk-off, a horrible way to lose such a game. I'm sure games have ended this way before, but not very often with such a minimal 1-0 score. It was similar on Sunday in a game between the Rays and Indians in Cleveland. The Rays sent one of their seemingly endless supply of good starting pitchers to the mound in Alex Colome and the Indians countered with a minor-league call-up more [...]

Mo Woe

At age 58, it's probably too late for me to outgrow my infantile fascination with funny baseball names and numbers. As all of us who care know, baseball stats only mean anything when taken in context and measured against norms, and they have a way of averaging out over the course of a whole year, or a career. But in the early going of a season, like now, they can be wonderfully skewed, either freakishly high or low, because the sample size of games is still so small. For example, take Brock Holt, the super-sub of the Boston Red Sox. He plays second, third, short, centerfield, does impressions and doubles as bat-boy, and entered yesterday's action with a batting average over .600. Or on the other end of the spectrum, our brand new All-Star catcher Russell Coltrane ("A Glove Supreme") Martin, who's currently batting .043 and is still in search of his second hit as a Blue Jay. You just know that by season's end both these guys will we hitting somewhere between .250 and .280, unless something goes wonderfully right or horribly wrong for them. In April, players can go from spaghetti-bat to feared slugger in a day, like Boston's Dustin Pedroia. He entered Tuesday's action hitting .212 - "Pedroia, you suck!!" - then promptly raised his batting average to about .280 with three hits and a walk in one game - "Just kidding Pedey, we love you, you're still the best!!" It's even wilder with pitchers and their key stat of earned-run-average, or ERA. (Any of you dangerous intellectuals more [...]

Someone Has To Blink First

The second round of the baseball playoffs continued where the first one left off, with tense, exciting, rollercoaster individual games in two series that didn't come close to going the full distance. The Royals swept the ALCS against the Orioles, yet the first game was decided in extra innings, they won the second one by breaking a tie with a two-run ninth-inning rally and the final two games were decided by the same bare 2-1 score - not that close, yet very close. It was similar in the National League, where the Giants needed one over the bare minimum to dispatch the Cardinals in five, yet the games themselves were hotly contested and extremely competitive. The opener, won 3-0 by the Giants, was a relatively tame affair predictably dominated by the stingy pitching of Madison Bumgarner, but the other games were all hairy, see-saw battles decided late, either by walk-off home runs (by the Cards in Game Two and the Giants in Game Five), or by unlikely, opportunistic rallies by the Giants off various Cardinal sins, if you will (passed balls, wild pitches, errant throws to home, first base, etc.). I'm getting older and my memory may be at fault, but I can't recall a baseball postseason with so many tight, dramatic games and surprising turns, and with so few one-sided stinkers. The only laughers were the Giants' 8-0 win over the Pirates in the NL wild-card game, and the Royals' ALDS-clinching 8-3 win over the Angels, which was still thrilling because it involved a team winning more [...]

L.D.S. = Lively, Dramatic, Surprising

The first round of the baseball playoffs - known as the League Divisional Series (LDS) - have just finished and already, the games have provided a nail-biting cornucopia, enough surprises and thrills to last an entire postseason. There have been lots of extra-inning games, one-run games, lead reversals, nervous ninths, late-inning heroics, close plays, strategic brilliance and managerial blunders, clutch-hitting and clutch-whiffing, great pitching and fielding and not-so-great pitching and fielding. Even some of the bad plays have at least been startling and dramatic, not to mention occasionally bizarre and even ironic, such as catcher Buster Posey being involved as a runner in two key outs at the plate, both of which were so close they needed slo-mo reviews. It was the horrific injury to Posey several years ago while blocking the plate that led to the new rule requiring catchers to leave a sliding lane for an oncoming runner - how odd that he would be on the other end of this twice in one series. None of the games have been boring, so where to start? The first Orioles-Tigers game last Thursday ended up with the laugher score of 12-3, but was a one-run game - 4-3, Orioles entering the bottom of the eighth, when all hell broke loose. There was a double and a Tigers' error, they yanked Max Scherzer and Baltimore immediately got to Detroit's fire-brigade of a bullpen, starting with chief arsonist Joba "The Hutt" Chamberlain, who's looking more and more like an extra from more [...]

October Salamis

  First of all, I want to apologize for the many typos in yesterday's post. I wrote it in some haste and to a tight deadline, owing to an early-evening recording session. Also, my editor - namely me - edits like Emilio Bonifacio plays second base, i.e. clumsily. I also want to apologize in advance to those of you who are jazz fans rather than ball fans, because I'll probably be writing mostly about baseball the next little while, for a number of reasons. First of all, 'tis the season - it's October, when the most meaningful games are played, after a 162-game marathon just to determine the dance-partners. And I've neglected baseball for quite a while, and have heard about this from readers who are baseball fans. You can't please everybody, not even if you try. Also, a string of recently published idiotic articles and other items about jazz have set my head to spinning and left me wanting to take a rest from it for a while, rather than use what's left of my energy to respond, which is a waste of time. (These items include the New Yorker Sonny Rollins "spoof" which backfired badly, Justin Moyer's moronic "jazz hit-piece" in The Washington Post, which basically stated that jazz isn't any good because he doesn't like or understand it, and John Halle's piece in a leftist rag called Jacobin, which more or less said that jazz isn't important anymore because it has lost its counter-culture appeal and political relevancy, whatever that means. Gee, and I thought it was more [...]

Season Wrap

  My last baseball piece was a naïve, premature and overly optimistic one about the then-brimming fortunes of the Blue Jays, written as they stood in the sunshine of first place, about fourteen games above .500. They promptly stumbled, then really fell apart in August and, scraping egg off my face, I resolved never to write about baseball again. I felt like a know-nothing hack and a jinx to boot (not that I'm superstitious about baseball or anything, no...).You knew that this self-imposed embargo wasn't going to last forever though and, seeing as the baseball season just ended and that I'm far too confused about jazz at the moment to write anything intelligible about it, I thought I'd chime in with a few thoughts on the grand old game and the season just past. Adieu, Konerko. Almost without mention and utterly lost amid the season-long, overblown spectacle that was Derek Jeter's farewell tour - the tribute gifts from all MLB teams, the epic, almost cinematic "RE2PECT" commercials from the likes of Nike and Gatorade, the endless fan signs and feel-good moments and so on, ad nauseam - was the fact that another important and worthy ballplayer played his last game on Sunday - Paul Konerko. Even given that the countdown to Jeter's last game reached a fever pitch and hogged all of the spotlight, the media coverage of Konerko's retirement still was shamefully minimal - I only happened to catch a small clip of his final moment by accident while watching the Jays' final more [...]

Around the Old Ball Yards….

Some random thoughts on the current baseball season.......... There are many ways to spell tough luck in baseball, it's that kind of game...one of the best ways this year is S-a-m-a-r-d-z-i-j-a, as in pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Coming into this week, he had a brilliant ERA of about 1.64, but absolutely zilch to show for it - a record of 0-4. Of course he pitches for a bad team, in fact the 'poster-boy' of all bad teams, the Cubs. This year and last, they're about as bad as they've ever been, I just don't get it.....can't they be good, just once, just for a little while? C'mon, God..... would ya? Pleeze? Samardzija started Wednesday afternoon's inter-league game against the Yanks in Wrigley Field. The night before, the Cubbies shocked themselves and the free world by clobbering the Bronx boys, 6-1. But could this sudden astounding competence and outrageous good fortune continue for our fair-haired boy with the great ERA and eye-chart name? Nooooo. Samardzija threw seven stellar innings, giving up nothing - a couple of measly hits, no walks, no runs and actually lowering his ERA to 1.46. But not only did he not get the win, neither did the Cubs, they lost 3-2 in thirteen.......Jeezus, what does a guy have to do to get a win around there? Sacrifice his mother? Cut off his pitching arm? Samardzija was one of the pitchers the Jays were trying to pry loose in their futile off-season pursuit of a starter, he sure would look good in a Toronto uniform. They'll have to join more [...]

.500, Ho!

The weather around these parts hasn't consistently warmed up yet (a sort of "Prague Spring"), but already the baseball season has reached the quarter-mark, with most teams having played about 40 games. The baseball has been similarly lukewarm, so far it's mostly been characterized by the high number of teams treading water at a winning percentage of .500 or so. Of the 30 MLB teams, 23 are within five games of either side of the break-even mark. If you wanted to use a tighter standard of say, three games either side of even, there are still 18 teams there, which seems high even at this still early point. Only four teams are significantly above .500 - the Tigers (24-12), A's (25-16), Giants (26-15) and, perhaps surprisingly, the Brewers (25-15). (I say perhaps in the Brewers' case because they were a consistent contender recently until falling into a big hole last year, when their star slugger Ryan Braun was forced to take an extended timeout for drinking his classmates' apple juice.) The good news is that there are only three teams far below the .500 mark - the Astros (14-27), the Cubs (13-25) and Arizona (16-27). The first two are hardly a surprise, but few expected the D-backs to be this bad. Everybody else is just kind of plugging along, winning a few, losing a few, week in and week out. There are all sorts of ways to break this down, most of them offering mild to jarring shocks. For example, the two teams who played in last year's World Series - Boston and more [...]

Grope Things External

...Sorry, that should be "hope springs eternal"....man, have we needed this. After a harsh winter that tried even the hardiest of souls among us, the Boys of Summer are back with their grand old game and not a moment too soon, Opening Day at last. Cue the massed choirs of the Hallelujah chorus, bring on the William Tell Overture, "Auld Lang Syne","Take Me Out To the Ballgame" and whatever other celebratory music seems appropriate. Play it all, make it festive and stirring because once again, our prayers have been answered. The grass (OK, some fake stuff too), the crack of bat on ball, the whoosh of a high, hard one, the ballet of a niftily turned double-play, even the rancid scent of stale hot dogs and overpriced swill-beer ...man, have we ever needed this. The return of baseball is such a balm and a blessing, especially when the nice weather is dragging its butt and we're not out of the winter woods yet. Its arrival comes with other perks too, like the appearance of the first box-scores in today's morning papers. Amid all the wrenching chaos of change - which, after all, is nothing but the gradual stripping away of all that we hold dear - there's something very comforting in knowing that people have been digesting these lovely, tiny columns of numbers and abbreviations along with their corn-flakes and coffee for well over a century now. Keep progress, give me the box-scores. They provide much better morning reading than the sordid, loutish miasma of politics, business more [...]

Apologia, More on Halladay

Yesterday's post on Roy Halladay as usual contained a few small typos and grammatical mistakes but also a factual error - I posted it in some haste because of the time-sensitve nature of his retirement. The typos I can live with, but factual errors bug me, I try not to make many of those. For some reason, I got it into my head that Halladay had an 18-year career, with 14 seasons in Toronto; it was actually 16 years, with 12 in Toronto. This mistake was compounded by being repeated several times through the piece, so I'm sorry. This and the other boo-boos have been corrected. In arguing Roy's HOF case I made comparisons between Halladay and three HOF pitchers with similar borderline-low win totals, but great supplementary stats - Koufax, Vance and Drysdale. After posting the piece, I thought of another famous pitcher I might have added - Whitey Ford - but it's just as well I left him out in the interests of shortening the piece. The more I think about it though, the more relevant and apt the comparison between Whitey and Roy becomes. This may seem laughable at first because of the obvious differences between them. Ford was a small left-hander and Halladay was a big, strapping righty. Whitey was a noted urbanite party animal, a running buddy of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, whereas Halladay was a country boy at heart, with ascetic personal habits that would make a Mormon look like a citizen of Sodom. And Ford pitched for the great Yankees and had a huge post-season more [...]

Is Roy Halladay A Hall-of-Famer?

At 36, pitcher Roy Halladay announced his retirement the other day, signing a one-day contract with the Blue Jays which will allow him to retire as one, a classy move by all concerned. It's gratifying to local baseball fans that this was clearly important to Halladay, and for one glorious moment there, I thought he'd actually signed a real pitching contract for next year, Lord knows we could use him if he were healthy. Roy cited a chronic back condition which led to ongoing shoulder injuries as the reason for his early retirement. I was a bit surprised given his not too advanced age and fanatical devotion to fitness that he couldn't have pitched longer, but I'm glad he's made his peace with retirement, this way he isn't risking permanent physical impairment. So the question on many baseball fans' minds now becomes : Did Roy Halladay have a Hall of Fame-calibre career? And if so, will he be elected? (The two are not quite the same question. The first one could be argued either way, but given the often inexplicable decisions of HOF voters over the years, the only honest and smart answer to the second question is : Who the hell knows?) Most commentators have described Halladay as a borderline HOF candidate, which is about right on the face of things, given his raw numbers alone. This means he is at least in the running and worthy of consideration, it could go either way. I heard TV baseball analyst Steve Phillips interviewed on a local sportscast and he said that in more [...]

Shake Hands With the D.L.

In May of this year, I read that 104 pitchers have been on the major-league D.L. (disabled list) since the beginning of 2012, that number likely rose by 50 or 60 more by season's end. If memory serves, at one point in the 2012 season there were something like 35 pitchers out of action and scheduled for Tommy John surgery, many of them relief closers. That procedure deals with the elbow only and doesn't take into account frequent injuries to the shoulder (often rotator cuff), wrist, forearm, back or legs. Of course Blue Jays' fans are well acquainted with this, in 2012 the team lost three of its five starting pitchers to injury in one week, two of them for the whole season (Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison) and the other for a good chunk of it (Brandon Morrow.) This doesn't include relievers Sergio Santos (out again after missing most of last season) and Luis Perez (on the D.L. long-term) or Dustin McGowan, who's been out so regularly he's considering changing his name to D.L. McGowan. Or Ricky Romero, who didn't injure his arm last year but rather his pitching psyche, maybe permanently by the looks of things this year. Nobody could remember seeing anything like what happened with the three Jays starters in 2012; it was quite bizarre and marked the beginning of their season's slide into oblivion, this past season wasn't much better in this regard. Pitchers getting hurt is nothing new of course, they've always been prone to various arm injuries mainly because the human more [...]

Oucho Marks, or Bruising in the Bronx

The Boston Red Sox did some more crazy stuff over the weekend that ties in with the 20-run game I wrote about on Thursday. On Thursday night, I decided to treat myself to some home theatre, the Red Sox against their nemesis at Yankee Stadium II in the first of 4 games, they're always like Troy vs. Sparta. It was a four-and-a-half hour marathon with everything except flying elephants and a public beheading. The Sox won 9-8 after being up 8-2 and then giving up 6 runs to the Yankees in a seventh inning that lasted 45 minutes. Then, as they've done more often than any other team, they got to Mariano Rivera, scoring a run off him in the top of the ninth. The game finally over, I was exhausted, sweaty, panting and when my wife Anna saw me moments later, she asked, "What's wrong?" "Oh nothing.........how was your movie?" The next night we were at my nephew's wedding and I didn't see the Red Sox beat the Yankees, 12-8. So, 20 runs, then 9, then 12, that's 41 over three nights, not bad. On Saturday, Anna was recovering from the wedding (think The Wild Bunch meets Flashdance) and spent most of the day in bed, which allowed me to watch Part 3 of Sox-Yankees in the afternoon. It was a rare chance to catch some baseball while also achieving domestic brownie points, making lunch, dinner, serving tea, etc. Heh heh..... Anyway, the announcers mentioned on Saturday that the first two games of this set marked the first time the Yankees had scored at least 8 runs in back-to-back games and more [...]

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Laughers

On Wednesday night, the Boston Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 20-4 in Fenway Park. This is what's known in baseball as a laugher, so called because these kinds of games are inherently farcical. It's rare for any team to score as many as 20 runs and usually in these cases the losing team stops wasting pitchers and will use some bench/position players to pitch. This also gets pretty funny, often because these guys are not half-bad and stop the bleeding. Strange as the game was, seeing it at all was an odd coincidence too. If I'd been home I would have missed it, but my wife Anna and I went to my son Graeme's place to help him hang some of my dad's paintings. Graeme had the Yankees-White Sox game on with no sound, then switched to the Fenway game on some channel I don't have on my cable TV package. The Sox and Tigers were tied 4-4 in the fifth or so and I thought....hmmm, good game. I finished hanging a picture and noticed the Sox had gone up 5-4. About five minutes later I'd finished another and it was 10-4 - what the? Somebody must have hit a grand slam. and as I found it later it was Will Middlebrooks, Boston's suddenly red-hot third baseman. After that, every time I looked back to the game, the Sox had added on to the score - 12-4, 14-4, 16-4. It was getting silly, the Tigers kept bringing in their minor-league call-up pitchers and the Sox kept bashing them. David Ortiz hit two of Boston's total of eight home runs, a record for each team, but on opposite sides of the baseball. The more [...]

The Bucs Tops Here

Don't look now, but after twenty straight losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates entered August with the best record in baseball at 65-43, two percentage points ahead of the Red Sox. True, they've teased their fans the last two seasons by flirting with contention this late, only to collapse down the stretch like a straw suitcase. This year feels different though, for a few reasons to be examined later. Their last winning season was 1992, the last of three 90-win years from 1990-92. To give some idea of how long ago that was, George H.W. Bush was the President, Desert Storm was in full swing and the Internet was in its infancy. One of the Pirates' star pitchers was Kyle Drabek's father Doug and another was Tim Wakefield, at the beginning of his long, recently finished career. Their main star was Barry Bonds, back when he was skinny, when there were asteroids, deltoids and hemorrhoids, but steroids were a problem for the Olympics and the Tour de France to deal with..... right? The manager was Jim Leyland in his first go-round, looking about a century younger than he does now. They had some other stars in Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla, but it all fell apart abruptly in '93 and the team entered a wasteland, not just losing games, but hope. No payroll, no fans, no prospects, no direction, no nothin'. This pattern is entirely in keeping with the team's past; its history is marked by brief (or sometimes slightly longer) periods of contention built around a few stars, followed more [...]

Surviving Greatness: Wally Pipp & Billy Taylor

A rare few have had the misfortune to be established and very good at what they do, only to be suddenly eclipsed by a wunderkind and relegated to oblivion through no fault of their own. In fact, if these poor souls are remembered at all, it's often only because of the greatness of those who supplanted them. One might call this the Salieri-Mozart dynamic, a most extreme case explored in the movie Amadeus. It's a kind of halo-effect in reverse, as in, "Oh yeah, I remember him...... he's the guy who was replaced by....... (insert famous name)." It was this way with Wally Pipp in baseball, for example. He was a very good first baseman - not quite a star, but good enough to be a regular with the Yankees from 1915-25, before and after Babe Ruth joined them. One fateful day during the 1925 season, he begged out of the line-up with a headache and was replaced by a kid named Lou Gehrig. Baseball fans all know the rest, the phenom absolutely tore it up and Pipp never played another game at first base for the Yanks, as Gehrig embarked on his incredible streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games. He was a charter member of "Murderer's Row", eventually became "The Iron Horse" and of course had a mythical career, the stuff glory is made of. He's likely the greatest first baseman of all time, certainly the most famous and best-loved one. His play and statistics established all this, but Gehrig's untimely death from the disease now named after him - and his stirring speech to more [...]

No Walk In the Park

The following article could be seen as a rant or attack on Jays' catcher J.P. Arencibia, but is not really intended as such. It's just that his struggles this year and his attitude about these bring up some larger issues about baseball - what's important in it, how it should be played and so on - that I wanted to comment on. Before going any further though, I want to make two things clear: 1) I don't dislike Arencibia at all. In fact, so far in his still young career I've generally liked him in a personal, subjective way, been pulling for him as a fan. I don't know the man, but he seems to be an outgoing, humorous, friendly sort, the kind of person who gets involved with the community where he plays, tries to do some good, is popular with his teammates and fans. In short, he seems to be a good guy and Lord knows we need more of those. 2) Believe it or not, this article was not provoked by the recent war of words between Arencibia and Sportsnet commentators Gregg Zaun and Dick Hayhurst. I've been intending to write about Arencibia for some time now, I just haven't found the time. However, the recent outburst makes this post more timely and has some relevance to what I wanted to say, so I'll certainly comment on it.   *** Most would agree that at the very core of baseball lies the constant battle between pitcher and batter. There are other aspects of the game like base-running, fielding, strategy and so on, but these all stem from this central confrontation - more [...]

Doubling Up

Generally, the ballplayers who hold single-season records in various hitting categories are famous, and rightly so. Take for example home runs, maybe the most glamorous of these categories. For a long time the single-season record was the 60 home runs hit in 1927 by Babe Ruth, still the most famous ballplayer who ever lived. Just for good measure, The Bambino also holds the all-time seasonal records for total bases, slugging average and extra-base hits. Then along came Roger Maris in 1961, breaking Babe's record with 61 dingers, earning himself great fame, an asterisk, largely unsympathetic press, clumps of hair falling out and a near nervous breakdown for his trouble. That record stood till the needle-jumpers came along in the late 1990s. Mark McGwire broke the Maris record with 70 homers in 1998, only to be eclipsed three years later when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Their PED use has tarnished these records somewhat, but those two (and Sammy Sosa) are still famous and infamous at the same time. With RBIs, it's Hack Wilson with 191 in 1930 with the Cubs, a record that hasn't been nearly approached and Wilson is famous for this alone. Miguel Cabrera has an outside chance of challenging this with 85 so far, but he'll have to get awfully hot in the second half to do it, it's not likely. He may have a shot at breaking Lou Gehrig's American League record of 184, set in 1931. There aren't many players more famous than Gehrig and he was maybe the greatest RBI guy of all time, more [...]

Oh, So … Minoso

At the end of my last post I wrote, with tongue mainly in cheek, that I wish I could have played major-league ball, but that the chances of this happening were a big fat zero. My friend Ted O'Reilly commented that this was just as well, that my career in music has been much longer than any ballplayer's, with the possible exception of Minnie Minoso, who managed to play in parts of seven decades. This is true and a good point, but also reminds me that I wrote a fairly long piece about Minoso a couple of years ago. So, I thought this was maybe a good time to dig it up and post it. It's a profile of his baseball life and career, as well as an argument on behalf of him deserving to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I wrote it, I felt strongly that Minnie Minoso and Ron Santo were the two best players not in the HOF. Shortly thereafter, Santo was elected, unfortunately a few months after his premature death. Minnie is now 90 and still seems to be mostly in good health, so I'm hoping the HOF voters don't repeat this dumb, 'better too late than never' timing and will put him in while he's still here to enjoy it. I'm not holding my breath though, and I hope Minnie isn't either. Here then is a look at one of the most versatile, durable, interesting and joyous players ever in baseball history.                                                         *** Like single-malt whiskies and jazz records, the Baseball Hall more [...]

It’s Ball In the Family

With over 350 sets of brothers and more than 100 father-son combinations, major-league baseball has had far more family acts in its history than any other sport. This doesn't include the rarer examples of nine sets of twins who played the game or the four instances of players over three generations - grandfather, father and son. There's even a very rare case of baseball spanning four generations (while skipping two) as in the case of Jim Bluejacket, who pitched for Brooklyn and Cincinnati in 1914-16, and his great-grandson Bill Wilkinson, who pitched for the Mariners from 1985-88. Don't get alarmed, I didn't know most of this stuff or anything, I looked it up at a nifty feature of the site BaseballAlmanac.com called The Baseball Family Tree, which lists all of this in detail. The biggest set of baseball-playing brothers were the five Delahanty boys from Cleveland - Ed, Tom, Joe, Jim and Frank - who all played in and around the turn of the century, 1888-1915. Tom, Joe and Frank had relatively short and spotty careers, but Jim played for thirteen seasons in the big leagues and put up some pretty decent numbers. Ed, the eldest, was the real talent in the family though, a major star outfielder of his day, posthumously enshrined in the Hall of Fame since 1945. He hit .346 lifetime and drove in nearly 1,500 runs in a career cut short in the middle of its sixteenth year by his mysterious and sudden death at age 36. Ed was something of a sport, a big socializer and drinker, more [...]

Don’t Look Now, But….

Most baseball fans know that Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers did something last year that no ballplayer has since 1967. He won the batting Triple Crown, which means he lead his league in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs-batted-in (RBI), with 139. Oddly enough his teammate Justin Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown - leading in wins, ERA and strikeouts - in 2011. This is not talked about nearly as much and for good reason, the pitching version is a lot easier to manage, a lot more commonplace. The hitting trifecta is extremely hard to pull off, but in the past hitters managed it now and then. In fact, the year before Carl Yastrzemski last turned the trick in 1967 with the Red Sox, Frank Robinson also managed it with the Orioles in his first season in the American League, odd. Nobody has won it in the National League since Joe "Ducky" Medwick with the Cards in 1937, a drought of 75 years and counting. The fact nobody won it for 45 years drew a lot of commentary as to the reasons why, whether somebody would ever do it again, who it would likely be and yadda, yadda. A few players have come close recently - Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Cabrera himself a few other times. One of the theories put forth about the drought was general, but made sense - that, as any field improves and grows stronger, it becomes harder and harder for one individual to dominate it - this could certainly hold true in baseball. Cabrera more [...]

Birds, Songs, Memory and Coincidence

One of the perks of working at Osgoode Hall is seeing the grounds in spring and summer, all the beautiful trees and gardens maintained by two very hard-working women. There are about five blossoming crab-apple trees that recently came into spectacular bloom and on Friday morning I saw a flash of orange fly up into one of them. I thought "Baltimore Oriole" right away, but it happened so fast I wasn't sure. So I walked over and stood under the tree, pouring rain and all, peering up through the branches like a gawking idiot. Which is pretty much what I am. Sure enough, there were two orioles, orange as pumpkins, flitting around in the lush pink blossoms. It makes sense, orioles have a sweet tooth and they're likely getting some nectar here, so maybe they'll hang out for a few days. You may have gathered that apart from jazz and baseball, I'm also pretty crazy about birds and songs, which kind of go together. If I'd been with Frank Sinatra and the rest of "The Rat Pack" back in the day (I wish), their motto might have been "Let's get some birds, baseball, bebop, booze and broads and be somebody." I can't tell you what a lovely thrill and surprise it was to see these birds like this, but I'll try. The last time I remember seeing an oriole was in the backyard of my parent's first house in Scarborough, which had several big old elm trees. I have a tiny but crystal-clear memory of looking up through the elm branches one summer day and seeing one perched high up there, the sun more [...]

Bearing Up In the Depression

Given their dismal record of losing and being almost continual baseball chumps from 1946 to this very day, it might strain belief to suggest the Chicago Cubs had a second decade of success nearly equalling that of the 1904-13 teams. Nevertheless, in the Depression years of 1929-38, the Cubs came close to matching the great run of their predecessors. True, the later teams didn't win any championships or nearly as many games, didn't concentrate four pennants in a five-year period. But their record in terms of league-standing over a decade was the same, if more diffuse - they won four pennants (one every three years in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938) and finished in second or third place the other years. The Cubs from this period have long interested me, they provide a lively and fascinating window into the baseball of that time, which was eventful, exciting, marked by colourful personalities and intense competition. These teams were packed with good and great players, some famous, others less so. There were three regulars who would go into the Hall of Fame - catcher Gabby Hartnett, right-fielder Kiki Cuyler and second baseman Billy Herman. Many believe that another regular - third baseman Stan Hack - also deserves this honour. Apart from these, there were four other Hall-of-Famers who played short stints with the team - second baseman Rogers Hornsby (1929-32), right-fielder Chuck Klein (1934-35), pitchers Burleigh Grimes (1932-33) and Dizzy Dean (1938-41.) They had some real characters more [...]

Bearing Up

I've been reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract off and on for over two years now and it just keeps on giving. It's not the kind of book you read from cover to cover, it's far too big for that. It has to be digested in small portions, but, even so, I'm still coming across things I've missed. It continues to yield surprising and thought-provoking information, such as the following from a short piece about the Chicago Cubs of the early 1900s. The 1906 Cubs won 116 games, still a record for wins in a season, equaled by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, albeit playing a longer, 162-game schedule. The Mariners' record was 116-46, the '06 Cubs were an astonishing 116-36 in 152 games. (There was a 154-game schedule back then, but missed games were often not made up unless necessary.) The 1907 Cubs won 107 games; combined with the '06 record, the 223 wins is a record over two years. The '08 Cubs won 99 games and the 322 wins 1906-08 is a record over three years. The pattern continues - they won 426 games from 1906-09 and 530 from 1906-10, both records for a four- and five-year span. They won 622 games over the six years 1905-10, still by far a record. The only team to come close to this was the Cardinals from 1941-46, with 606 wins. The Cubs won 715 games over seven years (1904-10) and 807 over an eight-year period (1904-11), you guessed it, both records. (The Yankees won 799 games in the eight years between 1936-43.) The record-setting string continues with 898 wins 1904-12 more [...]

Winging It in Buffalo

I wrote this after first making a baseball trip to Buffalo in August of 2011.  With the Blue Jays' AAA farm team now located there, the piece has new relevance, so I thought I'd revive it.  Besides, given how awful the big club has been so far, Buffalo may be the nearest place for Toronto fans to actually see something like major-league baseball being played.  While thousands of Canadian baseball fans made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown yesterday to witness the Hall of Fame inductions of Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick, two friends and I made a baseball trek ourselves on Sunday. Ted O'Reilly, Sam Levene and I shuffled off to Buffalo to take in a Bisons' ball game. Ted and I have been friends for years and he was the main instigator of the trip, put out the initial feelers, did the driving and knows the lay of the land, having made this trip a few times. For this I'm grateful - thanks Ted - it was a great time. High among the pleasures of the day was getting to know Sam Levene better. He and I met once very briefly in a jazz club years ago and we've been back and forth on email of late, but didn't really know one another. As soon as I set eyes on him, I thought "Phil Rizzuto". Like the Scooter, Sam is a small, cheerful, gentle man with wavy grey hair and glasses, though he isn't given to calling anyone a "huckleberry". Sam knows his baseball and jazz, is soft-spoken, good company and a veteran of baseball road trips. Once a year, he and some friends have set out by more [...]

Show Me the Way To Go Home

On the subway the other day I saw someone wearing one of those sweatshirts that say "Member of the All-Harvard Drinking Team". It got me to thinking of how many drinking men there have been in baseball through the years, so I thought I'd put together an All-Star team of the game's notable boozers. Generally, it seems that excessive drinking was more widespread in the past, and since professional baseball began around 1860 or so it has always reflected American life as a whole. Imagine society back then, with far fewer entertainment and recreational options, far less information on issues like health and well-being, sanitation or medicine. Consider that commercial spirits were being mass-produced and distributed for the first time then, so they were widely available and cheap. Throw in the horror shows of the Civil War and its fallout, sweatshop working conditions in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, a few disease and flu epidemics, two World Wars sandwiched around the Great Depression, the development of nuclear arms, the onset of the Cold War and other fun stuff. I'm not trying to come off as some kind of Temperance League Herbert Marcuse here or anything, I'm just saying that it was little wonder that people by and large were hitting the bottle with a vengeance back then. I know I would have. In fact, just writing about this makes me feel like having a belt ......aahhh, that's much better, thanks. I get the feeling that early baseball was basically a diversion to more [...]

Bobby Estalella : Passing Through Shades of Gray

  Many are familiar with songwriter Dave Frishberg and his baseball songs, the most celebrated of which is "Van Lingle Mungo". Those who haven't heard it, should, it's a delightful masterpiece. The lyrics are all old ballplayer's names, arranged so artfully and rhythmically so as to become poetry, with the pitcher's name Van Lingle Mungo repeated throughout the song as a kind of haunting refrain and link. Being a retro-maniac, a mental collector of old ballplayers' names, I was familiar with most of the players in the song the first time I heard it, but there were four names that I didn't know very well : Eddie Basinski, Danny Gardella, Augie Bergamo and Bob Estalella. None of these guys was really a notable player, at least part of the reason they're in the song is that their five-syllable names fit the lilting metric requirements of Frishberg's bossa nova rhythm. In fact Estalella was always known as "Bobby", but Frishberg shortens it to "Bob" to keep the five syllables intact. I decided to look these guys up (as Casey Stengel would have put it), they're all in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Three of them had very short, wartime careers and are justly obscure. The exception is Bobby Estalella, (pronounced Esta-LAY-ah), who had a longer and very interesting career indeed. First though, the other guys : Eddie Basinski was a back-up middle infielder who played with Brooklyn 1944-45 and Pittsburgh in 1947. Altogether he played 203 games, with a batting average of .244. Augie more [...]

Earl Averill – Show Me the Money

Sometimes history shows us that everything old is new again, and that the roots of what we consider new issues or developments actually go far back in time. This is certainly true in baseball in the case of an old ballplayer named Earl Averill. He's interesting because at a crucial point in his career he took a gutsy stance on a salary issue which led to a proposed change in baseball's policy regarding player sales. This change was never adopted, otherwise baseball's subsequent labour strife might have been less costly. Serious baseball fans will know about Averill, or at least have heard of him, but others maybe not. He played a long time ago - from 1929-41, mostly with the Cleveland Indians, not exactly a glamorous team back then. He was very good, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975 by the Veterans Committee. He was kind of the Bernie Williams of his day: a well-rounded, smart, graceful center fielder who could also really hit. His career didn't last as long as Bernie's and he didn't have the fortune of playing on great teams like Williams did, but otherwise they were similarly versatile and productive players. Averill was the best center fielder in the American League, and maybe in all of baseball from 1930-35, when along came Joe DiMaggio. He hit for average (.318 lifetime) and had power (238 home runs, 401 doubles and a .533 slugging average). He didn't strike out much and walked enough that his career on-base-percentage was .395 which meant he scored well more [...]

Bitchin’ Pitchin’ Not Always Bewitchin’

In the years since I wrote this piece about the underachievement of great pitching staffs, the starting pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies from 2010-11 became another case in point.  They assembled a starting rotation that many saw as invincible and was described in some circles as maybe the best ever, consisting of four aces - Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels - plus some other decent starters in Vance Worley and Joe Blanton.  They didn't manage to beat the Giants in the 2010 NLCS though and in 2011 were undone even earlier in the NLDS when Halladay lost a great pitching duel 1-0, to Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals in the deciding fifth game.  This year's Blue Jays were thought to have put together a pretty vaunted starting staff themselves, but so far their pitchers have underperformed to such an extent that they can't even be considered yet as an example of this odd syndrome of failure.                                                  ******** "In baseball, you don't know nothin'. " - Yogi Berra "Good pitching always stops good hitting, and vice versa." - Casey Stengel The above famous quotes serve to underscore something odd I've noticed over the years, namely that great and deep pitching staffs have quite an awful record in post-season play. I first noticed this with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970s, who were pitching-rich, to say the least. Their 1971 staff had four 20-game winners : Dave more [...]

Zoot, Al & The Mick

This is one of the very first baseball stories I ever wrote and it has jazz content too.  I've been wanting to post it for a while and thanks to the miracles of modern digital technology, I was able to retrieve it from a dusty old email archive it had been sitting in for about four years.  I'll admit I've taken some liberties here in filling in the details as best I can; drinking was most definitely involved in the recounting and hearing of the versions of the story told and my memory of them is a little dim as all this happened at least thirty years ago. Zoot Sims first told me this story about Mickey Mantle around 1981 and it was later comfirmed to me by Jake Hanna, who was at the Half Note as a listener on the night described below.  I didn't get to know Al Cohn well until after Zoot died in 1984, but Al told me this one too, along with many more about Zoot and others.  I can't begin to tell you what an honour and pleasure it was to play with these three great musicians and how entertaining it was to hang with them off the bandstand.  They provided me with some of my best laughs and fondest memories and I miss them each and every day.                                                *************** I first read about this celebrated ballgame in a collection of Baseball Digest stories - you know, those "Gee-whiz, my greatest thrill as a Yankee" jobs.  In the Digest version, an "ailing and feverish" Mickey Mantle came more [...]

The Martinet of Maryland

Earl Weaver's death over the weekend was a jarring and unpleasant surprise, but coming as it did on a baseball-themed cruise, it was maybe an appropriate exit.  Earl loved to hang out and talk baseball with anybody who would listen - old players, young players, reporters, coaches, fans - I can just see him on the cruise ship, bending an elbow and yakking it up in his scratchy, hoarse voice.  There are worse ways to go and given his fondness for hoisting a few, his overall hard-ass attitude and chain-smoking, he didn't get cheated in making it to 82.  He didn't often get cheated on a ball field either, though he often thought the umpires were trying to do just that. I came to think of Weaver as being a direct descendant of John McGraw, who was known (among nastier things I'm sure) as "The Little Napoleon" for his shortness and totalitarian ways.  Both men were great baseball tacticians and strategists, both were irascible, feisty, ill-tempered, combative and mouthy little bastards who hated losing and anyone who stood in the way of their team winning.  Of course, McGraw came first and had much more success as a player, was a more patrician, authoritarian and imposing figure as a manager, though his sleeves were often rolled up and his knuckles bloody and bared.  As a player, Weaver never went beyond the low minors and his road to the majors as a manager was more modest and hard-scrabble, but this only served to make him more human, more like one of us and thus more lovable. Maybe more [...]

Our Man’s Gone Now

This past weekend brought momentous baseball news - the deaths of all-time Cardinal great Stan Musial at 92 and celebrated Orioles' manager Earl Weaver, suddenly on a baseball-related cruise at 82.  Because Musial was older and his career more distant, I read less commentary on him, so will deal with him first and Weaver later, in a separate entry. "Stan the Man", baseball's "perfect, gentle knight", suddenly gone at 92.  It's perhaps not appropriate to mourn the passing of someone who lived that long, he wasn't cheated, certainly beat the odds.  When someone of his stature goes though, it's fitting and natural to pause for a moment, to take stock and remember why we were lucky to have him with us for so long.  It's apt that Musial lived to be such an age, he didn't have any bad habits, looked after himself and his baseball career was defined by consistency and longevity. Musial was born November 20, 1920 in Donora, Pennsylvania, a small town in the state's coal mining region, which also produced both Ken Griffeys, senior and junior.  I guess there was something in the water.  He broke into the major leagues in 1941 as a 20-year-old, playing 12 games with the Cardinals, hitting a very loud .426.  This was enough to make him a regular in 1942, even though the Cards at the time were a powerhouse and a very tough team to catch on with, owing to Branch Rickey's obsessive stockpiling of young talent in the St. Louis farm system during the late 1930s. Musial was more [...]

Men With Brooms – World Series Wrap

World Series sweeps are hardly ever expected from the outset, and the one just completed by the Giants was no exception.  After all, in theory a least, the World Series pits the two best teams left in baseball against each other in a best-of-seven format.  Each team is likely a strong one and given what they must go through to even reach the Series, it would seem likely and reasonable to expect one of the teams to win at least one game before the other wins four, that the level of competition would mitigate against a sweep.  With the often volatile nature of a short series and the game itself, predicting which team will win a Series is hard enough, never mind going out on a limb and predicting a sweep. And yet, sweeps in the World Series happen far more often than we might think.  Of the 108 World Series played to date (with none held in 1904 or 1994), this year's was the 21st sweep.  That's roughly just under 20% of the time that a Series is swept, almost one in five, which seems surprisingly high to me.  I would have thought this figure might be more like one in seven, or even one in eight.  Yes, the dominant Yankees of the past have a lot to do with this, winning eight of these and losing three, but sweeps have occurred in every era and seem to be on the rise, with four occurring in the last nine Series played. Sometimes baseball can shock us with the truly unexpected from a player, such as Pedro Sandoval hitting three homers in this first three at-bats more [...]

The Ghost of John McGraw

Had the ghost of John McGraw been magically transported to Game Two of this World Series last night in San Francisco, he would have at first seen much that would have bewildered, outraged, maybe even frightened him, though he sure didn't scare easily in life.  A thousand questions and confounded thoughts would have flashed through the hard-headed old manager's mind in an instant. Jaysus, where am I?  My Jints are in white, playing at home, but what have they done with the Polo Grounds and Coogan's Bluff?  What in God's name is that huge ball glove doing there in the stands, and that giant Coke bottle? Why are the players allowed to have such long hair and wear beards? Christ almighty, what is this, the goddamn House of David against some gobshite Doukhobor outfit?  Are these impostors? Why, even the Giants' manager needs a shave, he looks like a dim-witted bum....  I can't believe they have that lunatic with the ridiculous fake beard as their mascot, we used to have a crippled midget. Sweet Mother of Jesus, what are those dark fellas and Caribbeans doin' on the field in uniform?  Don't tell me they allow them to play now....  both the third basemen and Detroit's first sacker are just as fat as Cupid Childs or Larry McLean were, some things never change. And the field, it's so level and bright, so tidy and manicured! There's no mud puddles or patches of weeds, I wish we could have played on one like it, we might have caught the ball better, won some more..... Would more [...]

Baseball and Preparation H

This site is devoted equally to both jazz and baseball, and though I have a number of music pieces on the go, baseball will take a front seat for the next little while as, a), it's World Series time and b), I'm really busy with gigs for the next week or two. Being busy is a nice problem to have and I'm not complaning, but it always seems to be the case that it never rains but it pours at this time of year for me, I always seem to be really busy at Series time and rarely get to see many of the games except in snippets or by way of highlights.   I keep telling myself that one of these years I'll plan ahead and book a bunch ot time off around the schedule of the baseball post-season and treat myself to a feast of watching and writing about the games.  As you've probably guessed already though, planning ahead is not exactly the strong suit of a jazz musician like me.  The only Series games I'll be able to watch entirely will be Sunday's Game Four and Monday's Game Five, assuming there is one, which seems pretty likely.  As a result, my blog comments will be short (yeah, right) and not too in-depth. I wasn't able to see much of Game One, by the time my gig was over the score was 5-0 Giants in the fifth, something of a shock.  When I commented in my last post that Verlander might struggle against the NL and that his teammates might have a tough time scoring against the Giants' pitching, it was just a vague hunch, I certainly didn't expect him to lay such a big egg, more [...]

WORLD SERIES SET AS CARDINALS GET A TASTE OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE – YUCK!

To many, the St. Louis Cardinals in this year's post-season looked to be repeating their celebrated, longshot run of last year.  This time around they snuck into the playoffs by an even thinner margin, winning the brand new second wild-card, then beating the favoured Braves in Atlanta in the one-game, loser-goes-home playoff.  When they shockingly beat the young and talented Nationals by scoring eight runs in the final three innings of Game Five, erasing a 6-0 deficit, it seemed like the "team of destiny, never say die" Cards were roaring back from where they left off last year. A funny thing happened on the way to that destiny though, the Cards met a team even less interested in saying "die" than them, namely the San Francisco Giants.  When the Giants gambled and lost in sending a struggling Tim Lincecum to the hill in Game Four of the NLCS, getting pasted to go down three games to one, I thought they were done, as did many.  It again put them in a position of having to win three straight games to take the series, which they had just done against Cincinnati in the NLDS, winning the three very impressively on the road.  But, it seemed too much to ask that they could pull this off again against the brimming Cardinals, who looked to be firing on all cylinders - pitching, hitting, defense, confidence.   The key was Game Five in St. Louis, if the Giants could manage to win it, they might have a chance, playing the final games back at home. They sent the veteran left-hander more [...]

YANKS TO CONSIDER CLAUDE RAINS AT THIRD BASE NEXT YEAR AS TIGERS SWEEP ‘EM

The above tongue-in-cheek headline refers to one of the veteran character actor's most famous movie roles, "The Invisible Man"; Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, though the conspicuous centre of a benching controversy, was pretty much invisible in the ALCS (1 for 9) and his replacement Eric Chavez was, believe it or not, even worse (0 for 20.)  Yes, I realize Claude Rains has been dead for a long time now, but given the cold wind blowing around the Yanks' hot corner these days, I don't see that this would be a problem, do you?  Good old Claude would certainly come a lot cheaper than these other stiffs, not that the free spending Yankees care about such things. As their manager Joe Girardi pointed out after it was suddenly all over though, the Yanks' abysmal flop wasn't all about A-Rod, it's just that as prominent, overpaid and easy to dislike as he is, he became the focus.  But nobody on the Yankees was hitting, except (sort of) Raul Ibanez, Ichiro and Derek Jeter's replacement, Eduardo Nunez.  Robinson Cano, likely the best second baseman in the game, broke an 0 for 29 slide with a single in the ninth inning of Game Three but was back at the futility last night, going 0 for 4 and looking utterly lost up there. Curtis Granderson was a big, fat zero in this series (0 for 11) and was 3 for 30 with one home run and nine strikeouts in the post-season overall; this from the man who's hit more home runs combined the last two years than anyone else in the major leagues.  more [...]

By the Time I Get To Phonics, I’ll Be Reading

As you readers out there are compos mentis and all - sane and normal types, no offense intended, you're likely not saddled with my baseball name obsession. So you're probably not aware that the Detroit Tigers lead all of baseball in weird and funny pitcher's names.  It's really quite something and I only just began to notice. I must be slipping. Their two best pitchers are Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.  Verlander isn't really a funny name, but Scherzer brings a smile, reinforced by his general gawkiness, baggy uniform and goofy facial expression. He reminds me of Huntz Hall from the old Bowery Boys movies.  Not to mention that his last name sounds like "shiser", which is the German word for shit.  This is just for openers though. Two of their other starting pitchers are the unfortunately named Doug Fister (making him a founding member of my gay All-Star team) and Rick Porcello.  Porcello isn't really a funny name in itself, but I call him "Shrooms" because his name is like a combo of two mushrooms - the porcini and the portobello. For good measure they also have a starting pitcher named Sanchez, which isn't odd in itself. But his first name is Anibal, and to a man, the announcers pronounce it like Anna-Belle.  I can't help it, this breaks me up. The next thing you know Annette Funicello will be their pitching coach, with Frankie Avalon as their back-up catcher.  Hey, maybe they could get Cubby O'Brien as their bullpen coach... The bullpen is loaded, more [...]

Buffalo, Homogate

So there's bad news and good news swirling about the Blue Jays as their toilet-bowl circling season enters its final, "let's play the spoilers" phase. Word broke yesterday that the Jays will be relocating their AAA farm team from Las Vegas to Buffalo, essentially trading places with the Mets.   Some baseball friends and I heard rumours to this effect from Buffalo fans during a Bisons game at Coca-Cola Field this summer.  It's something we had all wished for - having your AAA farm team as far away as Lost Wages just made no sense, especially with the frequency of call-ups this season - the travel was murder for some of these guys on the yo-yo back and forth.  The Jays may be announcing the move today, with the last roadblock having been lifted yesterday, namely the Mets agreeing to move their AAA team to Vegas (they had little choice, Buffalo is set on the Jays and were fed up with the Mets as a partner/sponsor, or whatever.)  I know what some of you are thinking, this way we have a choice of catching two minor league squads live - the one on the field here in T.O. or the one just down the road in wingland. Seriously though, this really is good news for the organization and us fans, probably the best thing to happen in Jayland this season other than EE's breakout season.  It may help to allay the bad news, the coming shit-storm of "Homogate", the controversy over shortstop Yunel Escobar's dim-witted decision to wear eye-black patches with a Spanish homophobic message more [...]

The Death of Fun – Where Have You Gone, Puddin’ Head Jones?

Have you noticed how nicknames have pretty much disappeared from jazz and baseball? What happened, where did they all go? There's still the odd half-decent one around, like say Joey Bats, or Trombone Shorty. But these days it seems the only celebrities in any number with colourful nicknames are rap or hip-hop "artists", and I'd happily say goodbye to their soubriquets if it also meant the musical genre would just disappear, forever and without a trace. Forgive my white-ass, hidebound and middle-aged attitude, but I need a little more wit and romance in my music than sampled rhythm tracks and the rhyming of "bitch" with "snitch" can provide. Otherwise it's pretty Slim Pickens...... sorry..... slim pickings these days, a far cry from the past when the two fields were knee-deep in nicknames. Consider jazz figures for a minute : Jelly Roll, Satchmo, King, Duke, Count, Fatha.  Bunk, Bix, Bunny, Cootie, Wingy, Jabbo. Bubber, Baby, Muggsy, Bumps.  (Rubber baby buggy bumpers.)  Yank, Nappy, Chippie, Matty, Miff, Stuff, Big Tea and Toots. Tricky Sam, Rabbit, Bean and Pres. Big Sid, Little Jazz, Jaws and Sweets. Big-Eye, Cat's-Eye, Lady Day, The Rockin' Chair Lady. The Brute, Bud, Dodo, Bird, Dizzy, Buzzy, Floorshow, Flip. Zoot and Zutty. The Lion, The Beetle, Pinetop, Fats, Slim and Slam, not to mention Bam. Klook, Newk, Bags, Babs, Jug, Keg, Philly Joe, 'Trane and Cannonball. Lots of Reds, Shortys, Pee Wees, Luckys. Busters and Bucks, Papas and Kids. Oh baby......... Nowadays, more [...]

Boston Blow-Up (With Apologies to Serge Chaloff**)

I’ve done a lot of general reading about my two main interests, jazz and baseball. Histories, biographies, collections of reviews, stories and reportage, you name it. It's odd, but every once in a while in a lifetime of random reading, two unrelated subjects can intersect and lead to the very same little dot in time, like two different GPS locators of history. Over the course of thirty-five years of this indiscriminate rambling around in the past, I chanced to run across two passing references to a major event which I'd never heard of before. It had nothing to do with jazz or baseball, but came up anyway: the 1938 New England Hurricane. The first of these came in a baseball book, but didn't mention the storm by name or date. The other was in a book on jazz by Richard M. Sudhalter called "Lost Chords", from a chapter dealing with the great trumpeter Bunny Berigan. I'm woolly-headed at the best of times and not a weather buff, and because I read these two books about twenty-eight years apart, I didn't realize until recently that each story referred to the same storm, or how bad it really was. The baseball book mentioned earlier is "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" by Donald Honig. It's an oral history in which Honig looked up ballplayers who were active between 1925-45 and had them tell the stories of their careers informally. The result is a vivid portrait of baseball in that time, a wonderful, lively and informative read packed with stories of legendary characters and more [...]

Eephus – The Arc of Triumph

If the pitcher Rip Sewell is remembered at all these days, it's for two things - a noted 1934 fistfight with Hank Greenberg, and the 1940s invention of the bloop pitch, which has appeared since from time to time in various guises, under various names. Sewell was a right-handed pitcher whose career took place almost entirely in the National League from 1932 to 1949.  He was a Southern country boy born May 11, 1907 in Decatur, Alabama and like the bloop pitch he invented, his career had an unusual and slow trajectory. His major-league debut came with the Detroit Tigers in 1932 when he was already 25, fairly late. He only pitched about 10 innings in relief that year and, if his bloated 12.66 ERA wasn't enough to earn him a ticket back to the minors, then Jimmie "The Beast" Foxx sealed the deal by belting one off Sewell that nearly left the actual ballpark. Sewell was sent down to the  AAA Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and bounced around that league for years, making it back to the majors with the Pirates in 1938, when he was 31. Again he didn't pitch much that year - 38 innings of relief, with only slightly better results (0-1, 4.23 ERA). For a ballplayer trying to establish a toehold in the majors, Pittsburgh was a good place to be back in those days: the Pirates were pretty awful then and just desperate for pitching. From 1939 on, Sewell got himself together, became a starting pitcher and began to win some games - he was 10-9 in 1939, then 16-5 in 1940. more [...]

Roger Connor, the Pete Best of Baseball

I was fooling around doing some baseball research on-line the other day and ended up on a site called baseball.com - how do they come up with these imaginative names? It was a decent enough site, and I noticed it had a Top 100 players of All-Time List, so I checked it out. It included major stars from the Negro Leagues, which is nice - a lot of these lists don't bother. Otherwise, it had mostly the names you'd expect – Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and so on. So, I'm going down the list, thinking to myself, like Goldilocks: Too high, too low, that's about right, Eddie Matthews 30th? - interesting, etc. - until I came to number 65, and it listed Roger Connor. Roger Connor? I thought, Who the hell is Roger Connor? There must be some mistake. I looked him up in my trusty 1976 McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, and, sure enough, there he was. He played first base in the National League from 1880 - 1897, which is a bit far back even for a retro-maniac like me. My knowledge of baseball and players from that long ago is a bit sketchy at best, so no wonder I hadn't heard of him. If you've never seen the Encyclopedia, it's the Rosetta Stone, the Holy Grail of baseball books. You can take mine anytime - from out of my cold, dead hands, as baseball sage Bill James once said. Every single player who was ever in the big leagues has an entry, with a few biographical details like place and date of birth/death, nicknames, height and weight, left or right-handed. There's a statistical more [...]