Sunday, October 30, 2005

Happy Halloween!

Yeah, I know. My neighbors don't quite get it. They kind of shrug their shoulders and keep walking.

But the off-season can be long, and we must do what we can to slowly prepare for what will be an exciting 2006 season.

And besides, kids could be coming to the door in scary costumes, like Roger Clemens with a bat, Randy Johnson's ERA or Jorge Posada's missing chin. Shudder. You need to ward them off.

Plus, here in Michigan, not everyone is aware of Tom Seaver accomplishments. There is never a bad time to enlighten!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Mickey & Me: Clubhouse Celebration

The 1990 champion Rochester Red Wings were a colorful team. A guy named Curtis Schilling was on the roster.

The champagne that gets sprayed around championship locker rooms stings your eyes. I learned this on a late September night in 1990.

Watching the Chicago White Sox celebrate their World Championship brought me back to a mad dash to Columbus, Ohio to both catch the Clippers and Rochester Red Wings determine the International League crown and find the perfect ending to a story I’d been working on for a good slice of the summer.

It was my first year working for the Flint Journal, and I convinced my editors to allow me to tell the story of Mickey Weston, a pitcher from a Flint suburbs who had toiled in the minors for years before getting a shot with the Baltimore Orioles – then got hurt and was sent back down to Triple-A.

A photographer and I spent a weekend in Rochester, N.Y. with Weston near the end of the season. I learned more about baseball in those few days than I had in the previous 26 years of my life.

We’re not supposed to have opinions about the people we write about, but I couldn’t help but pull for Weston, a devout Christian dedicated to being an example both on and off the field. He's one of those players who would post spectacular numbers in the minors, then have things not quite click when reaching the show. And since soft-tossers are kept on a short leash, his stays were typically brief before being asked to prove himself at Triple-A all over again. Think Crash Davis without the cussing and skirt-chasing.

Writing about Mickey over the years led to baseball adventures from interviewing to Hall-of-Famers on the field of Tiger Stadium to sitting inside the Mets clubhouse to helping the Famous Chicken with his act. You’ll hear about them all in time.

The main Sunday package was about the ups and downs in the life of a minor league ballplayer. But the story just didn’t seem complete. Weston was having a phenomenal year, and I continued to follow the progress of the team as it wrapped up the season and progress through the playoffs.

The Red Wings ended up facing the Clippers for the championship, and who should draw the assignment for the deciding game but Weston. The perfect ending!

Will suggested we sprint down for the game. A Columbus native, he knew the 5-hour trip by heart and had witnessed dozens of games at the stadium while growing up.

We picked up out credentials and walked out on the field. I was horrified to see how few people were in the stands – and Will laughed. It was the day of the first home Ohio State football game, and he explained that the Clippers take a very distant back seat to the Buckeyes.

Walking to the press box, we spied the prized Governor's Cup in the shed where the groundskeeping equipment is stored. It's not quite as glamorous as the World Series trophy, but we enjoyed the opportunity to see it up close.

We took our seat, and found that the Rochester newspaper had sent its reporter along. I tried making some small talk with her while we were guests of the Red Wings, but found her rather unfriendly. And her disposition had apparently not improved much on the way to Columbus. The rest of the Clippers staff was a little confused why the Flint newspaper was sending two reporters, but didn't seem to mind.

Weston did his part to help the story, giving me the ending I had hoped for.

He went the distance, holding the Clippers scoreless until the seventh inning. A 5-1 victory gave the Red Wings the championship.

We hustled back down to the field and entered the clubhouse through the bullpens. Inside was already bedlam. Players were showering each other with champagne, though it didn't seem to be as plentiful as in a World Series celebration.

You have to watch for the corks, which are projectiles. A couple landed near me, and I have one as a souvenir, among the stranger things on display in the baseball room.

Once they ran out of beverages to spray, third baseman Leo Gomez brought a hose in from the bullpen and soaked everything and everyone -- including us. Did we mind? Heck no!

I also remember Jeff McKnight, a future Met, attacking the post-game spread of fried chicken, then standing on a table and reading out some kind of poem. I couldn't quite understand what he was saying, but then I don't think it mattered.

Mickey came over, gave us bear hugs and said he thought the game and the season proved that he belonged in the big leagues, then jumped back into the celebration.

Will and I continued to just sit back with eyes wide. It wasn't our championship so we couldn't participate, but it sure was fun to watch.

After all the comotion had calmed down, who appeared but the Rochester reporter, who had changed her clothes and was wearing a towel around her neck. She was so concerned about staying dry that she missed all the excitement.

We got back home to Flint very late that night -- early the next morning, actually. But what fun night.

And Mickey got the call-up he deserved, a few days later he was pitching for the Orioles.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Windy City World Series Adventures

Baseball, of course, is a funny game. Our beloved Mets won a World Series in their seventh season, the expansion Marlins claimed a crown in their fourth, and the Diamondbacks laid waste the Evil Empire for a championship in their third season.

But the Chicago White Sox, a charter American League team, has not been to a series since 1959 and hasn't won one since 1917.

Will, now a Chicago resident, said the Windy City is going nuts over the Sox and invited me over to soak up a little World Series atmosphere and watch Game One in style.

We met at U.S. Cellular Field on the site of Old Comiskey park's home plate a few hours before the "security bubble" closed off access from Indiana to Wisconsin. OK, maybe it wasn't that bad, but we heard that if you didn't have a ticket -- and we did not -- you wouldn't get anywhere near the stadium near game time.

I arrived just after a press conference where the Houston and Chicago mayors announced their traditional goofy bet. Staffers were loading a cow painted with White Sox logos into the back of a truck. Others were handing out cool Ozzie Guillen masks.

Many of the souvenir vendors were already open, and we picked up our programs and scouted the assorted caps and pennants that we would no doubt find cheaper elsewhere.

I think it's interesting to watch a stadium come to life before a game, and "The Cell" was abuzz with activity, from special signs being hung on fences to uniforms arriving from the cleaners.

The cleaners delivery guy thought I was strange for wanting to snap photos of him doing his job. Even stranger was that I wasn't the only one.

If you don't think seeing this is exciting, you're reading the wrong column.

With masks and programs in hand, Will directed me on a downtown tour of Chicago reveling in it's first World Series since the Eisenhower administration.

The first stop was massive Indian statues at Grant Park. The horses are decked out in their finest pale hosery.

We then walked up the street to Millenium Park where we started seeing more and more Sox supporters. The new sculpture "Cloud Gate" -- Will calls it "the Bean," and I like his name better -- is amazing to see. Walking away we ran into a family in their Sox finest. The dad had several rally monkeys hanging in nooses draped over his shoulder. I'm assuming they're left over from the League Championship Series, but you never know.

Not far away was the Art Institute of Chicago, where the lions that guard the front steps are wearing their Sox caps. Very cool.

I wondered where exactly do you get plastic baseball caps to fit bronze lion statues. I can see how a talented seamstress can whip together a couple socks for the horses. But these hats were plastic and big.

It's best not to wonder too much about these things, and just be grateful that the lions were tasteful enough to sport fitted caps without cheesey mesh.

The lions have been guarding the Art Institute since 1894, and have been decked out in team attire just twice before -- 1984 for the Cubs and the following year for 'da Bears.

We then walked a few blocks over the Daley Plaza, where the tall Pablo Picasso sculpture sits. He, too, is wearing a Sox cap.

Some nice Sox fans offered to take our photo in front of the Art Institute.

The plaza was filled with thousands of kids attending some kind of Halloween event. I'm assuming that because they were wearing costumes. Either that, or they were Cubs fans too ashamed to show their faces in public.

We were walking around snappling more photos when two television cameramen saw our Ozzie Guillen masks and asked us to pose in front of the Picasso. They asked us to jiggle the masks, then pull them away and cheer. They had us to this several times.

When they were done -- and after we asked them to snap a photo of us in front of the Picasso -- they told us to watch the game that night. Maybe we were part of the pregame show, or will appear sometime in a broadcast. You've been warned.

We had already read that security would be tight around the city. Chicago police have always enjoyed a reputation of being somewhat aggressive. But we had no idea the city was actually employing Imperial Stormtroopers. Kind of explains the 1968 Democratic convention, though.

Blogger Darth Marc will be shocked to see that the Empire backs the Sox.

I heard a radio report on my way in that said the Cubs had hung a banner reading "Congratulations Sox" in front of Wrigley. This I simply had to see. That, and we knew there are a number of large souvenir stores near the stadium. So we treked up to the northside for shopping and some lunch.

The stores delivered as expected, with World Series caps going for $5 to $10 cheaper than in the booths outside Comiskey.

But not only was there not a sign on Wrigley, they were tearing the place down. No kidding! Most of the bleachers were rubble. Apparently the thought of the Sox in the Series was just too much for the Cubbies.

Apparently the Cubs have started their long-stated plan to expand the bleachers out over the sidewalk. We were kind of sad after walking around to the other side and seeing that one of our memory spots was no more. The strike zone that provided the scene for our epic Wiffle Ball game against the alleged major-leaguer and the actor from Bull Durham had already been demolished.You can read about it here.

While there were no decorated statues in Wrigleyville, we were surprised to see some of the local establishments jumping on the bandwagon. This bar across the street appears to have gotten some grief for supporting the Sox.
We took a break from our atmosphere-soaking to enjoy some Chicago-style hot dogs at a shop down the street. Apparently asking for a dog "with everything" means a virtual salad on a bun. I wimped out on the peppers, but it was an outstanding meal.

We then headed back to Will's place to hammer out our next column before finding a place to settle in to watch the game with friends.

We found one of those sports-themed restaurants with a million televisions. It was so crowded that we knew we'd never get a table, but no one cared. Actually, the fire marshal seemed to care when he arrived about midway through the game with some paperwork for the manager to fill out.

But it was a great place to enjoy the game, with the crowd going nuts with every hit and nice play. The crowded erupted in cheers when Bobby Jenks dispensed with the Astros to end Game One.

So not having tickets didn't stop us from having an awesome time enjoying the World Series in Chicago.

Watching a White Sox World Series game with friends: Priceless! Left to right: Jim, Laurie, Amy and Ozzie Guillen or Will, I kept getting confused.

Extra innings: Greg from the awesome Faith and Fear in Flushing site offered this proof of the Cubs offering their support to the Sox. Thanks, Greg!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Unexpected Glories of October

One day in late October 1997, my father called me with such a question: If he could get tickets to the World Series, would I fly down to Florida?

Naturally, if he could get tickets to the World Series, I would crawl to Florida, if necessary.

The Marlins have been one of my second tier teams since my parents surprised me with a ticket to their historic debut game in 1993. Things got exciting when owner H. Wayne Huizenga opened his checkbook for some key players, though I disagree with the notion that he purchased the pennant like the Yankees try to do each season.

He certainly added some key studs, like pitchers Kevin Brown and Al Leiter, and outfielder Moises Alou. But other players — Jeff Conine, Charles Johnson, Rob Nen — either came through the system or had been with the team a while. And Cuban refugee Livan Hernandez was the toast of the town.

So it was with great excitement that I watched the Fish advance through the playoffs and make it to the World Series in 1997, playing the Cleveland Indians.

And I was practically doing cartwheels when he called to say he was able to get us tickets. Attending any Series game is a dream come true. And to see a Series game with a team I like, well, that's just over the top.

Dad amazingly snagged tickets for Game 6, which made things a little tricky. Of course I was rooting for the Fish to win, but they had to lose a couple games purely for my selfish reasons.

And sure enough, the team traded victories with the Indians for the first four games, and took Game Five in Ohio, setting up a potential clincher with me in the stands.

Dad spoils me, and so does my wife, who let me run off on this baseball adventure while she stayed home with the six-month-old and five-year-old kids, not an easy task.

Attending a World Series game is a once-in-a-lifetime event, so you have to do some planning, right down to the outfit. I packed my Marlins vest jersey with teal undershirt, though I was torn over wearing the original teal cap from the inaugural year, or the black cap with the official World Series patch that the team would be wearing on the field. Such things are important.

We got to the stadium before the gates opened, as planned, so we could hunt for programs and other essential souvenirs and get them back to the car so we wouldn’t have to lug them around in the backpack the whole game. This decision turned out to be a good one, as you’ll soon see.

I was a little excited to go to a World Series game.

And the atmosphere outside Joe Robbie Stadium was absolutely crackling. There were salsa bands, tailgating — a teal party wherever you looked. There was a smattering of Indians fans. I saw guys with their faces painted like Chief Wahoo. I’m not a fan of the Wahoo logo, but you have to salute freaks in facepaint who obviously paid attention in art class.

Some Tribe fans made the trip to Miami.

The weather in South Florida was 80 degrees and perfect — a sharp contrast to the games in Cleveland, which were complete with snow flurries and 15-degree temperatures.

We went inside as soon as the gates opened, and twisted up the circular ramp to our level, where we encountered the first moral dilemma of the day.

Draped over a trash can was a large vinyl banner with the Marlins and Coke logos and the words "Congratulations Marlins." It’s the kind of advertising thing you see hanging around stadiums. But this one wasn’t hanging up, and there did not appear to be any employees around who were in the act of hanging such things up.

Our questions: Was this garbage? If we took it, would it be stealing?

We were debating this when a guy walked up and said, "If you’re not taking that, I am."

Our response? "In the backpack!" We quickly rolled it up and got it to fit -- barely. Sometimes -- but not often -- it’s better to act first and fast and worry about the messy moral questions later.

And the banner looks very nice decorating my baseball room, along with the newspaper rack cards, subway signs and other baseball-related advertising that posed similar moral dilemmas over the years.

This decision we can blame on an empty stomach, so we chased down some arepas, the local treat that tastes even better at a ballgame — especially a World Series game.

Our seats were awesome, in the second row by the Marlins bullpen out in rightfield. Settling in, it seemed both like every other ballgame I’ve attended and yet something entirely different. It looked the same, but there was a collective electricity moving through the stands — especially since it was among the largest World Series crowds ever. The Marlins opened up upper deck football seats that are normally covered and unsold, boosting attendance to 67,000.

I thought things were breaking in the Fish’s favor. Ace Kevin Brown would battle an undistinguished young pitcher, Chad Ogea, a 26-year-old who posted an 8-9 record and unimpressive 4.99 ERA during the season.
And this is why baseball is a glorious game. October has a way of making heroes out of the players who aren’t supposed to be.

Indians third-baseman Matt Williams started the second inning with a single, and Jim Thome and Marquis Grissom walked, loading bases. Up stepped pitcher Ogea.

Keep in mind that as an American League pitcher, Ogea didn’t get to bat much, only in some interleague games that season. Easy prey for a stud like Brown. You would think.

Ogea fouled off four pitches, and he shouldn’t have been able to make contact. Then he lined a single past Jeff Conine, scoring Thome.

It was his first ever Major League hit, and became first Indians pitcher to drive in a run since Steve Dunning homered on Sept. 1972, a year before the AL introduced the DH.

And he wasn’t done. In the fifth, Ogea smacked a double between Conine and the bag, and later scored on Ramirez's fly for a 4-0 lead. He was the first pitcher with two hits and two RBI in a series game since Tiger -- and future ex-Met — Mickey Lolich in 1968.

That sucked the air out of the crowd; it wasn’t the kind of World Series history fans were hoping to see. But history nonetheless. I was still a very happy camper.

Some players have years of success and others get fleeting moments of glory. Game Six was Ogea’s career moment. He finshed with a 37-35 career record with a 4.88 ERA over six years.

I flew back to Michigan the next day, excited and exhausted, and got home in time to hang my banner and catch Game Seven on the television. The folks at the stadium that night — were they rooting for the team to lose my game? — got to see the Fish celebrate after beating the Indians in a 10-inning thriller.

The scoreboard told the tale of Game Six -- and the first five games, too.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Every Signature Tells a Story: Sparky Anderson and the Missing Name

I expected to go home empty handed from Sparky Anderson's charity auction in 1990.

We had justed moved from Connecticut to Michigan, and definitely did not have money to spend on sports memorabilia.

But I read at story about an event to benefit the Tigers manager's charity, CATCH -- Caring Athletes Team for Children's and Henry Ford Hospitals. The name alone shows that Sparky can butcher acronyms like he can a post-game interview.

There were to be big-ticket items auctioned off, as well as some things offered for sale. And Sparky would be on hand, too, to greet fans.

And sure enough, there were bargains I couldn't pass up. Game-used Tigers caps sat piled on a table for $10. I picked up one from coach Vada Pinson, a darn good hitter in his day.

Then there was a whole table of signed baseballs. It seemed like Sparky asked people to sign as they passed through Tiger Stadium during the season, since there were only American League players. Alas, no former Mets were there.

I never buy autographs that aren't signed in front of me because there is just too much forgery out there in the hobby. But I figured Sparky is a little different than some guy with a table and a Sharpie at a card show. And the prices were very reasonable, most of them cheaper than what it would cost to buy an official ball at a sporting good store.

The players ranged from Ken Griffey Jr. to some minor stars and everyday players. I was on a tight budget, but found a couple of my favorite players: Fellow Missouri grad Phil Bradley, Blue Jays third-baseman Kelly Gruber and Mariners closer Mike Schooler.

There were piles of other items, too, mostly things left over from stadium giveaways.

I could tell I was out of my league pretty much as soon as the auction started. People tend to overbid when they know the money is going to charity, and there were people with deep pockets writing big checks for a steady stream of signed jerseys and bats as well as things like a week at Tigers fantasy camp.

Detroit Free Press columnist Bob Talbert was the auctioneer. Talbert was a large man with a ponytail, which he grew after vowing not to cut his hair until the Tigers won another World Series. Bob died some years after, still with long hair.

Something funny happened when he tried to take a break. A professional auctioneer came to the podium and tried using that style that sounds like a different language. I couldn't figure out a single thing the guy was saying. Apparently no one else could, either, because the bidding stopped. Dead. It became very awkward because it was apparent that no one was going to bid on a single item until this guy left the stage. So Talbert had a shorter break than he expected.

I had long-sinced fallen into spectator mode when it came time for the door prizes. Talbert pulled out a bat autographed by the entire 1989 Tigers team. Not one of the franchise's best groupings, to be sure. But a bat signed by any full major-league team is a wonderful thing.

Talbert pulled out the winning entry: "All the way from Grand Blanc....David Murray."

I literally jumped out of my chair and shouted "YES!" scaring the Dickens out of the people sitting around me. Talbert said he had never seen anyone so excited about winning a door prize. But this was good stuff.

These Tigers weren't a complete collection of stiffs. Guys on the bat include Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Chet Lemon, Guillermo Hernandez, Frank Tanana. Some of these guys are just shy of Cooperstown, and might make it eventually.

They had signed a Mike Heath bat, and it was obviously used. And it even came in an official major league sanitary sock to keep it neat. It's easily one of the coolest things in my collection.

I would have been pleased walking away with my Kelly Gruber ball and Vada Pinson cap. This was beyond my wildest expectations.

Sparky arrived as the auction winding down, and people formed a line for him to autograph things.

I was studying all the names on the bat while waiting, but couldn't find the skipper -- the guy I knew was the sure-fire Hall of Famer. The coaches were all there, so it seemed strange that Sparky wasn't on the bat. Finally my turn arrived.

"Sparky, I can't seem to find you on the bat," I said.

"Well, it's got to be there," he said, taking the bat and turning it over and over. It wasn't there.

"Well, we'll take care of that right now," he said, signing right near the Louisville Slugger logo.

I asked him to personalize it, too. I realize that hurts any resale value, but there's no way I'm ever selling this bat!

I was clearly out of my league financially with all the folks at the auction, but I couldn't have been happier with the way things turned out. It just goes to show, you never know when a baseball adventure will take place.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

They Have No Shame: Yankee Atrocities Part II

Apparently the Yankees history is so full of digraceful moments that we didn't do it justice in the last post.

Folks insisted that we continue to expose the misbehavior and misadventures of the Bombers. So now we must reveal even more sordid stories of Yankees brushes with the law as well as the loathsome treatment of alleged legends.

Be warned, this stuff isn't pretty.

Luis Polonia, ladies man...

Baseball players have been known to chase the ladies. Of course, most of them look for ladies who are out of high school.

Outfielder Luis Polonia in 1989 invited a female fan up to his room at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, and apparently it was not to help her with her homework.

Milwaukee police decided that it was Polonia who needed the extra tutoring in math, because he allegedly had trouble counting to 18. That's 18 as in "Are you older than...?."

A judge decided Polonia should count to 60, as in 60 days in the hotel with the bars on the windows and pay a $1,500 fine after he pleaded no contest to the charge of having sex with a minor.

Carlton Fisk was not impressed by the two-star athlete.

Deion Sanders' lack of hustle

Deion Sanders was pretty happy with himself and his "Prime Time" persona that he parlayed into dual baseball and football careers.

In a 1990 game against the White Sox, Sanders allegedly drew dollar signs in the dirt as he stepped into the batter's box, then failed to run after meekly popping up.

Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, a throwback warrior if there ever was one, had enough of Deion's act and let him know it when he came to bat later in the game. Sanders allegedly said something stupid like "Lincoln freed the slaves" and Fisk went nuts, emptying both benches.

"There's a right way to play and a wrong to play and you're doing it the wrong way," he said. "Get back in the box and hit or I'll kick your ass right here in Yankee Stadium."

Fisk later said that famous Yankees of the past would be "rolling in their graves" if they saw the way Deion disrepected the game and his uniform.

Sanders, of course, went on to play for the Braves, adding to his already tainted resume.

"Donnie Longhair"

"Classy Yankee" is an oxymoron to be sure. But Don Mattingly might be as close to non-objectionable as a Yankee can get.

He was by far the team's best player for a decade and was surrounded by the likes Mell Hall, Ken Phelps and other players who would get Hall of Fame votes only from Yankee hacks like Bob Klapisch.

Naturally, the Yankees aren't content to leave a semi-decent thing alone. Apparently it's OK to be boozing, brawling and sitting naked on cakes (read Sparky Lyle's book "Bronx Zoo" for details). But if your hair gets a little long, you're going to learn your place and quick.

And apparently Mattingly's locks were more important than his batting average, because manager Stump Merrill benched him on Aug. 5, 1991 for failing to get to a barber in time. And I'm sure all the fans who came to the game that day were so glad to see someone else at first instead of their hero.

Lock your lockers

Yankee outfielder Ruben Rivera was getting paid more than $1 million, but apparently he needed some more scratch because he allegedly stole one of Derek Jeter's bats and gloves and sold them to a greasy memorabilia dealer for a couple grand.

Maybe Ruben was distraught that no one wanted to buy any of his own used gear.

Personally, I wouldn't want to touch anything in Jeter's locker unless I was wearing a haz-mat suit.

Apparently not even Rivera's teammates amused, since he was quickly given his release.

"Boomer" in the Bag

It's no shock that David Wells was "half drunk" when he pitched that game, according to his autobiography, "Perfect I’m Not! Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball."

Another disgrace to Yankee tradition. You can bet that Mickey Mantle never took the field half drunk. No way, baby. I have no doubt that the Mick was 100 percent tanked even before batting practice.

Nice no-no...or not

I don't think Andy Hawkins was drunk during his pitching gem on July 1, 1990. But I bet he sought solace in the sauce afterwards.

Hawkins was throwing a no-no at Comiskey Park. Sadly for him, he gave up a couple walks and had the misfortune of having Yankee clank-glovers Mike Blowers, Jesse Barfield and Jim Leyritz in the field behind him. A trio of errors later and the Sox end the inning with a 4 on the scoreboard under the runs despite a 0 under the hits.

Since the Sox were the home team, they didn't need to come to bat in the bottom of the ninth -- winning despite being no-hit.

Even worse for Hawkins, the commissioner's office later ruled that he didn't have an official no-hitter because he didn't go nine innings.

How to mistreat an icon

Yogi Berra is supposed to be a Yankee legend, but that hasn't stopped the team from treating him like crap.

Yogi, whose tenure as a Met showed him to be a decent guy despite serious Yankee taint, was named manager of the Skanks in 1964. He took the team all the way to the World Series, losing in seven games to the Cardinals.

Not bad for a rookie manager, you would think. But not in slimy Yankee World. Yogi was canned the day after the Series, replaced by Cardinals manager Johnny Keane.

Apparently the Yankee brass decided Yogi lost control of the team after a 5-0 loss to the White Sox on Aug. 20. Phil Linz started playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" -- he was a Yankee, don't expect a more complex song -- on his harmonica. Linz wouldn't stop, and Berra slapped the harmonica out of his hands.

Linz, who later tried to reform his life a Met, displayed his manager-slaying harmonica skills.

Apparently a glutton for punishment, Yogi accepted the Yankees manager's job again 21 years later. In spring training, owner George Steinbrenner said Berra would be the manager the entire season, win or lose, and that a bad start will not affect his job.

The Yankees started 6-10. Berra was fired. Never believe a Yankee.

Reggie's butt and SlapRod

Yankees apparently use their body parts in inappropriate ways during the post-season.

First, Reggie Jackson -- whose Yankee tenure is full of more ick than an untreated aquarium -- was on first base during the 1978 World Series against the Dodgers when Lou Piniella hit one to shortstop Bill Russell, who stepped on second then threw to first to Steve Garvey to complete what appeared to be a certain double play.

Except that Reggie, with everyone watching except apparently the umpires, stuck his butt into the path of the ball, deflecting it into right and allowing Thurman Munson to score.

The Dodgers argued that Reggie intentionally interfered with the ball. But you know that calls don't go against the Yankees.

Unless, of course, a play is so horrendous that the men in blue are so disgusted that they have no choice. We have to look no further than the 2004 Division Series.

Alex Rodriguez is presumably baseball's highest-paid player because of his powerful stick -- but that wasn't on display in a crucial situation. Instead, ARod meekly tapped one up the line to Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo.

As Arroyo prepared to lay the tag, ARod slapped the ball out of his glove -- and got called out anyway. Lucky for him Carlton Fisk wasn't there to blast him on the spot for disgracing not only his uniform, but every uniform from beer league softball teams to the majors.

Thank you to all the folks who sent reminders of these Yankee misdeeds!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Yankees Hall of Shame

I'm sure that getting roughed up by the Angels in the post-season was exactly what the Yankees had in mind when they brought in Randy Johnson this season.

And let's face it, The Unit's tenure has not been impressive. When he wasn't roughing up cameramen he was getting lit up by Mets relievers who were probably picking up a bat for the first time in their lives.

And that's pretty much what Johnson deserves for strong-arming the Diamondbacks into handing him over to the Skanks.

And amazingly, the Unit's misadventures are nothing compared some of the disgraceful behavior displayed by Yankees over the years. Goodness, there should be disclaimers printed on the back of ticket stubs warning that you will be exposed to some of the most embarrassing and vile actions seen surrounding a baseball team.

I could dedicate a whole book to these atrocities. But in the interest of space, I'll only air the laundry dirtied since 1970.

And gentle reader, it brings me no joy to list these deeds. But you don't get tagged "The Evil Empire" or good behavior and sportsmanship.

Mike Kekich, Fritz Peterson swap families
And Yankee fans have the nerve to ask Pedro “Who’s you daddy?”

The kids of Yankees pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson would have had a hard time with that one.

Apparently Kekich and Peterson liked to share. The players in 1972 went on a double date and joked about wife-swapping. You mean that doesn’t come up in conversation when you and your wives go out with friends? No, me neither.

By the time spring training rolled around the next year, the two pitchers not only swapped wives, they swapped everything – the house, the car, the pets, the kids.

“We didn't do anything sneaky or lecherous,” explained one of the wives. “There isn't anything smutty about this."

Apparently even the Yankees have some standards; Kekich was soon dispatched to Cleveland.

“I thought it was the ball”
It was Game Two of the 2000 Subway Series. The Skanks already stole a win in Game One when Todd Zeile’s would-be two-run homer hits the top of the wall and Timo Perez forgets to run hard.

The next night, everybody’s favorite catcher come to the plate in the first inning and breaks a bat on a foul ball, with the sharp shard harmlessly flopping between the mound and the first base line.

So what does Roger “Mr. Class” Clemens do? How about heave the bat at Piazza? Considering that Clemens had already beaned Piazza on July 8, no one believed Rocket when he later claimed the whole thing was accidental, and that he was merely being emotional. At one point he said he thought the bat was the ball. Makes sense. I confuse the two all the time. Right.

Piazza later said Clemens “seemed extremely apologetic and unsure and confused and unstable."

In other words, a typical Yankee.

It Starts With Seagulls
Future Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield claims he was playing catch with a ballboy during fifth-inning warmups in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium in 1983 when he unleashed his famously strong throwing arm on a defenseless seagull.

Now, anyone who has brought a picnic to Jones Beach knows that seagulls are often called “rats with wings” for a reason. But that doesn’t mean Yankees get to snuff out their lives for kicks. I swear these guys show no respect for life.

And come on, they were playing the Blue Jays! You start by killing seagulls and work your way up the bird-chain and next thing you know Garth Iorg is laying there with seam marks on his noggin.

A right-thinking Canadian arrested Winfield in the Yankees locker room on a charge of cruelty to animals. Winfield posts $500 bail for his release – only about $300 American -- but was let off the hook the next day.

He needs the cap to cover the horns.

Taking One for the Team
Hey, Winfield was a bird-killer. But he wasn’t all that bad as far as Yankees go.

But that didn’t stop George Steinbernner from paying a gambler $40,000 for information he could use to discredit Winfield.

Let that sink in for a second. The Yankees owner was trying to did up dirt about one of his own players, arguably his best one at that! Hey George, how is that going to help your team win ballgames?

Then-commissioner Fay Vincent, wasn’t amused and slapped a "lifetime ban" on the Boss. Sadly, in Vincent’s dictionary the definition of “lifetime” is “three years.”

It wasn’t even the first time Steinbrenner was banned by baseball. A grand jury in 1974 indicted him on 14 counts, including making illegal political contributions to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.

Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to a felony was fined $15,000. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned him for two years for illegal actions that “undermine the public's confidence in our game.”

Brawlin' Billy and Reggie
George’s little legal troubles led to one of the most famous quotes in Yankees history, perhaps only after Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Reggie Jackson came to New York as one of Steinbrenner’s first much-ballyhooed free agents and humbly proclaimed himself “the straw that stirs the drink.” This didn’t go over too well with manager Billy Martin, whose career was pockmarked with boozing and brawling.

It all spilled over June 18, 1977 in Fenway Park. Jim Rice hit a checked-swing fly ball to right field. “The Straw” allowed it to drop in for a base hit, lazily picked it up and tossed it towards the pitchers' mound as Rice strolled to second.

Martin yanked Reggie from the game, and the two nearly came to blows in the dugout on national television.

Hey, I get it. I had my moment with Reggie. But at least I didn't try to slug the guy.

The next year, Reggie showed Billy up after being asked to bunt, earning Reggie a five-game suspension. A few days later, Martin got lose with this little gem about his employer and top employee: He said Jackson and Steinbrenner deserve each other. “One's a born liar, the other's been convicted.” And Billy was soon unemployed.

Billy Martin showing that Yankee dignity.

Billy Martin rounds three through five
But not unemployeed for long.

I have no problem with the Yankees hiring Billy Martin the first time, and maybe even the second time. But what in the heck was Steinbrenner thinking when he brought Martin back for a third, fourth and fifth times? Martin lasted parts of three years the first time, part of 1979, ending after Billy had a brawl with a marshmallow salesman in a bar. He managed to last all of 1983 for the third round, then was brought back for parts of 1985 and 1988.

I can only imagine the conversation leading up to Billy V.:

“I think he’s changed, guys. He’ll behave,” George might have said.

“Gee whiz, boss. We kind of thought that before.”

“But he’s a real Yankee!” Steinbrenner might have replied.

“But so were Yogi and Piniella, and you kind of showed them the door.”

“Nah, this time it will work.”

Either six pitchers had the game of their lives, or the Yankees really stink.

Shame Times Six

Getting no-hit is bad, but there’s no shame when great pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Ed Halicki are on the mound.

Getting no-hit by multiple pitchers is just plain embarrassing. Getting no-hit by six Astros pitchers? Devil Rays are known to be heard saying, “We suck, but at least that didn’t happen to us.”

In an inter-league game, the Astros were at the hole in the Bronx and starter Roy Oswalt went down with an injury after throwing 24 pitches.

Oswalt turned the ball over to Pete Munro, who was followed by Kirk Saarloos, Brad Lidge, ex-Met Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner – who held the Yankees hitless. It was a record for most pitchers to throw a combined no-no.

Dotel gets the distinction of not only helping to preserve the no-no, but also fanning four batters in a single inning. Alfonso Soriano reached on a wild pitch, but Dotel struck out Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi to end the inning.

Bat-Chucker Can't Take Care of Business
There was one time – one time! — in my entire life when I rooted for the Yankees to win.

The Executive Board had scheduled our annual executive game for Detroit’s Comerica Park months in advance, and it just worked out that it would be the day that Bat-Chucker would be going for win No. 300.

Now, I have no love for Clemens. But I do love baseball history, and to be able to see someone reach an historic milestone is an amazing thing. I’ve seen Tom Seaver get his 300th win, and to see such history a second time would be a major thrill – even if it does involve a Yankee.

And the woeful Tigers were ripe for the picking. This was the year they would eventually come one loss shy of the 1962 Mets’ tally – without the benefit of being an expansion team.

So we were feeling pretty good when Clemens was up 7-1. But Bleeping Jeter and Bleeping Soriano decided to throw the ball all over the place. Clemens left the game with an 8-6 lead and nine outs to go. We still felt safe. After all, these are the Tigers. But noooo. Bleeping Sterling Hitchcock coughs up some runs and the Tigers tied the game.

So with our chance at history lost, we then reverted to normal Yankee-hating mode. But since the punks are intent to break our hearts over and over, they came back and won the game – in the 17th inning.

Freaking Clemens. Everyone knows that when you go for that milestone, you gut it out and get the complete game. You don’t turn your shot at history over to the bullpen, and if they pull it off, congratulate you at the post-game spread instead of on the field.

Absolutely shameful.

In Other Words...

Will does an excellent job writing about our annual Executive Game adventures. You can read about Clemens attempt at 300 here.

Speaking of Shame...

Oh, how I miss the New York tabloids on days like this!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Not Your Typical Airport Layover

Not the worst way to spend time in an airport.

I usually don't mind a layover of an hour or two while traveling. But I confess that I was dragging on my way home from an education writers' conference in Houston last December.

The conference itself was very helpful, our hosts at the Houston Chronicle were awesome and the city itself was nicer than I imagined.

But I usually try to work a baseball adventure into each of my work-related jouneys, and this time I fell pretty short.

Minute Maid Park is downtown, but was a pretty good walk from where we were meeting, at least too long for a patented "got lost coming back from the mens room" side trips.

I made it to the yard 15 minutes before the gift shop closed. The clerk let me in, but wasn't particularly excited about it. I was able to snag an American League All-Star Game jersey on a clearance rack, but couldn't give the place the ususal once-over that I like. And the shop was closed the rest of the weekend.

The store entrance is off a nice-looking lobby of what I believe was Houston's old train station, but I couldn't get any photos of the field or inside the stadium. There were some interesting things outside, like statues of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but it was getting dark and my photos were disappointing.

And while I like cruising through airports, the trip home isn't as exciting as the first time through, especially in Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport. I'd already ridden the underground train and explored all the gift shops and food courts. The only baseball items were related to the Braves, and you know I want no part of such crap.

So I was aimlessly wandering one of the terminals, and I saw one of the gates decorated with tons of red, white and blue balloons. I assumed there must have been some soldiers returning from Iraq, and thought it would be a nice pick-me-up to see our heroes getting off a plane and into the arms of their families.

But within a minute or two, there was an announcement over the public address system: "Delta Airlines, the official airline of the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox, is proud to announce the arrival of a very special passenger, the 2004 World Series trophy."

From Pedro's hands to mine!

What? You gotta be kidding me! The actual World Series trophy?

And sure enough, after all the passengers deplaned, the pilot and co-pilot walked into the gate area holding the trophy high. They placed it on a table surrounded by balloons, and people were allowed to pose for photos.

It was actually the first time I saw a legimate use for those dopey cell phone cameras. Luckily, I had my own camera handy, and a Delta employee offered to snap the photo.

Officially known as the Commissioner's Trophy, it was first presented to the World Series winner in 1967, when the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in 7 games. The trophy features flags with each of the 30 teams on it and the World Series champion gets to keep it because a new one is made each year.

I've learned that the Red Sox's trophy was designed by Tiffany & Co and cost $15,000. It weighs about 30 pounds and is made from sterling silver. The trophy is 2½ feet high and 36 inches around the base.

I've always thought the World Series trophy was cool because it is very different from the lame Super Bowl and NBA championship awards. You know exactly what it is at first glance.

I must say it was quite a thrill. I got to touch it and everything, and looked for the little pennant with the Mets name on it.

The Mets 1969 trophy is unique -- it's the only one to have the Seattle Pilots on it.

Naturally I had a lot of questions, namely why in the heck was the World Series trophy making an appearance in the Atlanta airport? I had heard that the Sox were sending it on a tour of New England and even their spring training home in Fort Myers.

But the Atlanta airport? And they are trusting this prize with airline baggage handlers? Hey, there's a reason I try to carry on as much luggage as possible.

Not that these nagging details stopped me from having fun. Talk about good timing! And it just goes to show that you never know when a good baseball adventure can happen.

Now you know...

I covered Bishop Airport in Flint, Mich. for a year and learned something cool. You know the vast acreage of concrete where the planes hang out before they go on the runway? People call it the tarmac. But the airport director chastised me one day. A tarmac is a crushed stone temporary runway that the military builds to land planes in far-off places. The area that most of us -- even those in the media -- call the tarmac is actually called an apron. It's just not as fun to say. But now you know.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Off-Season Blues

A deserted ballpark is a sad thing.

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it goes .... And summer is gone."
- A. Bartlett Giamatti, former baseball commissioner

Game No. 162 is in the books. This is one of the saddest days of the year for me.

You see, I am a creature of routine. That would freak some people out, but I’m OK with it. For instance, I like that I go to the same bagel store for breakfast every day, and that the clerks start preparing my order as soon as they see the silver Saturn pull up. Sometimes I mess with them by requesting a sesame seed bagel instead of a poppy seed. That’s about as wild as I get.

And Giamatti’s right, mostly. It’s not just summer that’s gone. It’s the routine. Being a baseball fan isn’t just a casual commitment.

The football writer at a paper I used to write for used to bash baseball in a column once a year and he’d always complain that the season was too long. He didn’t get it and probably still doesn’t. The beauty of the baseball season is that it is so long.

Baseball weaves itself into your life, day in and day out. A week in football is three days of hype, game day followed by three days of rehash.

That same week in baseball is seven games. OK, six games if there’s a West Coast travel day or a rainout. But generally, you get seven games, and that's seven opportunities to get excited, or to get depressed. Seven opportunities to cheer David Wright and boo Chipper Jones. Seven chances to marvel at Jose Reyes and curse the Yankees.

And if Braden Looper blows a save or Kaz Ishii can't find the strike zone with a map, we can wallow for just a day because the next game isn't too far away.

From late-February to the first week in October, my routine includes looking at the box scores to chart the daily progress of my Mets. When I was a kid, I’d check the paper on the doorstep each morning. When I was older, I’d check the AP wire on my terminal first thing at work.

Now, thanks to the Internet, I can find all the details of the game as they happen – and enjoy the recap, ranting and revelry of my friends in the blogosphere.

The games serve as a backdrop for the other things going on in our lives. I love Greg Prince’s “Flashback Fridays" feature on his Faith and Fear in Flushing blog where he takes a season and tells the story about what happened on the field, but also how it related to what was going on in his life. Of course they’re connected.
Shea goes into hibernation starting today.

So now that the Mets are packing it up for the winter, my routine is shattered. The playoffs and World Series, not counting the six years of my life when the Mets were included, serve as a transition period so we don’t have to go cold turkey. Though the thought of listening to Tim McCarver drooling over Derek Jeter all October makes me want to try.

And baseball has an active off-season. The awards are dripped out over a couple weeks in November and Hall of Fame balloting takes place in December with results announced in January. Free agents and trades stoke the hot stove discussions. But you can’t build a routine around those events.

So now, like Giamatti said, the game designed to break our hearts leaves us to face the fall and soon, the snow. But you know…. pitchers and catchers report in early February, the box scores will come back and we can start this all over again.