Mike Piazza in High School Near Philadelphia

One of the occasional features on this blog has been the story of a late-round draftee who became an MLB great. Here, from the Philadelphia Inquirer of Sunday, May 26, 1985, is a look at Mike Piazza:

There he was, down in the Veterans Stadium tunnel under left field last weekend, rubbing shoulders with Mike Marshall and Greg Brock, stroking batting-practice pitches from Manny Mota, bleeding the same shade of blue as Tommy Lasorda.

Mike Piazza blinked, just to make sure he hadn’t died and gone to Dodger Heaven.

Piazza, a junior at Phoenixville High, reacted to all this heady company he was keeping the way your average 16-year-old would. He was a bit in awe. But, really, there was no reason for him to be starstruck, because he’s having a better year than Marshall and Brock.

A 6-foot, 2-inch, 180-pound first baseman, Piazza, who doubles as the Dodgers batboy when they’re in Philadelphia, has already developed into one of the area’s most damaging sluggers, even though he’s one of the youngest in his junior class.

“Mike should really be a sophomore,” Phoenixville coach John “Doc” Kennedy said of Piazza, who won’t turn 17 until Sept. 4.

There is a stable full of pitchers who are happy he’s not, because Piazza this season torched them for 12 home runs, six doubles, three triples and 38 RBIs in 21 games (Phoenixville’s season ended Friday with a 3-2 loss to Sun Valley in a District 1 playoff game). His batting average was .514 (37 for 72) and his slugging percentage an incredible 1.181. Pitchers don’t need that kind of abuse for two more years.

Piazza had seven three-hit and two two-homer games, and he scored 28 runs. Five of his homers sailed over Phoenixville’s center-field fence, which stands 385 feet from home plate. He has also blasted a couple to the opposite field, where the fence is about 310 feet away.

“I’ve never had more respect for a hitter,” said Boyertown coach Dick Ludy, whose program has easily been the area’s most dominant over the last decade. “He’s hit two homers against us that would have gone out of any park in the big leagues, one at our place that went close to 400 feet. He was the top pick on our all-Ches-Mont League team.”

Said Kennedy: “He totally amazes me with his quick hands. Everything Mike hits is really stung. He drives the ball to all fields. And he’s a very good first baseman. He’s made only two errors. He’s dedicated a lot of time to hitting, and it shows.”

If you’ve been to Veterans Stadium for a Phillies-Dodgers game during the last three years, you probably saw Piazza as the Dodgers batboy. (Who said this kid couldn’t carry Pedro Guerrero’s bat?)

Piazza’s father, Vince, became friends with Lasorda when they were youngsters growing up in Norristown. Lasorda is godfather to Mike’s 2-year-old brother, named Tommy, of course.

“Three years ago Tommy called me and asked if I’d like to be the Dodgers’ batboy,” Mike said. “I couldn’t believe it. Two years ago he even took me on a road trip to New York for a five-game series against the Mets. And Tommy always lets me take a few swings in the batting cage under the tunnel at Veterans Stadium.

“Tommy and Manny Mota give me a lot of tips on hitting, and I can’t thank them enough for it. Manny noticed that I was uppercutting a little too much, something that a power hitter tends to do. He told me to keep my head down and try to swing down on the ball.

“I’m really lucky to get this kind of help,” Piazza added. “A lot of kids my age would give their right arms to be a batboy and get tips from people like that.”

Asked if Lasorda was aware of the kind of season he’s having, Piazza laughed and said: “Yeah, he knows. He said he wants to be my agent.”

For Piazza, there are no secrets to hitting. He has it stripped down to its basics.

“I don’t go up there thinking home run,” he added. “I just look for a good pitch, keep my hands back until the last possible moment, and relax. I haven’t thought about next year or beyond that, but I think I’d like to go to a college with a good baseball program. A lot more big-league players are coming out of colleges these days, and I’d like a good education. So far, though, things are going pretty well.”

I had heard about Piazza being drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988 as a favor to Lasorda, but the above shows that is not quite the whole story. In June 1985, the Inquirer said Piazza was “the area’s most-feared long-ball hitter, this 6-2, 180-pounder batted .514 with 12 home runs, six doubles, three triples and 38 RBIs in 22 games. . . . Had seven three-hit games and two two-homer games, and collected 37 hits in 72 at-bats. . . . Hit five homers over Phoenixville’s center-field fence, 385 feet away.”

Six years later, in June 1991, USA Today briefly profiled Piazza:

There’s a guy leading the California League with 20 home runs, and he’s a catcher. Really.

Well, sort of.

His name is Mike Piazza and he plays catcher for the Bakersfield Dodgers, but it’s a new position for him. In fact, he didn’t catch until he joined the Dodgers’ organization.

“I was a first baseman in junior college,” Piazza said. “As soon as I signed, the Dodgers converted me to catcher.”

The fact he is still learning the position is the chief reason why he’s still at the Single-A level despite 20 homers and 52 RBI.

“The feeling is that they (the Dodgers) want me to have a full year here and work on some of my defensive shortcomings,” he said.

While the parent club has the omnipresent catcher Mike Scioscia, Piazza said it converted him to catcher due to the number of first basemen in the organization.

“At the time, the Dodgers were really loaded with really good-hitting first basemen,” Piazza said. “It was just the best thing for me because there was more or less a logjam at first base.”

Piazza, 20, was drafted on the 62nd round by the Dodgers out of Miami Dade North College in the 1988 free-agent draft. He hit eight home runs in 198 at- bats at Salem (Ore.) in 1989, and had six homers in 278 at-bats at Vero Beach (Fla.) last season.

Published in: on February 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Few Items on Randy Johnson at USC in the Early ’80s

In April 1983, the L.A. Times did a short profile of USC freshman Randy Johnson. Here it is, in two parts:

Yes, that’s a mulletless Randy pictured in the sidebar. The rest of the profile:

By the way, a week later the Times reported that “USC first baseman Mark McGwire hit his 17th home run of the year last Sunday to equal the school record, set by Dave Hostetler in 1978. It took Hostetler 58 games to hit 17 homers. McGwire, a sophomore, did it in his 38th game.” A note added that McGwire had a .970 slugging percentage in Pac-10 games. Barry Bonds was playing left field for Arizona State and slumping.

Then, in February of 1984, USC coach Rod Dedeaux said, “We’ve got a team that’s going to be tough to beat.” Johnson, now a sophomore, and still 6-10 and 210 pounds, threw a three-hitter over six innings, striking out seven UC-Irvine hitters to get his second win of 1984. Dedeaux said: “When I go out and talk to him, I make him get off the mound so I don’t look like a Pygmy.”

A year later, in February 1985, the Times did a preview of USC’s baseball team. Dedeaux said of Johnson, who’d gone 5-3 with 73 strikeouts in 78 innings in 1984, “I look for him to come into his own this year.” McGwire had left USC after his junior year to sign with the A’s. By the way, USC fans will recognize the name of Rodney Peete, who Dedeaux touted as a freshman shortstop who was “going to be a good player. It’s just a question of when.”

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Detroit Tigers and an Illinois Earthquake on June 10, 1987

The Associated Press reported on this quake, which is interesting to compare to the Virginia earthquake this August that shook up so many people and impacted a Mariners-Indians game:

A strong earthquake rattled across 15 states from Missouri to South Carolina and parts of Canada yesterday evening, shaking skyscrapers and a major-league baseball stadium and triggering alarms at a nuclear plant. There were reports of minor damage and one minor injury.

The tremor, centered near Lawrenceville, Ill., 55 miles north of Evansville, Ind., was the largest in that part of Illinois in nearly 20 years, caving in part of a roof, breaking windows and cutting some telephone service in three counties.

The National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., said the quake occurred at 6:49 p.m. (CDT) and registered 5.0 on the Richter scale. A quake of that magnitude can cause considerable damage.

Reports of people feeling the quake came in from Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina, and also from several cities in Ontario.

“It was scary, but I must admit, it gave me a real thrill,” said nursing supervisor Becky Baker at Home Hospital in Lafayette, Ind. “I didn’t know what it was. I never felt anything like that before.”

Near Erie, Pa., Catherine Shaw, 76, and her husband, John, were watching television in their apartment in Harborcreek Township when the quake hit.

“We don’t have rocking chairs,” she said. “Our chairs are pretty solid,” but they “started rocking back and forth.”

At Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit, slugger Kirk Gibson was at bat against the Milwaukee Brewers when the earthquake hit.

“You could look through the glass in front across the other side of the press box and see a kind of shaking,” Tiger spokesman Craig Shea said. “It was swaying even.” The press box at the stadium, one of the oldest parks in the major leagues, sits atop the third deck.

“I think this will serve as a reminder that we do live in an area that can have earthquakes ,” said Gregg Durham, a spokesman for the Illinois Emergency Services and Disaster Agency. “A lot of people had their wits scared out of them.”

And USA Today added:

The most recent comparable Midwestern quake occurred July 12, 1986, when a jolt centered in Auglaize County, Ohio, registered 4.2 on the Richter scale. The strongest in several years occurred Jan. 1, 1986, when an earthquake centered about 30 miles northeast of Cleveland had an estimated magnitude of 5.0.

“It is considered a moderate earthquake ,” said Waverly Person at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. “It’s unusual to have one this size in the Midwest.”

Steve Thibideau, 27, of Union Lake, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, timed the tremors he felt with a stopwatch he happened to have in hand: 2 minutes, 39 seconds.

“It was just kind of odd, everything vibrated and shook. It was pretty strong for 10 or 15 seconds. I was out in the garage checking on my fishing gear and everything started jumping up and down. … I could see the worm on the end of my fishing pole jumping up and down.”

Many people didn’t feel a thing. “I’ve got 500 customers up here right now and I haven’t heard a peep out of them,” said Julie Weaver from the restaurant on the 95th floor of Chicago’s John Hancock building.

But behind Mississippi Tavern in Fort Madison, Iowa, a man leaning against a wall felt the quake. “He said that the wall was moving. I said, `No, it ain’t – you’re stoned,’ ” recalled a friend, Tony Elmore, who was standing nearby.

As the power lines to the bar began to swing, Elmore said, “I saw the building swaying an inch either way. I never seen a train or anything move a wall like that.”

Baseball fans at Tiger Stadium in Detroit got a scare when the stadium began shaking.

“The press box began swaying, moving back and forth like an amusement ride. It was quite scary,” said Detroit News Sports Editor Joe Falls. However, it apparently did not affect Tiger Kirk Gibson, who slammed a triple to center field right after the tremor. [The quake and triple came in the bottom of the 1st, by the way.]

Published in: on November 9, 2011 at 6:03 am  Comments (1)  
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The Milwaukee Brewers in the 1982 Playoffs

The 2011 Brewers are the first version of the team since 1982 to win a playoff series. This post takes a look back at a few highlights from those playoffs almost 30 years ago. First, a Miami Herald report on the Brewers winning the ’82 ALCS:

Cecil Cooper’s two-run single in the seventh inning and improbable hero Peter Ladd’s second sterling relief job in three days staked Milwaukee to a 4-3 victory and the first league championship in the 13-year history of the franchise.

The Brewers thus completed a three-game sweep of the California Angels at home and became the first team in the 14- year history of major-league baseball’s best-of-five playoff series to climb from an 0-2 grave to win.

The Brewers will meet the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night in Milwaukee . Mike Caldwell, 17-13 during the regular season, will be their probable starter.

But Sunday, the Brewers didn’t care to look ahead as they engaged in a champagne-drinking and spraying celebration.

Most even returned to the field from the locker room to toast the remnants of a raucous crowd of 54,968 who ignored gray skies and chilly, bone-numbing winds to juice up their Brewers .

“The greatest feeling of my life,” said Kuenn, an alleged push-button manager who made all the right moves in Milwaukee ‘s rally from a 3-1 deficit Sunday. “I can’t explain it any better than that.”

As starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich said of Kuenn, “We were 8 1/2 games back when he took over, and here we are today. That says it right there.”

Just eight days ago, the Brewers had to win at Baltimore or go home. They had lost three straight to the surging Orioles to drop into a tie for the Eastern Division lead, but they won when they had to on the last day of the regular season, 10-2, behind Don Sutton.

This time, they had three consecutive win-or-else games, and they won them all. “That just typifies the character of this ball club,” said third baseman Paul Molitor, who stroked two hits off California starter Bruce Kison and scored Milwaukee ‘s first run.

The Most Valuable Player award went to California outfielder Fred Lynn, whose 11 hits tied a playoff-series record set by Chris Chambliss for the Yankees in 1976. But the lone dissenting vote of five was easily justifiable. It went to Ladd.

After pinch-hitter Ron Jackson singled off reliever Bob McClure to start California’s ninth, Kuenn called for the 26- year-old rookie who pitched for Class AAA Vancouver the first half of this season.

Catcher Bob Boone greeted him by moving pinch-runner Rob Wilfong to second with a sacrifice bunt. But Ladd then retired Brian Downing and Rod Carew on routine grounders to secure the World Series invitation. Ladd thus retired all 10 batters he faced in the series.

On deck when Carew grounded to shortstop Robin Yount for the final out was Reggie Jackson — “Mr. October” until this year. He helped win Game 2 with a solo homer but finished the series with only two hits in 18 at-bats. Sunday, he struck out for the seventh time in the five games and grounded into a double play in his last at-bat in the seventh.

California Manager Gene Mauch already is catching heat for sending Tommy John to the mound Saturday and Kison Sunday on only three days’ rest. But Jackson absolved Mauch.

“We can’t fault his managing,” he said. “When you have a Reggie Jackson who goes two for 18 and a Rod Carew who goes three for 17 … who the heck are you going to blame? We lost. Blame the Brewers .”

This series was supposed to be a muscle-flexing contest. The Brewers led the majors with 216 homers; the Angels were second with 186. But the teams, who played to a 6-6 split in their 12 regular-season meetings, pecked away for runs Sunday.

After Downing doubled to lead off the game, Lynn singled him home with the first of his three hits to give the Angels a 1-0 lead. Milwaukee answered in its half of the first as Molitor, who had turned what looked like a soft single into a double with daring base-running, scored on a sacrifice fly by Ted Simmons.

Lynn singled home Boone in the third inning to put the Angels back on top, and California pushed its lead to 3-1 in the fourth when Boone dropped a perfect suicide squeeze bunt to bring home Doug DeCinces, who had doubled.

Ben Oglivie, one for 12 previously in the series and playing despite sore ribs, then drilled the game’s only homer down the right-field line in the fourth to cut California’s lead to 3-2.

To that point, the teams had committed five errors — two by Oglivie in left — to bring the total for the series to a playoff-record 12.

The Angels’ 3-2 margin stood into the seventh, when Milwaukee began its winning rally with the scratchiest of all scratch hits.

With one out, Charlie Moore cue-balled a little hump-backed pop toward second baseman Bobby Grich. It stayed aloft just long enough for Grich, first baseman Carew and shortstop Tim Foli to converge but not long enough for the diving Grich to make the catch.

He thrust his glove skyward with the ball showing in the webbing. Out, ruled first-base umpire Al Clark. But plate ump Don Denkinger and third-base arbiter Bill Kunkel saved Clark from a boo-boo by animatedly signaling Moore safe. Grich had trapped the ball on the short hop.

“It was one of the finest ‘quails’ I’ve ever hit,” Moore joked later. “It’s not even a Texas Leaguer. But it was a thing of beauty.”

Luis Sanchez, who had retired the first four Brewers he faced after replacing Kison to start the sixth, then yielded a clean single up the middle to Jim Gantner, the No. 9 hitter in the order.

After Molitor fouled out to catcher Boone, Yount, the favorite for the AL Most Valuable Player award this year but almost anonymous in this series, worked Sanchez for a walk to load the bases with two out.

Up stepped Cooper. He had been up 19 times previously, and he had only two doubles to show for it. But on a 1-1 delivery, he lined a single to left to score Moore and Gantner and put theBrewers ahead to stay.

“I knew he was a power pitcher, and I was thinking fastball from the start,” said Cooper, who hits from the left side. “The entire at-bat I was thinking of going to left field. Thinking back, I wish I had been going to left field the whole series.”

Mauch then took out Sanchez and brought in Andy Hassler, who struck out Simmons to end the seventh and retired the Brewers in order in the eighth. But the damage had been done.

Kuenn, whose replacement of starter Vuckovich with McClure in the seventh had resulted in a first-pitch double-play grounder by Reggie Jackson, then made another switch that proved brilliant.

Center fielder Gorman Thomas had been playing with a sore knee that was twisted when he was thrown out in a collision at the plate Saturday. Kuenn pulled him and inserted fleet Marshall Edwards for defensive pruposes.

Don Baylor, who already had set a playoff record with 10 runs batted in, drove a McClure offering to the deepest part of left-center with one out. But Edwards raced back, leaped and snared the ball as he crashed against the padded fence at the 392-foot sign.

“Once we had gotten the lead, I figured it was best to get Gorman out of there and go to Marshall for defense,” Kuenn said unassumingly.

The call for Ladd proved Kuenn’s final stroke of genius. For a guy whose instructions supposedly have been limited to “go up there, hit a homer and have some fun,” he looked to be a mastermind.

And, the Brewers followed the ALCS up by winning the first game of the World Series, vs. St. Louis, in a 10-0 rout. UPI reported:

Mike Caldwell and Paul Molitor took the spirit out of St. Louis Tuesday night as the Milwaukee Brewers scored a 10-0 rout in the first game of the World Series.

Caldwell tossed a three-hitter at the Cardinals and was aided by a 17-hit attack that included a record-setting five by Molitor, four by Robin Yount and a solo homer by ex-Cardinal Ted Simmons.

Caldwell allowed only one hit — a second-inning double by Darrell Porter — over the first seven innings before tiring in the eighth and giving up singles to Porter and Ken Oberkfell.

“I’ve pitched games like that during my career but considering the circumstances of it being in the World Series, I have to say it was probably the best game of my life,” said Caldwell.

“Basically, I was getting ahead of the hitters. I was using mostly sinkerballs and I had good success in keeping the ball down. I think the key was in the first inning when I got the first three batters on groundouts. That gave me confidence that I could get them out.”

The 33-year-old lefthander, a disappointment in the Brewers ‘ stretch drive to the American League pennant, was in control from the opening pitch. He set down the Cardinals in order in six of the innings and, after Porter’s second-inning double, he retired 12 batters in a row. The first 11 of those did not get the ball out of the infield.

“That’s as good as you’re going to see Caldwell pitch,” said Simmons. “He was superb and the timing is excellent because, frankly, he’s had trouble getting people out. Tonight he was back to his old self.”

Caldwell, showing pinpoint control in marked contrast to his two previous outings against California in the AL playoffs, walked only one and struck out three in his first appearance in a World Series.

The Brewers made things easy for Caldwell by tagging starter Bob Forsch for 10 hits and six runs in 52/3 innings. Forsch, who blanked the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the NL playoffs, had poor control from the outset; the Brewers reached him for a pair of unearned runs in the first inning to give Caldwell all the support he needed.

Molitor and Yount were the catalysts for the Brewers , just as they’ve been all season.

Molitor, playing in his first World Series, became the first player in Series history to get five hits in a game.

“I was hoping to get another chance to get another hit in the ninth, but I didn’t know it was for the record,” said Molitor. “I was just trying to get the 10th run home. In that situation, you want to keep things going.”

Molitor grounded out in his first at-bat, but went on to break the record of 40 players, the last of whom was Willie Stargell in 1979. Three of the hits were infield singles, one a broken-bat blooper to center, and the other a line drive to left.

“As the Cardinals well know, if you keep the ball in play on the Astroturf, you’re going to come up with some hits. I’ll take five hits however I can get them,” said Molitor.

“There’s a great misunderstanding that the Brewers are a one-surface ballclub. We can adapt to different surfaces. We have speed — we just didn’t need it that much this season. We can change faces.”

Yount singled and scored in the first, singled again in the second, delivered a two-run double in the sixth and singled in the eighth. It marked the first time since 1946 that two players on the same team had at least four hits each in a game.

“We don’t need to hit the ball out to score runs,” said Yount.

Milwaukee’s only homer was Simmons’ solo shot in the fifth. The Brewers also had doubles from Yount and Moore and a triple from Jim Gantner during their four-run ninth inning.

43-year-old Jim Kaat’s appearance made him the second oldest player to appear in a World Series. The oldest was pitcher Jack Quinn, who was 47 when he worked the 1930 World Series for the Philadelphia A’s against the Cardinals.

Finally, this story is a sign of how much Milwaukee was inspired by its Brew Crew. Anticipating the return of World Series baseball to the city for the first time since 1958, the AP reported on October 16, 1982:

There was no World Series game at County Stadium Thursday night, but an estimated 25,000 fans turned out anyway, warming up at a rally to cheer their Milwaukee Brewers to victory.

Blue and gold Brewer pennants waved by the hundreds as shouts of “Go, Brewers , Go.” rang through the parking lot of the stadium, where the city hosts its first World Series game in 24 years tonight.

The 75-minute program featured broadcast highlights of last Sunday’s playoff victory over California that made the Brewers champions of the American League.

The Marquette University band and cheerleaders also entertained the fans, some of whom said they attended to get into the spirit of things after being unable to obtain tickets for series games.

Game Three at the stadium tonight marks the first time Milwaukee has hosted a Series game since the old Milwaukee Braves lost the 1958 World Series to the New York Yankees in seven games. The Brewers and Cardinals are tied with one victory each after two games in St. Louis.

Tickets for Series games here tonight, Saturday and Sunday were reported to be selling on the street for as much as $500 a pair for box seats that originally were priced at $24 each, and lesser amounts for grandstand seating. Prices from ticket scalpers were expected to escalate further as each game is played.

Mark B. Lauwasser, 30, said he spent the day responding to newspaper ads and found sellers wanting as much as $100 per ticket.

Carol Horde said she and her husband could not get any tickets and considered the rally the next best thing. They brought their four-month-old son along, wearing a minature pin- striped Brewers uniform.

“I think this is great,” Mrs. Horde said. ” Milwaukee really needed this.”

Milwaukee County’s top administrator, County Executive William O’Donnell, described the rally as “tremendous.”

“A lot of these people go to the games year round and can’t get World Series tickets,” said O’Donnell, who helped organize the affair. “I just thought there ought to be something for them.”

The official celebration ended at 8:30 p.m., but hundreds of fans stayed, forming a snake dance that twisted through the parking lot.

The lights for the parking lot were doused a half-hour later, but 300 to 400 people remained at 10 p.m., ignoring the pleas from sheriff’s officers that they leave. Before the hangers-on departed, some sped through the parking lot in their autos, honking horns, and others smashed beer bottles.

Sheriff’s deputies said a few scuffles among fans caused minor injuries, but no serious injuries were reported.

Earlier Thursday, officials announced that, win or lose, Milwaukee will give the Brewers a giant celebration, complete with ticker-tape parade through the downtown, after the series.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce said the parade would be held the day after the series ends, whether that will be Monday, Wednesday or Thursday.

The parade will feature Brewer players riding in antique autos supplied by a local car dealer, and marching bands also will participate. Afterwards, an Appreciation Day celebration is scheduled at the stadium.

Published in: on October 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Giants Heartbreak in the 1987 NLCS

Since the Giants have finally ended their San Francisco drought, their fans can now look back at the series of near-miss opportunities for the team that stretched from 1958 through the 2000s, and be thankful that they can put those opportunities in the back of their minds. The most painful near-miss between 1970 and 1993 (the ’89 World Series was a sweep, and anyway the Bay Area had bigger things to worry about) was the 1987 NLCS, which started with Jeffrey Leonard hammering the Cardinals, then turned into a nightmare.

Jim Van Vliet of the Sacramento Bee wrote a post-NLCS hand-wringing that went like this:

It will be a long time before Giants fans forget 1987. A very long time, as in never.

If they’re still talking about Willie Mac’s Game 7, ninth-inning liner from a World Series 25 years ago, there’s no reason to believe they’ll ever forget what happened on two ugly Midwestern October nights in St. Louis in 1987.

They’ll remember the Giants going the final 22 innings without scoring a run to give away the National League playoffs that they had all but wrapped up. They will remember that on two crisp Missouri nights, needing to win either game, the Giants only got one runner as far as third base in two games.

But more than anything, Giants fans will long remember what could have been. Or, more appropriately, what should have been.

What were the Cardinals’ chances of winning this series? How many people thought the Cardinals had a chance with Jack Clark, their only long-ball threat, getting just one at-bat in the series? Or with Vince Coleman kept from stealing a base until the sixth inning of Game 7? . . .

When looking back on any series, it’s often difficult for historians to determine the turning point. Some will insist it came when Candy Maldonado misplayed Tony Pena’s fly ball into a triple in Game 6. Some will say it was The Ridiculous Jose Oquendo’s three-run homer in Game 7. Still others will insist it was the close calls on the bases that went against the Giants in Game 6.

But it was none of those. This series was lost in San Francisco on a lovely Indian Summer night last Friday, when the Giants frittered away a four-run lead and lost 6-5.

This series never should have gone to Game 7 — or Game 6, for that matter. It should have ended last Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park. When the Giants evened the series 1-1 behind Dave Dravecky’s two-hitter last Wednesday, the Cardinals genuinely fretted.

“When we went to San Francisco, I was worried about getting back (to St. Louis),” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog confided.

Maldonado will live with the memory of those blinding lights in his eyes, but this series was lost in Game 3.

The Giants jumped on rookie left-hander Joe Magrane and led 4-0 after three innings of Game 3. But Atlee Hammaker couldn’t hold it. The Cardinals eventually came back by pushing four runs home in the seventh off Don Robinson and Craig Lefferts.

It would go back on the carpet before 55,331 red-clad, towel-waving maniacs who had been whipped into a froth by Jeffrey Leonard and Chili Davis. Leonard bad-mouthed the Cardinals after Game 1, and Davis referred to their beloved St. Louis as a “cow town.”

No matter what Leonard said — and whether his snide comments were serious or merely taunting fun for the national media — a 55,331-strong angry mob makes a difference.

Game 3 was a game they should have won. And with the venom and commotion the Giants had caused, they needed to win. With subsequent victories in Games 4 and 5, the Giants would have wrapped up their first pennant since 1962.

But it was back to Busch. And, unfortunately, the Giants left their bats in San Francisco.

Van Vliet went on to second-guess Roger Craig for starting Atlee Hammaker in game 7 in St. Louis, failing to pull Hammaker soon enough when he faltered, and failing to get baserunners in motion in a 6-0 shutout of a team that had set a Giants record with 205 homers in the regular season. Despite their stacked lineup, with Will Clark hitting 35 homers to lead the pack of 10 hitters with at least 10, and a league-leading team ERA of 3.68, the season was over.

After game 5, when Joe Price, a guy I’d never heard of (Price matched the 2010 Giants relievers by pitching 26 innings the last two months of the ’87 season and allowing just 13 hits and four runs), had pitched five shutout innings in relief of Rick Reuschel to lead the way to a 6-3 win at Candlestick and 3-2 series lead, the S.F. Chronicle’s Ray Ratto remarked, “momentum is nothing, deeds everything.” Both faltered in St. Louis.

In game 6, Dave Dravecky took the loss despite a one-run, six-inning outing when Candy Maldonado lost Pena’s fly ball in the Busch Stadium lights, and game 7 got worse for the Giants. They’d wait until 1989 for their next World Series, and 2002 for their next good shot at winning one again.

Published in: on August 26, 2011 at 6:22 am  Comments (2)  
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Talking About the Early 1980s Albuquerque Dukes and L.A. Dodgers With Jack Perconte

I wrote a “where are they now” profile of ’80s second baseman Jack Perconte a little while ago. In talking with Jack to write the article, I also asked him about his time with the Albuquerque Dukes in 1979, 1980, and 1981. Since that exchange didn’t fit in the article, I set it aside for later use, and now here it is, for Dodgers and Dukes fans to enjoy. My questions are in bold: Jack’s responses are in plain text.

What was it like to play AAA ball all through the 1981 major league strike? Did it help create a winning atmosphere on your team, because the Albuquerque players knew they weren’t going to go up to Los Angeles, and you could concentrate on winning the PCL title? Obviously, stability is extremely rare on a minor league team, and I imagine being together almost all year helped the Dukes.

I believe it did help because with nowhere to go (no big league call up possibilities) everyone just settled in and played ball. We were so loaded with talent, that we actually received some notoriety from the Los Angeles and national press. Additionally, the Dodgers and other ball clubs sent out scouting personnel to see us that wouldn’t have been available if the big club was playing – people like Tommy Lasorda made the rounds so we felt like we were being show cased more than we normally would have been.

What’s your memory of the atmosphere in Albuquerque? Was the city unusually attached to the team? Did you have a sense of following a winning Dodgers tradition that extended down to the minors?

Very fond memories – great place to play with supportive and knowledgeable fans. Definitely a Dodger town and after the great Albuquerque Duke teams of the early 70s with Lasorda, we definitely felt the Dodger pride and tradition. As a side note, I am honored to say that I am being inducted into the Albuquerque sports hall of fame this summer [of 2010] for my play as a Duke.

Did you feel like an outsider in ’81 when you got called up to L.A.? Or when you watched the team play in the playoffs? I guess maybe being around guys you’d played with in the minors made it more comfortable to be in the majors. And the strike must have affected the atmosphere with the Dodgers.

As a September call-up in 1980 I felt like a member of the team, even though I was extremely nervous when playing. It all changed in 1981 because after the summer strike the Dodgers decided to call Steve Sax from double A ball up to the “Bigs” instead of me. Because of that situation and knowing I would not get much of a chance to play, I did feel more like an outsider. Having said that, “Any day in the big leagues was a blessing and I wasn’t complaining.”

I don’t recall the strike affecting the atmosphere. By the time I got there, it was business as usual with everyone trying to win a pennant.

It’s very unusual to be a very good performer over three straight years for a very good PCL team. What was your frame of mind as time went by and you didn’t get much of a chance with the Dodgers? Apparently Davey Lopes was blocking you in L.A., so you just had to be patient.

Looking back, I can’t say that I dwelled on it much – Davey Lopes was a great player and I felt like my time would come, if not with the Dodgers than somewhere else. I believe playing for such great teams in Albuquerque certainly helped me stay focused. We won a ton and winning keeps a player happy for the most part. As mentioned though, when the Dodgers brought up Steve Sax instead of me, my attitude changed quickly and I felt slighted and like I wanted to be traded. That trade came in the off-season.

Finally, on September 1, 1985, Perconte nearly became one of the few dozen major leaguers to get six hits in a nine-inning game. Bidding for his sixth single of the day in the ninth inning in Baltimore, Perconte’s sharply hit grounder to third instead became a double play. I asked Jack:
What do you remember about the 1985 game in which you almost went 6 for 6? Was there a sense of being on with your swing, or having an unusually good approach at the plate? Looking back now, do you have warm feelings about it as your greatest day in baseball, or do you try to avoid that sort of nostalgia?

Show me a player who wants to avoid that sort of nostalgia and I will show you a liar. Just kidding, but some memories like that day are very vivid. I don’t remember each and every hit but it was definitely a day where I felt “in the zone” and those in the zone days were very few and far between for me.

I don’t recall my approach being much different. It just felt like the ball was in slow motion and my confidence was sky high. Seeing how I battled confidence issues my whole major league career, that day was unusual.

I do remember our fine manager Chuck Cottier was going to pinch hit for me before my last at-bat because we were winning by a good margin. One of the assistant coaches mentioned that I was 5 for 5 so they let me hit again. I hit a rocket to third where they turned a double play ball on it. Six for six would have been much more memorable.

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Joel Youngblood’s Two Hits in Two Cities for Two Teams, Off Ferguson Jenkins and Steve Carlton, in One 1982 Day

On August 4, 1982, New York Mets GM Frank Cashen was working on trading Youngblood to the Expos, and as he did, Youngblood batted third at a Wrigley Field day game, against Hall of Fame righty Ferguson Jenkins.

Youngblood struck out in the first inning, then came through with a two-run single in the third, giving the Mets a 3-1 lead on their way to a 7-4 victory. He left Wrigley before the game ended: Manager George Bamberger took him out, told him he was traded to the Expos, and Youngblood set off for Philadelphia, where the Expos were playing that night.

By the time he got to Veterans Stadium, his new uniform was there waiting for him, with “Youngblood” already stitched onto the back. Expos manager Jim Fanning met his new player in the dugout, and sent him to right field in the sixth inning as a defensive replacement for Jerry White. He came up in the seventh and rapped a single in his only plate appearance against the second immortal of the day, Steve Carlton.

Here’s Joel Youngblood recalling one of the oddest days any big league player could have, in an interview a couple years ago with the N.Y. Daily News: “I just remember that was a very, very long day. Anytime you start off as a day game, it’s (the middle game of a series), you’re not expecting to travel after the game – you’re just not anticipating anything but playing the game.

“(Bamberger) took me out of the game, I couldn’t understand it. I went to talk to him, and he said, ‘Joel you’ve just been traded to the Montreal Expos – they’re short players and they’d like you to get to Philadelphia as quickly as you can.'”

Before going off to O’Hare airport, Youngblood told a reporter, “I knew something would happen sooner or later. This is a good opportunity for me to play every day.”

Joel recalled the journey to Philadelphia: “(In the cab to the airport) I realized I left my glove at Wrigley Field. And I knew that would take away from the time I had and I was jeopardizing my opportunity to make that flight. But I’d played with that glove for years. So I went back, got my glove, and the cab got me to the airport in probably another 30 minutes. It was a 6:05 flight – 7:05 Philly time.”

“(In the visitors’ clubhouse at Veterans Stadium) I got in my uniform, went up the stairs. I knew Pete Rose (then playing first base for the Phillies), and waved to him, then went up and got a base hit. My two hits that day were off Hall of Famers – Fergie Jenkins and Steve Carlton. That’s off two pretty good pitchers to make this happen.”

Published in: on March 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Look Back at the Start of ESPN, 1979-1982

ESPN of course covers much more than baseball, but it’s been a key element of the development of the baseball/sports media complex over the past 30 years. It’s worth looking back to see how it began in 1979, its immediate impact on sports fans and sports media in the early ’80s, and what its initial goals were.

First of all, ESPN founder George Bodenheimer, now the president of ESPN and and ABC Sports, recently told NPR “Sports Center, which was the very first program on ESPN back on September 7, 1979, is really the backbone of the company. It’s our responsibility to chronicle the day’s events in sports through highlight packages.”

And that “it was considered absolutely crazy to have a 24-hour network devoted solely to sports. I mean, we were literally laughed at, and nobody thought the idea was worth much or was going to make it and so you would have been hard pressed 29 years ago to think what it could’ve grown to. Having said that, when you worked here you could see signs that what we were doing was catching on — letters from people out of state, references to the company and popular culture, newspapers once in a while, people calling in for rules to Australian rules football. You could start to see that there was a market out there for sports that weren’t necessarily televised regularly.”

In September 1980, with ESPN already a year old, the Washington Post reported on its new status:

Last week, the ESPN cable TV network expanded to 24-hour-a-day sportscasting. That had to be good news for anyone who thinks there isn’t enough sports programming on television.

Of course anyone who thinks that has been standing out on too many golf courses during electrical storms.

After a month or so hooked up to cable TV in suburban Washington, this viewer can report that it’s a great little gadget, as long as you are a sports maniac. On a recent Sunday afternoon, more than half of the available programmed channels on cable were carrying some sort of sport. By contrast, there were only two stations showing old movies, which seems a case of priorities gone berserk, but then sports has never been bigger business and TV made it so.

You’d think the Constitution guaranteed a U.S. citizen the right not to have to watch a ball game. This right gets increasingly difficult to exercise as television turns more and more sports into revenue-grabbers. We’ve gotten to the point where no sport is safe from being televised; with NBC’s “Games People Play,” everything but canasta and stickball has been given video ritualization.

Of course the definition of “sport” has to be stretched to fit television’s own peculiar requirements. Recent editions of “Games People Play” included such dubious sports as falling off a log into a mud pit, and street brawling. Then there was the escape artist whose sprot was being hand-cuffed to a car filled with explosives and trying to get away before another car rammed into it and blew it up.

A long way from horseshoes in the park, that’s for sure.

ESPN is a thriving enterprise that claims a 250 percent increase in viewing households since signing on a year ago. ESPN spokesmen say they expect to reach 6 million households through 875 different cable systems around the country by the end of 1980.

Of course when you’re doling out sports round-the-clock, you have to relax your standards just a hair as to what constitutes vital and exciting competition. One wonders just how many millions of viewers were awake and kicking at 4:30 in the morning one day last week when ESPN carried the U.S. National Kayaking Championships.

Then there are such other big September attractions as Australian rugby (5:30 a.m. on Sept. 22, among other times), Canadian football, the Pacific Northwest Frisbee whirlaway, a Chinese children’s tumbling exhibition and the Great Eastern Skeetshooting Championships.

The next March, the Boston Globe reported on another ESPN expansion:

“It’s the greatest response we’ve ever had,” says ESPN official Rosa Gatti of that cable system’s all-encompassing coverage of the current NCAA basketball playoffs. Grasping the concept of ESPN , which delivers sports on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the difficult part. Once accomplished, the annual college basketball madness can be seen as ideal programming, a pulsating way to fill out an overload of television time.

The beat continued during the last 48 hours. On Thursday night ESPN delivered four games between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., the first three live, then last night did the other four games, two live and two on tape. Among Greater Boston’s 75,000 subscribers to the system, the Boston College-St. Joseph’s and Indiana-Alabama at Birmingham games carried on Ch. 56 last night were blacked out on ESPN because the cable service does not duplicate conventional TV programming.

That is why only one NCAA playoff telecast remains on ESPN after this weekend, the consolation game on March 30 preceding the championship match that night at 9 p.m. The title game and both semifinal games on March 28 will be on Ch. 4, produced by NBC.

This flurry of basketball has drawn phone calls from across the country to ESPN in Bristol, Conn., from crazies willing to travel to the nearest ESPN setup for the chance to watch the basketball TV marathon. Usually it is not very far, now that 8.7 million homes are hooked onto ESPN, a number that is expected to top 11 million by January.

The next excitement for ESPN will occur April 28 when the National Football League begins its two-day draft. The cable system’s cameras will be live at the New York City hotel site, posting selections and conducting ongoing interviews with management, agents and athletes. For NFL draft fanatics, this is mandatory viewing as much as NCAA basketball is to its following.

By August 1981, the Globe said ESPN was covering Canadian football, the North American Soccer League, baseball’s annual Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, and, with the major leagues on strike, “the cable channel began carrying various minor leagues live and will continue to do so through the end of their seasons, perhaps adding playoff games.” It was also putting on SportsCenter three times a day.

By March 1982, the Washington Post was touting ESPN as the wave of the future, and noting the first divorce on account of paying too much attention to “the global sports leader”:

The strongest sign that the end of the age may be approaching is not the position of the planets against the sun, or that the sultan of Oman may someday have the bomb. Merely that civilization now has its first certifiable case of ESPN Divorce.

It came to light last week in Austin, Tex. John Kelso, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, told the story of a friend of his, a doorman at a local music club, who was divorced by his wife because he spent too much time sitting before the television, eating Mexican food and barbecue, and watching whatever was being shown on ESPN, the 24-hour cable sports network.

“I just watched ESPN all the time,” the guy said, explaining why she snuffed him after 1 1/2 years. “I mean, all the time.”

If the end does not come by earthquake, tidal wave or mushroom cloud, it probably will arrive via Professional Rodeo (taped) at 3:30 a.m. April 10, from Mesquite, Tex., or Full Contact Karate (taped) at 4 a.m. April 13 from Topeka. Of course, it also may draw nigh during the wall-to-wall NCAA tournament basketball games ESPN now is airing, some live in prime time.

The thing is that ESPN –like the drip-drip-drip of the water faucet–is always there. As one viewer told the network, “I watch your channel so much, if World War III broke out, I wouldn’t know it unless you told me.”

With ESPN reaching only 118,000 viewers in the “Washington” market, which extends as far as Hagerstown and Baltimore, there’s a kind of cable junkie subculture now being born: Orgies of ESPN -watching at Arlington apartment houses. And in the best tradition of beer-drinking, barbecue-eating, spouse-neglecting viewing, ESPN games are picked off the satellite by a tavern named Poor Robert’s on Connecticut Avenue.

The feeling here is that anyone who has seen ESPN has seen the future.

Owned lock, stock and minicamera by Getty Oil, ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) still must answer a $64 question: Can a round-the-clock, pure-sports network survive while relying almost entirely on advertisers? Even Charles Van Doren would have trouble with this one, for the prestige sports still are controlled by the commercial networks and ESPN must eventually attract showcase events to prosper.

Nevertheless, the auguries are good.

ESPN now plays to 15 million homes nationwide–18 percent of the country’s television households. Expanding at the rate of 500,000 homes a month, the network expects to be in 32 percent of all homes by the end of this year. By 1990, two out of three American homes should be cabled, meaning that Getty Oil will be dipping its mitts in whatever sits at the end of the rainbow.

Finally, as a coda to this story, here’s part of a column by the Miami Herald’s Bob Rubin from late April, 1983, in which he looks back on ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL draft. It sounds like it hasn’t changed much since 1983, and since 2007, you can also apply his comments to coverage of the baseball draft in June:

It is a tribute to the NFL’s superb publicity machine and the public’s football mania that the annual offseason beef auction called the college draft commands headlines for weeks and a full day’s live coverage (8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a review at 10:30 no less) on ESPN.

The action is riveting. Guys you never heard of sit at desks, yakking on the phone in a ballroom at the New York Sheraton before writing down their teams’ selections and having them announced. Yet this somehow has become a media event of immense magnitude in and of itself. Call it Rozelle’s Monster. The Commish even gets into the act by reading the first-round selections before handing over the mike to underlings. Pity there are no instant replays.

There’s even a live gallery to watch the guys on the phone, spectators who line up for seats in the wee hours like they were waiting for World Series tickets. Among them are “draftniks,” who predict first-round selections in competition for prizes.

There are reporters on the floor, photographers — the whole works. All this over the selection of kids who won’t don pads as pros for three months yet. Weird.

I watched ESPN for the first two rounds, all six hours plus, until my eyes glazed over and my ears rang. Anyone who stayed the course should be given a rubber football and locked up.

In my lifetime in front of the tube Tuesday, I learned the 40-yard-dash time of everyone in the Western Hemisphere. I got team needs, predictions, projections, selections, opinions, excuses, speculation, analysis, previews, reviews, heights, weights, strengths, outside speed, inside speed, inside-out speed, upside-down speed. There’s a guy who writes for a pro football periodical who was introduced as “a man who lives the draft 365 days a year.”

Don’t you want to spend a whole lot of time with him?

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 2:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Few Notes on Ronald Reagan, Baseball, and the Movies

It’s still pretty well known that Ron Reagan spent some years in the 1930s re-creating Chicago Cubs games for a radio station in Davenport, Iowa, and this post isn’t going to focus on that. But, as a follow-up to an earlier post on George W. Bush as part-owner of the Rangers, here are a few selections on Reagan and baseball, in the aftermath of the 100th anniversary of his birth. This, from the Boston Globe of March 23, 1990, described Reagan at a Boston cancer treatment benefit as he

talked of what 79-year-old men love to talk about in the spring. Baseball and the old days, baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ted Williams and the Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio, all the while munching on jelly beans.

“It was great,” said Mayor [Ray] Flynn, who sat on one side of the former president. “I told him how much I loved seeing the movie ‘The Babe Ruth Story’ and . . . “

So refreshing,” said Mike Andrews, who sat on the other side of Reagan. “He was talking about a book he’s reading on the history of baseball back in the times the 1880s when you needed nine balls for a base on balls and . . . “

A wonderful afternoon in the Back Bay. A mayor and an ex-president sitting side by side, and not a word of politics, but so much more. Reagan traveled to Boston gratis to speak at a fund-raising luncheon for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute yesterday, and seldom has the Jimmy Fund had a brighter day. No pomp, no circumstance, few flourishes, the 40th president of the United States visiting almost unannounced, but leaving all behind warmer.

“I was telling him how I had this film history of Ebbets Field,” Mayor Flynn said. “And he asked me, ‘Does it have Gil Hodges in it?’ and ‘Jackie Robinson?’ and ‘Is Carl Furillo there?’ and I told him they were all there. He told me how he’d love to have it . . . so I’m going to send it to him. I’ve got to get it to him.”

When the former president would turn away from Flynn, there’d be Andrews to his left, and Reagan would talk to the former Red Sox second baseman about the days when nine balls would be a walk and four strikes a K. “He was telling me things I didn’t know,” said Andrews, recalling the ex-president’s anecdotes and other lore from “Total Baseball,” a book rich in historical detail. “He also talked about David Halberstam’s book ‘The Summer of ’49’, those Red Sox and Yankees,” said Andrews, “a lot about DiMaggio and Williams.”

Flynn and Reagan talked about sports movies from the ’40s and ’50s, and Reagan said he thoroughly enjoyed William Bendix and ‘The Babe Ruth Story,’ too, and when Andrews and Reagan talked movies, “he told me he had just seen ‘The Hunt For Red October,’ ” said Andrews. “He told me, ‘It was great . . . just great.’ ” Politics were set aside.

“I was thrilled just to be this close to him,” said Jack Bicknell, the Boston College football coach. “It was thrilling just to talk to him,” said Mayor Flynn. “I was so thrilled to introduce him,” said Andrews, the master of ceremonies. They all used the same word. “Thrill.” None of these people regularly use that word at noontime on a March Thursday. Yesterday they all used it.

We’ve all heard the Dutch Reagan stories, right? Once Ken Coleman set the well-placed bait with his descriptions of Reagan the radio broadcaster and baseball recreator at WOC-AM of Davenport, Iowa, Dutch Reagan came up to the podium and finished it all off with detail. Reagan in the little Iowa studio far from Wrigley Field, the play-by-play coming to the station by Western Union ticker, the Cardinals and the Cubs tied in the ninth, Billy Jurges up, Dizzy Dean pitching, when suddenly the ticker gave out.

“I had the pitch already coming to the plate,” said Reagan, “and the wire’s gone dead. So I had Jurges foul one off . . . the wire’s still dead . . . so I had Jurges foul another one off . . . then I had Jurges hit a home run that was just a foot foul . . . I had two boys fighting for another foul ball behind the plate . . . “

Old story. But still a thrill to hear it. None of them took their eyes off Reagan, not Joan Benoit Samuelson or Bill Rodgers or Mike Eruzione or Doug Flutie at the head table, or the hundreds in the audience, or even Yolanda Creeden, a student intern from Simmons College working with the Dana Farber people as a public relations assistant, or Andrews just a foot or two from Reagan and the podium. All listening.

Reagan’s voice doddered a bit. For he is 79 years old. But most at the event, many of them athletes or ex-athletes, marveled at his physical appearance, which is . . . well, amazing. “He was telling me how he used to work out at the White House,” said Andrews, “and how after he got to the White House, his chest was 2 inches bigger than before . . . “

Some $100,000 more was raised for the fight against childhood cancer, the day capped off by a painful yet inspiring irony in light of the Red Sox’ longtime support of the Jimmy Fund. Jean Yawkey waved in appreciation when she, her late husband and the Red Sox were thanked for their long support of the Jimmy Fund, but the circle was so touchingly completed when Kyle Stanley, the 9-year-old son of the former Red Sox reliever, proudly walked to the podium, strongly spoke into the microphone and presented the ex-president with a Dana Farber baseball cap. Kyle Stanley, it was learned over the winter, has a tumor. Later, when the entire family was calle d to the podium, Bob Stanley stood behind them all, very proud.

This all started with a phone call. When Reagan was president and was asked to tape an announcement for the Jimmy Fund, Andrews asked that if he were ever in Boston, could he come to the Dana Farber hospital? Reagan said he would, “and I thought, you know, ‘He’s just saying that,’ ” said Andrews. Then two months ago, “lo and behold,” a phone call came, and yesterday Dutch Reagan was in Boston.

Also, here’s Reuters describing Reagan’s guest spot with Vin Scully to broadcast an inning of the 1989 All-Star game:

Former President Ronald Reagan returned to one of his old loves with an inning of color commentary on national television at the 60th annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game Tuesday.

Reagan joined network play-by-play man Vin Scully in the broadcast booth for the first inning of the mid-season classic.

“It’s a great honor for me after broadcasting for several years in Iowa to now finally make it to the big-time of a top network sportscasting job,” Reagan joked.

“And it’s reassuring that after only six months away from the job that I had – well I’ve been out of work for six months and maybe there’s a future here,” the 78-year-old former chief executive said.

Reagan said he felt “kind of like a kid” in the broadcast booth, “particularly since our host Gene Autry is 81.”

Autry, a Hollywood veteran known as the singing cowboy, owns the California Angels, who play their home games at the stadium here. Reagan, dispensing with presidential diplomacy, called it the “greatest baseball stadium in America.”

Among his comments, Reagan reminded viewers that he appeared in a baseball uniform when he played St. Louis pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the film The Winning Team.

And like all-star Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals, who also plays football for the Los Angeles Raiders, Reagan pointed out that he too played football in the movie Knute Rockne – All American.

At the conclusion of the inning, Reagan admitted to being a bit nervous.

“I’m so sorry that it’s over for me now and I have to confess I was a little uptight because, as I say, when I was sitting up in a place like this I had to tell the people what was happening because they couldn’t see it.

“Now I get a little self-conscious when I know that people can see what’s going on.”

Finally, here’s some of the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell talking about that portrayal of Grover Alexander in July 1988, when Reagan was still president:

Epilepsy is the first thing that comes to President Ronald Reagan’s mind after he’s watched himself portray Grover Cleveland Alexander [in 1952] in “The Winning Team.”

The president wants to make sure his White House audience understands why Old Alex often fell down and why, in his misery, he sometimes drank too much. Above all, the president wants to stress why he thinks the aging pitcher’s comeback in the 1926 World Series was such a worthwhile story for a movie.

“They wouldn’t let us use the word ‘epilepsy’ in the movie,” Reagan said Friday night. “I’d already made a movie where I played an epileptic professor.” And that movie hadn’t made much money. So, Alex the Great was just going to have mysterious fainting spells – something vague about his having been an artillery sergeant in World War I.

In the movie’s climax, Alexander, 39, released by the Cubs in midseason for his supposed drinking problems, is pitching the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title against the Yankees and their Murderers Row. The Cardinals, who’ve given him a last chance, have been rewarded for their faith with his complete-game wins in Games 2 and 6. Hollywood didn’t script it.

In the seventh inning of the seventh game, with a one-run lead and the bases full, with Tony (Poosh ‘Em Up) Lazzeri and his 114 RBIs at bat, Cardinals Manager Rogers Hornsby called the bullpen for Alexander.

“Alexander and Lazzeri were the only two epileptics in the major leagues,” said Reagan. “And each knew it about the other.”

Alexander warmed up so slowly that it became part of Series lore. Reagan asked Alexander’s widow if she knew why. “He said, ‘I figured I’d let him wait.’ ” . . . [and then, as you may know, struck out Lazzeri].

If “The Winning Team” isn’t Reagan’s best movie, it’s close. He knows it and is proud of it. And the president likes to watch it every so often.

Reagan on Alexander, speaking off the cuff after the movie, deserves to be saved. Of course, it’s part of Reagan lore that he spent five years broadcasting Cubs games. His baseball love, and credentials, are legitimate. But his pride in his throwing arm may not be nearly so well known.

True, Bob Lemon doubled for Reagan in long camera shots where break-a-foot curves were necessary. “But I did a lot of that myself,” said Reagan, who took a two-week crash course from Lemon and was especially pleased with a scene where he hits the pocket of a catcher’s mitt nailed to a barn door. Years before, in his lifeguard days, Reagan would chunk rocks almost every night in the dark so that the last necking couples on the beach would ask what he was doing. “Oh, just trying to hit that big rat.” Many a young lady then asked to leave. . . .

Perhaps Reagan is proudest that “The Winning Team” is really a movie about Alexander’s marriage – that’s the winning team in question, not the Cubs or Cardinals. Alexander’s widow was the movie’s technical adviser and, according to Reagan, she even provided the dialogue for a central closing scene. In it, the pitcher tells his wife he knows she must be exhausted because of all the pitches he has thrown that season, because, battling his disease, he has been “drawing strength from you every game.”

Luke Appling and the 1982 Cracker Jack Game

This game, in particular 75-year-old Luke Appling’s homer off Warren Spahn, was one of the warmest memories baseball produced in a decade that featured a long strike in 1981 and Pete Rose getting banned from baseball in 1989. And it came not under the auspices of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the rest of organized pro baseball, but because the people at Cracker Jack wanted to put on an exhibition game featuring stacks of retired greats in a city that hadn’t seen mlb action for a decade. Here’s how the Washington Post described the proceedings:

Warren Spahn kicked as high as he could, Hank Aaron dived after balls and 75-year-old Luke Appling hit a first-inning home run as the American League went all out to defeat the National League, 7-2, in a very respectable Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic last night before 29,196 at RFK Stadium.

A sudden thunder shower nearly forced postponement of the five-inning exhibition, the first baseball game in RFK since 1972. But once the players had filed onto the field one at a time for more than 30 minutes of introductions, they went at it with relish.

The American League, which had a lot of players not used to losing All-Star games, took a quick lead in the first when Appling hit Spahn ‘s second pitch 12 rows deep into the short left field bleachers.

The American League got four more runs in the third on Jim Fregosi’s home run and RBI singles by former Senators Mickey Vernon and Roy Sievers.

In the locker room afterward, Appling flexed his biceps between puffs on a huge stogie. “I haven’t felt better in my life than I did tonight,” said Appling, who has been playing in old-timers games longer than he played in the majors.

“I didn’t even look at it (the home run). I just didn’t want to run around the bases. I never feel old.”

Spahn was largely responsible for setting the game’s serious tone. On his first pitch, he rared back, kicked his right leg high in a reasonable facsimile of his famous form and threw Appling a high curve ball.

“I didn’t know we were allowed to throw curve balls,” said Whitey Ford of the American League.

“I told Luke last night my strategy was to pitch around the young guys and get the old fogeys out,” said Spahn, the winningest left-hander ever. “But he didn’t give me a chance.”

Before the game, Spahn estimated that in today’s salary structure he would be worth about half a franchise. Which makes Appling worth how much? “The Chicago White Sox,” he said, “And the Cubs, too.”

American League pitchers, most noticeably ex-Senator Camilo Pascual, Ford and Bob Feller, held the National League to six hits, including a home run by Bill Mazeroski. And the National League hitters got the benefit of some very lenient scoring.

“I threw tough for 11 years. Why would I stop now?” said Pascual, who threw harder than any of the pitchers, but had one lapse–Mazeroski’s home run.

While some of the oldsters, like Ewell Blackwell and Johnny Mize, had some trouble maneuvering, many players wouldn’t have let up if ordered to.

In the second inning, Aaron made a remarkable catch of a sinking liner hit by Bill Freehan. Al Dark was his usual competitive self, decoying runners into sliding. Richie Ashburn even attempted a drag bunt.

“It was a major league catch,” Aaron said of his second-inning acrobatics. “We’re not playing to embarrass ourselves. We wanted to win. People are paying their money to see us.”

“Some of those pitchers were throwing pretty hard,” said Willie McCovey, who hit one off the mezzanine during batting practice, but couldn’t get a ball out in three at bats. “You always have your pride, which makes you play as hard as you can.”

But there were moments when the players acted their age. Al Rosen staggered around third base trying to catch Ernie Banks’ foul pop-up and eventually watched it fall behind him. And in the second, moments before his running one-handed catch, Aaron let an easy fly ball hit him in the chin. It was ruled a hit.

When they were through, the players swarmed onto the field and doffed their caps to the fans.

“We played like this for the fans. They didn’t deserve anything less,” said Brooks Robinson, who started two American League double plays.
“They kidded me,” Appling said afterward. “I hit 45 homers my whole career and I had to wait 32 years to hit my 46th. The thing is, I’m no pull hitter.”

The thing is, Luke Appling is 75 years old. He was the oldest guy taking part in the Cracker Jack Old-Timers’ game at RFK Stadium last night.

The game drew 29,196 on a rainy, muggy night, which is remarkable. The American League won, 7-2, which is rare, indeed, in all-star exhibitions. And Luke Appling hit a home run off Warren Spahn in the first inning.

“I talked to Spahn before the game,” Appling said. “I told him not to throw me the ball outside, because I might drill one back at him. So he threw me one inside. Sometimes, you’ve gotta be smart.

“It was a knee-high, helluva curve. Nah, actually, he was kind to me and just laid it in there. I didn’t know it was gone, I just didn’t want to have to run around all the bases.”

The ball soared through the drizzle and into the short porch in left field, about 315 feet away. There would be two other homers hit (Jim Fregosi and Bill Mazeroski off Bob Allison’s creaky leap trying to catch his fly ball), but Appling is almost as old as Fregosi and Maz put together.

“If I’d had a short porch like that in Comiskey Park,” Appling said, “I’d have turned into a pull hitter.

“People kept asking me how I felt, seeing how some of the guys had gotten old. I said, ‘Hell, I’m the oldest guy here.’ But I still travel for the Braves, work with their minor-leaguers. Now, I’ll have something to tell them.”

Spahn: “It’s something neither one of us will ever forget.”

Joe DiMaggio said: “You never saw so many guys having a great time. You know, a lot of us only knew each other as competitors. Now you get to know these guys as people. Everybody was in little groups, and guys would just wander from group to group, telling stories and catching up on old times.

“The players of our eras didn’t make the money that they make today. You wouldn’t believe it, but in recent years, baseball has actually given the association [the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, which supported retired players] less money–down from $50,000 to $30,000. And costs are going way up. This game will bring the association more money–$50,000 guaranteed–than baseball provides in a year.”

Cracker Jack put on three more Old-Timers games at RFK Stadium: read about the final one in 1985, or buy some articles from the Washington Post covering the other games.

Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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