The Birth of R.A. Dickey’s Knuckleball

Here’s the story of R.A. Dickey debuting his knuckleball for the AAA Oklahoma City RedHawks in July 2005, as told by the Daily Oklahoman’s Bob Hersom:

If R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball proves to be as good as his timing – and a whole lot better than the knuckler looked Sunday night – he’ll be back in the major leagues by September.

As a right-handed pitcher, Dickey had one strike against him when he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Strike two was the last two years, when he’s been on the disabled list three times.

Strike three looked like it might be headed toward the plate this season. In addition to being on the DL, Dickey hasn’t been the pitcher he wants to be; he’s 3-5 with a 7.13 ERA for the RedHawks after going 0-1 with an 8.10 ERA with Texas.

So, he’s decided to knuckle down.

Sunday night, against the Iowa Cubs, Robert Allen Dickey made his debut as a knuckleball pitcher.

It was not a success.

“It was terrible on paper,” Dickey said, “but I’ve got to try to glean something positive from it.”

The I-Cubs clubbed Dickey for 14 hits and 12 runs in 5 2/3 innings and went on to win 12-2 at SBC Bricktown Ballpark. He threw knuckleballs on 91 of 113 pitches.

“I try not to get too tied up in results, especially with it being a brand new thing for me,” Dickey said. “It’s a real hard pitch to throw for strikes sometimes, so I was behind in the count a lot.

“But I’m going to try to turn the page and commit to it. It takes a certain amount of fortitude to see something like this through.

“I’m a competitive guy, so to go out there and give up 12 runs is tough to swallow. But in order to be a professional, I’ve got to realize that hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m just going to stay with it and see what happens. I learned a lot, and that’s what it’s going to be about these first three or four games.”

Though Sunday marked Dickey’s first game as a knuckleball pitcher , he’s thrown a hard knuckleballer occasionally for a few years.

“It’s just called ‘The Thing,'” Dickey said. “I probably threw 10 percent of those and 90 percent of everything else. Now it’s going to be just about the opposite. I’ll probably throw 80 percent knuckleballs and 20 percent of everything else.

“I’m fortunate, because I’ve thrown a hard knuckleball, so I’m comfortable throwing a hard one. But the key is going to be taking speed off it and being able to throw it for strikes.

“The different speeds you throw it, the different ways it moves. The harder one breaks sharper, but it only breaks once. The slower one breaks numerous times on the way to the hitter. So, if I throw a good one at 70 mph, you can be looking at three or four different breaks over the course of the pitch.”

Dickey, the only player who has been in six RedHawks seasons, has been throwing his new, softer knuckler on the side for a few weeks. Brian Esposito has been doing the catching, and Chris Richard and Chad Allen have stood in as batters.

“His slow one moves a lot, and his faster one kind of gets on you and does some late movement, sort of does some tumbling action,” Richard said. “He’s controlled it pretty well in practice, and any time you’re facing a knuckleballer, as long as it’s moving around, it’s hard to hit. It doesn’t matter what the speed is.”

“R.A. doesn’t have as much movement on his knuckleball as Wakefield does, but the thing about it is, he can throw two different speeds for strikes,” Allen said. “For him to be able to do that right now and to be able to control it is pretty impressive.

“For a guy who hasn’t thrown it his whole life, it’s pretty dang good. I think he’s going to get better and better as time goes on. Plus, he’s got two other pitches, fastball and curveball, that he can throw for strikes to back it up.”

The Rangers recommended but didn’t insist that Dickey try being a knuckleball pitcher. They left the decision up to him.

“Hopefully it will prolong his career in the big leagues,” RedHawks manager Bobby Jones said. “They didn’t tell him he had to do it, they suggested it.”

RedHawks pitching coach Lee Tunnell said, “He’s a good enough athlete and determined enough that he’s the kind of guy who would be able to do it. And he’s changing speeds on it. It’ll be a work in progress, but he’s committed to it and I think these last nine starts he has will be a good barometer.”

Dickey knows he will be sort of a knuckleball intern, a work in progress.

“It’s not going to be an overnight miracle by any means. But it could be something that will put me over the top. If you’ve got a good one, it can carry you for a long time, prolong your career by eight, nine, 10 years.”

Published in: on June 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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Kevin Millwood’s 2003 No-Hitter

Here, from the AP, is a quick look at Millwood’s no-hitter on April 27, 2003, at Veterans Stadium, a 1-0 win for the Phillies over the Giants, still Kevin’s only “real” no-hitter that he pitched by himself (box score available here):

Using a sharp fastball and a slow curve, Millwood kept Barry Bonds and the other Giants’ hitters off-balance throughout the afternoon — and kept the crowd of 40,016 cheering at Veterans Stadium.

Millwood retired Bonds three times, striking out the single-season home-run king in the seventh. Bonds hit a long drive to right that Bobby Abreu caught near the wall in the fourth.

Marquis Grissom came the closest to getting a hit, but center fielder Ricky Ledee raced back and made a leaping one-handed catch on his hard liner to right-center to start the seventh.

“I was just praying that Ricky would make a great play and he did,” Millwood said.

Grissom hit a routine fly ball to Ledee for the final out of the game. Ledee homered for the game’s only run.

Earlier in the ninth, Millwood retired pinch-hitters Neifi Perez and Marvin Benard before walking Ray Durham on a full count. Millwood retired 15 straight batters before the walk.

Published in: on June 8, 2012 at 10:44 pm  Comments (1)  
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Bryce Harper in 2008 and 2009

Bryce Harper, like LeBron James, was recognized as a potential superstar very early on. In March 2008, while Las Vegas was in the midst of its economic descent, the city’s Review-Journal wrote what seems to be the first profile of Harper in mainstream media. The paper explained that Bryce was part of a divorced family: a 2000 divorce left Bryce in his dad’s custody, and brother Bryan (who got a baseball scholarship to Cal State Northridge, but instead went on to play at the College of Southern Nevada with Bryce, and then the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, who won the 2010 and 2011 College World Series) and his sister in his mom’s custody. Jon Gold wrote:

Bryan, a level-headed senior with a full-ride scholarship to Cal State Northridge awaiting, is now on the mound for Las Vegas High and bats second.

Bryce, a fiery freshman, is behind the plate for the Wildcats and batting third.
Together, they’ve led the Wildcats to an 11-4 mark – Bryan with a 3-0 record, 1.50 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 20 innings; Bryce batting .500 with 21 hits, three home runs and 15 RBIs.

A battery in baseball heaven. That is, when the two aren’t bickering.

“We’ve gotten into it; that’s just brothers butting heads,” Bryce Harper said. “That’s just me and him. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it’s, ‘Me and you, let’s do it right here.’ “

Bryce has that kind of confidence in his big brother, and he’s not afraid to say it. He’s not much afraid to say anything. He’s the louder one, the snappy one, the 15-year-old with pictures of his baseball heroes on his wall and a Texas Longhorns blanket on his bed – a snapshot of unbridled passion. . . .

When he [Bryce] was 7, a travel-ball coach in Las Vegas asked him to play for his 10-year-old team. Forget the three-year gap, Bryce was a star. One team led to another and another.

And it has all led to this: at age 15, most scouts and baseball experts have Bryce ranked as one of the best players in the country, if not the best.

As a 12-year-old, Travelball-select.com – a Web site that ranks 12- to 14-year-old ballplayers – tabbed Bryce as the best player in the nation. Same honor when he was 14.

Four years from his first opportunity at the Major League Baseball draft, Bryce has his eyes on the top.

“I remember I was in fifth grade, my counselor came in and said, “What do you want to do?'” Bryce said. “I said I wanted to be a pro baseball player, and she said, ‘No, really.’ I get that all the time, and it pisses me off.

“I’m going to be a pro baseball player.”

Travel baseball has taken Bryce around the country – from California to Utah to Oklahoma to Georgia – sometimes for as many as 130 games a year. That’s not including the countless hours in the batting cage, or the time at the field, leaving his dad’s arm in shambles.

But it could all pay off. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, with a pristine swing and a 94 mph fastball, the dream might become a reality.

“With his work ethic, I don’t really know if Bryce has a ceiling right now,” Las Vegas coach Sam Thomas said. “He’s not Superman, he’s not perfect – but I think he’s doing pretty damn good for a 15-year-old.”

Thomas added, comparing the brothers: “They’re totally different people. Bryan is more social and laid back, and Bryce is more nose-to-the-grindstone. Tate is so mild and quiet, like a mouse, and Tanner is more outgoing. It’s almost like the seniors are the same and the younger ones are the same.”

In mid-January of ’09, Damon Seiters of the Review-Journal wrote that Bryce Harper “recently competed in the International Power Showcase at Tropicana Park in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he hit a group of home runs that are sure to be remembered. During one round of the home run contest, Harper hit six home runs that traveled an averaged 469 feet, including three that went 484 feet or more.

“His longest went 502 feet, which was the longest in the contest.

‘He had a great time, and he hit some memorable shots,’ said Ron Harper, Bryce’s father. ‘And it was a lot of fun seeing him out there on a (pro) ballfield.’

“Harper’s long shots all came using an aluminum bat, but Ron Harper said that doesn’t tarnish the feat. ‘It’s a metal bat, but I’ve seen him hit the ball 450, 460 feet with wood,’ Ron Harper said. ‘Wood or aluminum, the kid was hitting some majestic shots.'”

At about the same time (February 22, 2009), the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers wrote that “Harper is 15 but has been on the radar of scouts for at least three years, maybe longer. He was only a 6th-grader when he showed up for his first national showcase, playing against players who were high school freshmen and sophomores.

“He homered twice in one game and showed solid skills behind the plate. According to Perfect Game, which runs those showcases, he has just continued ‘getting better and better.’

“He stands 6 feet 3 inches, weighs 205 pounds and has a quick, pure swing from the left side to go with one of the best arms in the country, pitchers included.”

Thomas, his high school coach, said Bryce “is not only a tremendous baseball player, but also one of the most respectful young men I have ever coached. His ability to play the game is matched by his desire for perfection and his work habits to reach that goal. His work on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom is second to none.”

Published in: on June 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm  Comments (1)  

A Series of Mostly Depressing Statistics for Seattle Mariners Fans to Consider

Mariners w-l record from 1977 through 2010, excluding ’95 through ’03: 1720-2224. Winning % in those seasons: .436
Mariners w-l record from 1995 through 2003: 802-637. Winning % in those seasons: .557
Number of times Mariners have lost 90+ games in a season: 12
Number of times Mariners have won 90+ games in a season: 5
Most games in season won by Mariners outside of the ’95 through ’03 stretch: 88, in 2007
Last season in which Mariners outscored opposition: 2003, 795 runs to 637 runs
Number of seasons Mariners have had a winning % over .500: 11
Number of last place finishes in division by Mariners: 11
Number of first place finishes in division by Mariners: 3
Number of times Mariners have lost at least 98 games in a season: 8

Number of runs Mariners scored from 1996 through 2003: 7079 Average per season: 885
Number of runs Mariners scored from 2004 through 2010: 4771 Average per season: 681.5
Average number of runs Mariners scored from 1982 through 1992: 679
Gap between the 513 runs the Mariners scored in 2010 and the 993 runs the Mariners scored in 1996: 480 (the gap between 2010 and the 927 runs scored in 2001 is 414; the team also scored 558 runs in 1983, another season with 100+ losses)

Last season in which a Mariner hit at least 40 home runs: Alex Rodriguez, 40, in 2000
Number of positions Ichiro holds in the list of 10 Mariners with most singles in a season: 10
Number of seasons since 2000 in which a Mariner appears in list of 10 hitters with highest season slugging percentage in franchise history: 0
Number of pre-1996 seasons in which Mariners’ attendance exceeded the 25,749 average posted in 2010: 0
Average Mariners per-game attendance for 2004 through 2010: 30,742
Number of post-2001 seasons in which the Mariners payroll has dropped below the $74,720,834 figure of 2001: 0
Number of seasons since 2001 that rank among the list of 10 highest payrolls in Mariners’ history: 10
Total Mariners payroll from 1995 through 2003: $530,735,181
Total Mariners payroll from 2004 through 2010: $666,771,482

Number of seasons before 1995 in which Mariners attendance ranked above 10th in the American League: 2
Number of seasons from 1995 through 2010 in which Mariners attendance ranked above 10th in the American League: 16

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 4:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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Japanese Baseball Benefit Games for the 1995 Kobe Earthquake and the 2004 Quake/Tsunami Victims

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami on the island of Honshu in Japan, I looked up the response Japanese baseball had to the Kobe earthquake of January 1995. I found this, by Wayne Graczyk of the Japan Times in 2005:

Ten years have passed since one of the most unforgettable times in Japan’s history.

Two weeks ago, we observed the anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995. Six and a half weeks from now, on March 20, Japan will also mark a decade since the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway gassing.

The year 1995 was also a most memorable one in Japanese baseball.

Orix BlueWave players, wearing the slogan “Gambare (Hang in There) Kobe” on the sleeve of their uniform jerseys, epitomized the fighting spirit and will to recover of the Kansai people, and they won the Pacific League pennant under manager Akira Ogi.

His roster included a skinny 21-year-old kid named Ichiro Suzuki who had just played his first full season, batted .385 and broke Japan’s single-season hits record with 210. . . .

In July of that year, a special All-Star Game was played at Fukuoka Dome, pitting the foreign players on the Japanese teams, managed by Valentine, against the best Japanese players, led by Oh. Proceeds from ticket sales were sent to help earthquake victims in Kobe.

The game featured the likes of [Tom] O’Malley, [Hensley] Meulens and [Terry] Bross, Troy Neel, Bobby Rose, Ralph Bryant, Alonzo Powell, Kip Gross, Lee Stevens and Glenn Braggs against such Japanese stars as Ichiro, Atsuya Furuta, Hideki Matsui, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Keiichi Yabu and Norihiro Nakamura. . . .

Now, here we are 10 years later, in the year 2005.

Will it also be a memorable year in Japanese baseball?

It should be. There is talk of another Gaikokujin vs. Japanese All-Star Game to be played March 14 and benefit survivors of the earthquake that struck Niigata on Oct. 23.

Valentine is back heading the Marines, joined as a foreign manager by Trey Hillman of Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

That benefit game did happen, as the Daily Yomiuri and The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in mid-March, 2005:

A team of Japanese-registered stars defeated a foreign squad 5-3 on Monday at Tokyo Dome in the Charity Dream Game, which raised over 8 million yen for the victims of three recent disasters in Asia.

The Japan Dreams decided the game in the bottom of the first inning, when they rocked Seibu Lions starter Hsu Ming-chieh for four runs on five hits.

Hanshin Tigers leadoff man Norihiro Akahoshi hit Hsu’s second pitch for a line single to center. The 28-year-old, who has led the Central League in steals in each of his first four pro seasons, swiped second on the next pitch and scored the game’s first run on a double by the Dragons’ Hirokazu Ibata.

“There were a lot of great things right from the start,” said Chiba Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine, who managed the Foreign Dreams. “Akahoshi stole a base—the fans loved to see that—and there were fine defensive plays.

“I was as much a fan today as a manager,” added Valentine.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks captain Nobuhiko Matsunaka, last year’s Pacific League MVP, made it a 2-0 game with an RBI single and Hawks teammate Kenji Jojima plated him from third after a double by the Giants cleanup man Kazuhiro Kiyohara.

The Hiroshima Carp’s Shigenobu Shima, last year’s Central League batting champ, added a fourth run with a clean single to center.

“It seemed my starting pitcher forgot what manager he was pitching for,” Valentine joked. “Since he usually pitches for the other manager.”

Hsu’s skipper with Seibu, Tsutomu Ito, managed the Japan Dreams.

Erick Almonte, a new acquisition of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, hit a two-run homer in the second to halve the Japanese lead.

John Bale of the Hiroshima Carp pitched two scoreless innings for Valentine’s foreign legion, but Yokohama BayStars right-hander Mark Kroon gave up two singles and a pair of walks to make it a 5-2 game in the fourth.

The Giants’ Tuffy Rhodes singled home a run in the top of the sixth after new Yomiuri teammate Gabe Kapler led off the inning with a double.

With Rhodes on first and one out, Marines shortstop Makoto Kosaka made one of the defensive plays of the game. The three-time Golden Glove winner went to his right to pluck a grounder in the hole and fire to second to start an inning-ending double play.

But that effort was soon matched by the Hawks’ Munenori Kawasaki in the seventh.

Kawasaki, the PL’s Golden Glove winner at short last season, was playing second when he robbed new Tiger Andy Sheets of a ground single up the middle for the second out.

“It was a well played game,” said Valentine, who would like to see the foreign vs Japanese format become a regular mid-season event.

“I think the fans would really enjoy it and the players would as well,” he said.

The uniforms worn by the players and coaches will now be auctioned off on the internet to further boost contributions from the contest.

Valentine, who suggested the idea of a game to raise money for victims of last year’s Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, also proposed and managed in a similar contest in 1995 that went toward relief of the earthquake that hit the Hanshin region earlier that year.

Proceeds from the game, attended by 16,728, will also go toward victims of December’s earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, as well as to those affected by last October’s typhoon No. 23.

Just for the record, here are a few more notes from Graczyk previewing that game:

Because there are no foreign catchers on the Japanese teams, Shinji Takahashi of the Fighters and Tomoya Satozaki of the Marines will brush up their English and be loaned to the Foreign Dreams to share the behind-the-plate work.

The game will benefit victims of recent earthquakes and typhoons in Japan and the Dec. 26 tsunami that struck the coasts of many Indian Ocean countries.

The format will follow that of a similar game played at Fukuoka Dome in July of 1995 which helped victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe on Jan. 17 of that year.

Game time for this one is 6 p.m., and ticket prices are 3,500 yen for S seats, 3,000 yen for A seats, 2,500 yen for a boy-and-girl couple for White Day seats and 1,000 yen for reserved bleacher space.

And, there are two other earthquake relief games in the U.S. I thought I’d note as well. The first one apparently never happened; it would have been a benefit for recovery from the Loma Prieta earthquake, but, as the San Jose Mercury News reported in late February 1990, a lockout intervened:

To no one’s surprise, the A’s and Giants announced Monday that they’re postponing the spring-training earthquake relief benefit game originally scheduled for Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Thursday.

The World Series rematch was planned as the exhibition opener for both teams, but the owners’ lockout is endangering spring-training games in Arizona and Florida.

“We are going to attempt to reschedule the game, and tickets will be honored on that date,” said Steve Page, the A’s director of spring-training operations. But Page said fans can begin redeeming tickets for a refund at the place of purchase Wednesday. Tickets also will be refunded if the game is eventually canceled.

Fans have until March 31 to redeem tickets. But Page said fans will be encouraged to keep tickets, with the proceeds donated to earthquake relief.

Projections had the game raising between $70,000 to $90,000 for the Northern California Earthquake Relief Fund. Tickets were sold for $8, $10 and $15. Normally, tickets at Phoenix Stadium are $5, $6 and $8.

Although it’s obvious that a good portion of the spring- training schedule is in jeopardy, Page says no games have been officially canceled. The A’s plan an announcement today on upcoming games.

One likely scenario has the schedule resuming in progress, with missed games canceled, if owners and players reach a basic agreement in time to preserve some of the schedule.

Also, in February 2010, a group of Cuban-American professional baseball players played a game in Miami to benefit recovery from the Haiti earthquake. From the Miami Herald of February 5:

Former and current Cuban-American professional baseball players are putting on a game in Miami on Saturday to benefit Haitian earthquake relief.

The game, pitting a Blue Team against a Red Team, will feature pitchers Orlando ”Duque” Hernandez, a four-time World Series champ, against World Series champ, Jose A. Contreras. Other players confirmed to play: Livan Hernandez, Kendry Morales, Rey Ordonez, Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar and Yonder Alonso.

Professional Cuban players will also participate, along with current and former University of Miami baseball players of Cuban descent.

The event is being organized by Gulliver Schools baseball coach Hector Torres.

The Cuban All-Star Baseball Game for Haiti Relief Fund will be played at Miami Southridge Senior High, 19355 SW 114th Ave. Admission cost $10.

Gates open at noon. The game begins at 1:30 p.m.

Published in: on March 14, 2011 at 9:43 am  Comments (1)  
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Felix Hernandez as a Minor League Phenom, in 2003 and 2004

People who were paying much attention to the Seattle Mariners in 2004 and 2005 had ample opportunity to hear about Felix Hernandez, who was anointed “King” even before he threw a major league pitch in the second half of 2005. A lot of it was the same sort of hype that accompanied Dwight Gooden or Bob Feller in their teenage years, as well as however many pitchers who never made much impact in the majors.

Felix made his minor league debut on June 22, 2003. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported on the Everett Mariners’ 4-1 win over the Spokane Indians:

The Seattle Mariners have a pretty fair leadoff hitter these days. But Josh Ellison, who turns 20 years old later next month, wouldn’t mind filling that role some day.

The speedy Ellison went 4 for 4 Sunday, reaching base five times and scoring twice to lead the Mariners’ Northwest League affiliate Everett past the Spokane Indians 4-1.

Ellison, an 11th round 2001 draft pick out of high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., easily had his best outing in his fourth start. He added two stolen bases and a run batted in to an impressive statistical line. . . .

Five Everett pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts while scattering nine hits. Righty Felix Hernandez, who relieved starter Elvis Perez in the fourth inning, pitched three scoreless innings for the victory. Hernandez and Perez will alternate starts in Everett’s fifth spot in the rotation.

A couple months later, Mariners’ farm director Benny Looper said Felix “turned 17 this year. He’s got a good pitcher’s body. He’s got a great young arm. He has a plus curve. He just needs to learn how to pitch. His changeup is going to be all right.

“He tends to overthrow like a young kid, when he doesn’t need to.

“I think he has been as high as 97 [mph], but he averages around 94. He’s got raw ability right now. He’s got a lot to learn. He has to locate better and develop a change. His fastball and curve are there. His location needs to be better, but he’s not wild.

“He’s pretty exciting. He could be something special if we can get it out of him. He’s got potential.”

Hernandez started off in Everett 6-1, with a 2.25 earned-run average in seven appearances. He had struck out 43 batters in 32 innings—as well as 17 walks, four wild pitches and five hit batters. In spring training 2004, the San Bernardino Sun reported on Felix’s showing in Arizona:

Felix Hernandez threw only 10 minutes of live batting practice Wednesday, but that was all it took for Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino manager Daren Brown to realize Hernandez is as good as advertised.

“You don’t find many pitchers that are that good at that age,’ Brown said. “He is an exceptional talent. It will be fun to watch him develop.’

Hernandez, who will turn 18 when California League play opens April 8, is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the Seattle organization. The youngest player in the Northwest League last year by eight months, he also was the league’s top prospect.

His fastball regularly clocks out in the mid-90s and Seattle officials believe he will reach triple digits as he matures physically. Hernandez complements his fastball with a curve and is working on a changeup.

The Venezuelan native spent most of last season at Short-A Everett where a went 7-2 with a 2.29 ERA and 73 strikeouts in just 55 innings. Opponents hit just .218 against him. Hernandez was called up to Low-A Wisconsin for two starts and didn’t get a decision. He did strike out 18 in 14 innings with opponents batting .176 against him.

Felix’s first game for the Inland Empire 66ers came on April 9, 2004. The Riverside Press-Enterprise:

Hernandez, the youngest player in the Cal League this year, tossed 5 1/3 innings, allowing only two sixth-inning runs as the Inland Empire 66ers defeated the Lake Elsinore Storm, 5-4, Friday before a home-opening crowd of 7,069 at The Diamond.

“Everybody heard about the hype,” 66ers manager Daren Brown said. “He’s got a great arm and a bright future ahead of him. I’m glad he’s on our side.

“Most people expect an 18-year-old to show signs of immaturity. But he’s very mature, and he really handles things well out there.”

Working at a frenetic pace, Hernandez used his fastball and curve to silence the Storm batters for five innings. The three hits he allowed were two grounders up the third-base line and a high chopper at the plate.

“You can definitely see why they (the Seattle Mariners) are high on him,” Storm manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s got a good fastball and a really good curve.”

Hernandez ran into a trouble in the sixth when he allowed the first two batters of the inning to reach safely. He was lifted after getting Rob Watson to ground out to second base.

Before the game, Felix said, “I just want to go out and get a lot of wins and strike a lot of people out. I just want to win.”

In the middle of May 2004, the Seattle Times did its first real report on the phenom down in the California desert, writing that

Felix Hernandez is almost too good to be true. He signed an enormous contract while barely old enough to drive and, less than two years later, is considered among the best pitchers in the minor leagues, about the time most kids his age graduate from high school.

As scouts have repeatedly told Inland Empire manager Daren Brown, they can’t believe they are watching a guy who turned 18 on April 8. There was even some doubt about the authenticity of the hard-throwing Venezuelan’s birth records. But the Mariners have checked. He’s the real deal.

“At 18 years old, you would not expect him to show the kind of maturity and poise he has showed on the mound,” Brown said of his ace right-hander. “That’s above and beyond his stuff.”

Hernandez has a fastball that reaches 97 mph. He also has an above-average curveball and changeup.

“I can’t compare him to anyone else at that age,” Brown said. “I know Pedro Martinez was young when he came up (age 20), but … “
“He’s got a fastball that moves, a sinker. To be honest with you, he can do about anything he wants to do,” Brown said. “He’s fun to watch.”

Two months later, the Tacoma News Tribune picked up on the story by catching up with Felix in San Bernardino:

For someone in a big hurry, Felix Hernandez seems to be taking his own sweet time.

Running five minutes late for a luncheon at the Radisson Hotel, Hernandez seems more intent on signing autographs than taking a trip through the chow line.

When Hernandez – an 18-year-old pitcher armed with a strong right arm – finally walks into a filled banquet room, all eyes turn toward him.

The vibe in the room isn’t so much, “Who-is-this-kid-and-why-is-he-so-late?” The room is packed with players who will compete in the Class A All-Star Game that night, and are already aware of who the baby-faced Hernandez is.

Better yet, they know what Hernandez is capable of doing.

Regarded as one of the top prospects in the minor leagues, Hernandez is in a hurry to get to the major leagues.

At his current rate, he just might get there sooner than anyone expected.

After blazing his way through the California League (9-3, 2.74 earned-run average) this season, Hernandez was promoted to Class AA San Antonio on June 30 – making him the youngest player in the Texas League by nearly two years.

Today, Hernandez steps onto a different stage: He’ll pitch in the All-Star Futures Game in Houston, which features some of baseball’s top prospects.

Dwight Bernard, Hernandez’s pitching coach at Inland Empire, said that the national stage is befitting someone of Hernandez’s talent.

“You look at him, at his baby face, and you wonder how he’s able to do it,” Bernard said. “No one expects an 18-year-old to do what he is doing now. He’s throwing stuff that a lot of these players haven’t seen … or likely ever will.”

“Everything that I keep hearing and reading has this kid compared to a young Dwight Gooden,” said a National League scouting director.

“That might not be very far from the truth. … This kid is very good.”

“Felix could be doing this up there (Seattle) soon … who knows, maybe September,” Inland Empire catcher Rene Rivera said of his former batterymate. “He has all of the stuff right now to make it. He’s close. He’s really close.”

The News-Tribune wrote about Felix’s background:

The industrial city of Valencia is the fourth-largest city in Venezuela. It’s 90 miles southwest of the capital city of Caracas.

They grow sugar cane and cotton in the fields there and play baseball on dusty, makeshift diamonds and often in the streets. It’s where Hernandez’s game was born.

Hernandez’s introduction to baseball came by watching games on television at home with his father, Felix, who was once a promising player.

But the younger Hernandez actually did more than just watch the game – he studied it.

He liked how the pitchers threw so hard, how they made the ball bend magically in the air. Hernandez wanted this for himself.

Soon enough, he would have it.

When he was 15, Hernandez was discovered by Pedro Avila, a part-time Seattle scout who lives in Venezuela and roams the countryside looking for the next big thing.

Floored by Hernandez’s velocity, his already-developed delivery and smooth mechanics, Avila called the Mariners’ primary scout in Venezuela, Emilio Carresquel.

Carresquel invited Hernandez to work out at a baseball academy in Aguirre, located 45 minutes away. Carresquel, like Avila, was amazed by what he saw: A player with highly advanced skills and great stuff at a young age.

Avila and Carresquel had unearthed a jewel in their own backyard. Hernandez was their gem, their secret.

But soon enough, the secret was out. Word spread quickly about Hernandez, who was well on his way to developing a nice frame at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds. Scouts from other teams flocked to Valencia to see what the fuss was about.

Suddenly, the Mariners had competition.

Because Latin America is an open market for prospective players, the highest offer is usually the winning offer. But the Mariners had an edge in Avila and Carresquel, who were the first scouts to work with Hernandez.

They won over his family.

Seattle’s Bob Engle, a senior advisor who specializes in Latin America player development, said the ties with Hernandez’s family made a difference.

Well, that and a $710,000 bonus, a hearty amount for a Latin American player who, when he signed in July of 2002, was just 16.

That Hernandez emulated then-Mariners pitcher Freddy Garcia, a countryman, didn’t hurt the Mariners’ efforts either.

“There were several teams after him so, yes, there was a sense of urgency for us to sign him,” Engle said. “What I think helped most was that Pedro and Emilio put in a lot of time with the family. They were very comfortable with us.”

And the News-Tribune described how Felix did in his first matchup against a bona fide major leaguer, namely Angels veteran Tim Salmon, who

was playing for Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) recently on an injury-rehabilitation assignment when he encountered Hernandez.

Salmon’s teammates were kind enough to tell him about Hernandez’s fastball – which runs in mid-90’s, but has an afterburner effect that can kick it up as high as 99 mph.

What Salmon’s teammates failed to tell him was that Hernandez wasn’t just some fireballer who lives on a live arm and bravado and nothing else.

Salmon saw three pitches in his first at-bat. He saw the fastball he was waiting for, but he swung right through it.

Then came the curveballs.

Oh, those curveballs.

On the major league scouting scale of 20 to 80, Hernandez’s curveball and fastball rate as 70. Hernandez also throws an above-average slider that’s 91 mph and looks a lot like his fastball. If this doesn’t seem very fair to the batter, it’s because it isn’t.

Salmon never saw Hernandez’s slider or his improving change-up. He wasn’t in the batter’s box that long.

After whiffing on the first pitch, Salmon saw two dandy curveballs. He couldn’t check his swing on either and was soon headed back to the dugout.

“I can see that he was struggling with the curveball … so we went back to it,” Rene Rivera said. “He still couldn’t hit it.”

Salmon’s second trip to the plate lasted all of three pitches as well, as Hernandez broke off two curveballs and then hit the outside corner with a fastball to send Salmon packing.

“He talked to me later,” Rivera said of Salmon. “He told me to tell Felix he’s got a great arm. You feel great when a guy in the major leagues says that about your pitcher.”

After the 2004 season, Hernandez pitched in the Venezuela Winter League for Tacoma Rainiers manager Dan Rohn, with a 1-1 record and a 4.23 ERA over six starts.

Rohn: “He had a tremendous feel for pitching, even at 17 years of age. He had the command, poise and he had electric stuff. He’s young, and he still has some work to do but he is very good. … He’s some kind of special.”

Tacoma pitcher Scott Atchison, Felix’s teammate on that Venezuela team, added: “The crowds can get pretty restless down there. And I’m sure there was pressure on him playing at home … but this kid wasn’t rattled by anything that happened. He maybe had one bad start, but he bounced right back.”

At the time, Hernandez said: “I never check to see what pitchers in Seattle are doing. I live day to day, do the best I can, and I don’t worry about anything. But I want to be there (Seattle). Hopefully, it will happen soon.”

By the time the 2005 season started, the hype machine around Felix was in top gear: with him just down the road, playing for AAA Tacoma, the Seattle Times and leading Mariners blog U.S.S. Mariner were tracking his moves in Tacoma and waiting for him to arrive in Seattle. You can check out those two resources to read about those weeks in AAA: this post has only tried to give a quick picture of his time before AAA ball.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 4:42 am  Comments (1)  
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A Brief Survey of Baseball in China, 1881-2010

One of the biggest themes of life in 2010 in the U.S. has been the worry that China is cleaning our clocks: that a government single-mindedly intent on achieving bold goals and untroubled by democracy and the mess of politics is spearheading the emergence of a Chinese century, and meanwhile a distracted, lazy, and ill-educated U.S. citizenry is not doing enough to overcome the obstacles of feckless politicians and selfish, misguided interest groups. These sorts of fears haven’t entered the realm of baseball, though.

Leaving economics, politics, and culture aside, no one knows what the global baseball landscape will be in 2040 or 2050. But, it’s interesting to look at the history of baseball in China, not least because there are some signs that elements of China’s government are intent on developing baseball into a national sport. This is 36 years after a nationwide ban on the game ended in 1974. In March 2003, China Daily reported:

What will be the next popular game in China? Maybe baseball.

Despite a worrying proposal from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that could see the sport axed from the Olympics, the Chinese authorities are making great efforts to develop the sport in China by setting up the Chinese Baseball League, where the nation’s top teams battle it out.

After an experimental inaugural season last year, the league will swing back into action on Saturday with a new US-style package in the hope of winning recognition for the sport which has yet to catch on in China.

Foreign promoters, a doubling of matches, all-star games and former US Major League players are some of the many means that league organizers have used in a bid to win popularity for the game, although they are still reluctant to call it a “professional league.”

Shen Wei, secretary-general of Chinese Baseball Association (CBA), said: “We are making big strides towards turning profession, compared with last year. Our league is still not a real professional one, but we are getting closer.”

The short 2002 season, lasting for only one month, attracted more attention than organizers had expected, encouraging them to do even better this year.

Like last season, four teams, Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions, Shanghai Eagles and Guangdong Leopards, are participating under a home-and-away format and will play 48 matches, twice as many as last season, before two teams fight it out in the best-of-five finals.

And 24 of the 48 matches, and the finals, will be broadcast on nationwide TV.

But three years later, in May 2006, China Daily updated the story:

As Wang Wei stepped on the field on the 2006 China Baseball League (CBL) All-Star Game over the weekend, little excitement came from the stands. The spectators remained nonchalant during most of the game although Wang played fairly well – he was the first to run home for the northwest conference team, which tied with southeast conference 9-9 in a seesaw seven-inning match held in Wuxi of East China ‘s Jiangsu Province. Many of them left almost half an hour before the end of the three-hour show that gathered China ‘s best baseball players.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame the spectators, who mostly were watching the first baseball game of their lives. Even for the most loyal Chinese sports fans, Wang is an unfamiliar name, although the 28-year-old catcher from Beijing has an A-plus resume: He is a core member of the three-time national league champions Beijing Tigers with a possible fourth straight league title in sight, and he has been a consistent member of the national team in the past few years.

On March 3, he delivered a two-run homerun, the first of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in an Asian zone round match against eventual winner Japan in Tokyo.

Any equal achievement in other popular sports would easily establish Wang as a household name in China , but like his team-mates, Wang has been playing in obscurity for years.

Wang is a perfect example to identify recent baseball development in China – steady and fast, but mostly unrecognized.

The development has attracted huge attention outside the country, as Team China has played some memorable matches internationally including a World Cup journey to the Netherlands and a historic bronze medal from the Asian Championships in Japan last year.

But the achievements went largely unnoticed in China , a country where table tennis and badminton are revered as national pastimes.

“Baseball is still an unpopular sport in China,” said Wang.

The 2008 Olympics helped give baseball in China more of a foothold. In April 2010, MLB signed a development/promotion agreement with the Chinese Baseball Association. Here’s China Daily reporting on the deal:

If Jim Small is to be believed, China could be crowned world baseball champions in the very near future.

Small, vice president of MLB Asia, said at a strategic partnership signing ceremony between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Chinese Baseball Association (CBA) on Wednesday that not that long ago nobody believed Chinese swimmers would win at the Olympics or Chinese athletes would excel at the Winter Games.

“There is no reason to doubt that in the near future some of the world’s best baseball players will be Chinese,” Small said. “It will take some time but it’s definitely going to happen.”

MLB and CBA extended their cooperation for another four years to help grow baseball in China despite the fact the game has been kicked out of the Summer Olympics, for now.

During this coming four-year period, MLB will help the CBA in training players, coaches and umpires, with an aim to further spreading the US pastime in the world’s most populous nation.

The cooperation between the two organizations started in 2002 and both sides are happy with the results and they should be.

The Chinese national team, coached by Jim Lefebvre, who recently became the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach, shocked the baseball world by beating Chinese Taipei at the Beijing Olympics and repeated that feat at the World Classics. The team also took a South Korean team that beat the US to 12 innings in a 1-0 loss at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“MLB is prepared to do whatever it takes to help develop baseball in China. We plan to bring the team to the United States in July in preparation for the Guangzhou Asian Games,” Small said. “But as to who manages the team next, it’s up to the CBA.”

Baseball is still a medal sport at the Asian Games and the Chinese pro league is set to swing away later this year.

“The partnership with MLB since 2002 has borne a strategic significance with Chinese players going to play in the US and national team coaches getting training from MLB experts,” Lei Jun, chairman of the CBA, said.

“We did achieve some progress (the two wins over Chinese Taipei) but that’s not much compared with the real strength of other Asian countries as well as the world’s power teams.

“The road of baseball development has been and will still be bumpy. That’s why we need the help of MLB,” Lei said.

“Our goal (of the partnership with CBA) is to have baseball reach a significant level in the world’s largest country,” Small said.

For that, Small said there were two areas of focus.

That is to make the game more visible and more popular through road shows, the setting up of clubs at college campuses, the continuation of the Play Ball! Program in 120 schools and increased TV coverage in China. The other focus is to increase the level of play in China through MLB providing coaches and inviting the national squad to the US for training each year.

Small said a MLB Development Center was set up in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, last September to target potential national team talent.

“The result of the long and important partnership between MLB and CBA for the past 10 years is nothing short of astonishing,” Small said. “Several players went to play in the pro leagues in the US, the national team grew and most surprising is that more people play baseball today than before.

“The passion in kids we have seen shows that, no doubt, China will reach the goal of becoming a strong baseball nation,” Small said, adding MLB’s ultimate goal was to make the game a Chinese sport.

“Our goal is to not to have a foreign coach; it is to be played by the Chinese, coached by the Chinese and umpired by the Chinese.”

The Yankees, who, one has to guess, see China as a huge potential market of both consumers and possible future Yankees, have made quite a few steps over the past five years or so to promote youth baseball in China, and the New York Times has regularly reported on those efforts.

Amid these various signs of growth, it’s interesting to look back at the primeval period of U.S.-China baseball relations. In September 1986, the Associated Press reported:

With coaching from Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O’Malley, China’s sports minister tossed out the first ball last week to inaugurate a baseball field donated to China by the Dodgers.

The pitch by Li Menghua, minister of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission, was pronounced too low, and he tried again to exclamations of approval from O’Malley and Chinese officials wearing Dodgers caps.

The playing field at the Tianjin Physical Education College was decorated with striped canopies, banners and balloons for the opening ceremony, during which O’Malley cut a red ribbon and a children’s band played.

The field was built over a five-month period with about $162,000 donated by the Dodgers.

It is a result of a visit last year by O’Malley to China to discuss possible projects to promote baseball in China , where it still is a fledgling sport held back partially by a lack of playing facilities….

Although baseball had a long history in China, dating to pre-Communist days, it never had been as popular as soccer and some other sports.

Baseball exhibitions were held in the late 1950s, but the sport was officially abandoned in 1965 and did not return to China for almost 10 years.

China joined the International Baseball Association in 1981, and its national teams have since played in international competitions.

The official sports news media have cited a severe shortage of qualified coaches and a lack of playing fields as reasons the game is not more popular.

China has hopes, however, of getting good enough at it to challenge Taiwan and Japan, where baseball is highly popular.

New York’s C.W. Post, the first U.S. collegiate team to play in China, lost, 6-4, to Peking’s municipal team in Peking last year.

And in May 1991, the Chicago Tribune’s Uli Schmetzer issued this report on the history of baseball in China, with some very intriguing items about the People’s Liberation Army and the persecution of baseball itself by Mao’s Red Guards:

In the United States, football often is considered analogous to war. In China, the American sport of baseball once was considered beneficial for war.

Du Kehe knows. He was the star player of the Fighting Sports Brigade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) team in the 1940s and ’50s that dominated a baseball fad. In those days, tens of thousands of soldiers played baseball, and every company had to field a squad or face the wrath of He Long, their venerable field marshal.

Marshal He, a legend in Red China’s army pantheon, saw baseball not so much as a crowd thriller but an effective way to improve the grenade-throwing ability of soldiers. He considered the sliding and sprinting between bases perfect speed training for assault troops, and batting the best method to develop aim.

“If my marshal was alive today, baseball and sports in general would have much greater support from the state,” grumbled former staff sergeant Du, now 61 and the assistant coach of China’s national baseball team.

Du still believes the marshal was right when he used baseball to train his troops. ”It made better soldiers, and our pitchers could toss a grenade faster and farther than anyone else… and with a curve on it,” he said.

Baseball in China barely has survived its much-mourned founding father.

Today, the estimated 2,000 players competing at the provincial level and the 20,000 to 30,000 novices swinging bats all over the country are a modest reminder of the golden days when a man took up bat, glove and ball to save the nation from the Japanese invaders and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Nationalists.

The first baseball gear came to China in 1881 with the country’s future railway builder, Zhen Tian You, a graduate of Yale. Western schools and missionary churches fostered the game through the first three decades of this century.

The late Marshal He had no such problems. An illiterate peasant, he rocketed to fame after he formed the first platoon of the PLA armed with vegetable knives. His dictum was: Every man must use his knife to kill a nationalist and steal his rifle. It worked.

Du remembers the marshal (“who was not much of a player himself”) was so keen on baseball he promised better treatment to captured Japanese prisoners of war willing to coach his men in the game.

“My first coach was a Japanese POW, and my marshal used to say, ‘Baseball and sports are the pillars of national defense and development.’ He built a special factory just to produce baseball equipment for the army,” Du said.

Of course, Du admits, it was not the most advanced equipment. The bats tended to break, the balls to split and the gloves were stuffed with jute and were so clumsy ”you had to catch the ball with both hands.”

With the Communists victorious, He’s baseball mania expanded to the civilian population. So did his career. He became the popular Commissar for National Sport and naturally made sure his beloved baseball had a good slice of the budget action.

But the marshal, never one to guard his tongue, criticized the dictator Mao Tse-Tung for his economic errors, and when the Cultural Revolution began, He became one of its first victims. Mao’s fanatic Red Guards imprisoned the Hero of Liberation and the Father of Baseball in a remote country camp, where he miserably starved to death in 1968 after having gnawed his way through the cotton padding of his marshal’s overcoat, the only item he had been allowed to keep.

He’s downfall took baseball with him. The Red Guards denounced the sport as an example of western decadence. Baseball coaches and officials were persecuted ruthlessly as capitalists.

“My own Chinese coach was ‘struggled’ to death by the Guards,” said Du, referring to the barbaric method of ”struggling” against political enemies by beating, spitting and tormenting them in public, often until they died. Baseball players were forced to humiliate their coaches in public to save their own lives.

For 14 years, from 1960 to 1974, baseball was banned in China.

“But some of us still played in secret in the countryside. We posted guards to whistle if someone came. Then we hid the bats and gloves and pretended to be doing exercises,” recalled Du.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 6:02 am  Comments (1)  
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Remembering the Montreal Expos

To complement the earlier post on the Expos’ last games, here is some material remembering the team and commenting on its departure. First, a Montreal Gazette editorial the day after the city’s last mlb game:

Depression was seeing the game come back from its 1994 strike with an economic model that made baseball not much fun anymore for small markets. Depression was seeing Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and so many other marquee players leave town because of baseball’s revenue asymmetry. For baseball is a numbers game outside the white lines, too: The payroll disparity between the Expos and New York Yankees was just $6 million U.S. in 1991, when the Yankees had a payroll of $27 million and the Expos $21 million and majority owner Charles Bronfman looked out onto the horizon of baseball’s future and decided to sell his ownership stake. This year, the payroll gap is $142 million – $183 million for the Yanks, just $41 million here.

A franchise can be stripped of its best parts only so many times before fans give up and the whole enterprise falls into inevitable terminal illness. Watching the Expos die has been like witnessing the death of an aging relative from an incurable illness – slowly, but inevitably; thus, the ability to reach the final stage of mourning, acceptance. At the end, the terminally ill barely resemble their old selves anymore. That’s the way it was with the Expos. Termel Sledge? John Patterson? Who were these guys, anyway? When Joey Eischen’s a familiar face, you know the undertakers are warming up in the bullpen.

Who or what killed the Expos? There’s ample blame to go around; it wasn’t so much the failure to build a downtown stadium as it was the failure to find a downtown owner, so to speak, a new local Bronfman-like owner with deep pockets and a willingness to lose millions. Let’s be frank. Making baseball work in Montreal was never easy from Day 1; the new economics just made things all that much more difficult. But Montreal is not unique. Other franchises are nearing the burnout stage, too.

As for the future of professional baseball in Montreal, there’s the possibility of this city hosting a Triple-A franchise one day, although not in the Big O. One complication is the lack of an obvious venue; old Jarry Park has been converted into a tennis stadium, and it’s hard to imagine public or private financial support for a Triple-A diamond. Still, one should never say never. Even a return of Major League Baseball can’t be ruled out completely, if only because the example of Washington, D.C., now regaining a franchise three decades after it lost one shows this would not be without precedent.

What a name, though. The “Expos.” “What’s an Expo?” was one of baseball’s most frequently asked questions in 1969. As we always knew here, the name was given in honour of the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal, Expo 67; it was dedicated to Montreal’s past, to a Montreal that no longer exists, as now to be echoed in the departure of the Expos to the capital city of the United States.

Footnote to history: The Expos came very close to being named the Voyageurs instead, in honour of the early French-Canadian explorers who helped chart the American heartland before U.S. independence. The homebody cousins of these voyageurs were the farmers who stayed to till the land and organize civil society; the history books refer to them as les habitants, and these early canadiens have been immortalized in the holy CH symbol of the Montreal Canadiens.

So look at it this way: Maybe there was something after all to the Expos adopting The Happy Wanderer as their theme song before their slow death began. Val-de-ree, val-de-ra! Goodbye, Expos. Adieu.

Two citizens’ letters:

This truly is a sad day, a day that only confirms the demise of Montreal as a “major-league” city.

From the pride of the Drapeau days (let alone the horrible tax burden that came with it), to the current state, this fine city of ours suffers another serious setback. People blamed this on Montreal being a hockey town. Only those from outside of Canada would say that. This is about a proud city. We don’t care for losers. You don’t win here, see ya.

This is not Boston, this is not Chicago. Once we saw that there was no hope to win, we lost interest. It would be interesting to see if, God forbid, Les Canadiens had not won a championship since 1918. Would this still be a hockey town? Unlikely.

I would like to thank Charles Bronfman for bringing to us the opportunity to have enjoyed a wonderful team. The memories will always be there. Putting our pride aside, we should all consider ourselves lucky. Good luck to Nos Amours, we really did love you.

David Pascal

Montreal

This is to apologize officially to the Expos for not attending any games this year. My passion for the game started young watching Rusty Staub home run into the swimming pool at Jarry Park. I helped irritate Mets pitchers with the rhythmic banging on the stands all summer long.

I followed the team to its new stadium even though it was cold, drafty and unfinished. I would walk to the Olympic Stadium during bus strikes to sit in the stands and cheer the team on. I helped my girlfriends learn to love baseball. I kept injured players in my fantasy ball team just because they were Expos.

I loved the Expos and my time with them.But as time went on beloved players would leave and the new ones never stayed very long. The number of column inches in the paper diminished and the radio went dead. Television coverage was limited and Expos games were often preempted.

I could have learned to love the current team but it got too painful. I wish them well wherever they go, but repeated disappointment does not make for a lasting love affair.

Cynthia Dudley

Montreal

Some quotes from former Expos:

Pedro Martinez: “I feel sad about the whole story, the way Montreal turned out. That’s the best city I ever played in and my memories of the fans are incredible.”

Rheal Cormier: “I’ve been an Expos fan since I was kid. It was great then, it’s sad to see where it is now.”

Gary Carter: “When the franchise was awarded in 1969, I think it was a novelty for the fans. It’s a hockey country, it just is. It was understood baseball took a backseat.”

Tim Raines: “You can look at it a number of ways. You can be mad … but you can also be happy about all the good times you had here.”

Andre Dawson: “I probably should have retired as an Expo. We had huge fan turnout. We knew it was tough for us to sign a marquee free agent, so we had to develop the talent on our own. The fans supported us, and made believers out of all of us.

“Mostly you hear about what transpired during the late years, the organization not being able to afford the players they developed, not being able to sign them to extensions, there not being enough people in the stands to pay them. I witnessed a few thousand fans in the stands. I guess the worst point was after 9/ 11, and you hear what everyone was saying.

“They never really talk about the early years, the years in the middle when I was there. You’re talking about a place where baseball was exciting. Except maybe the last couple of years, when they really couldn’t afford to keep their marquee players and had to trade them off when it came time for arbitration and free agency, they did a good job developing their minor-league talent and put together competitive ball clubs.

“For some reason, the game doesn’t seem to work in certain environments. Maybe the ball park isn’t fan friendly, but you win two World Series, you should develop a pretty good fan base. But it’s a fickle fan. It’s a football town, and they get on the bandwagon when it’s pretty obvious something positive is about to happen.

“As a ballplayer, you question why. A lot of people don’t realize that day in and day out, the fans energize you. They fuel you, and you’re basically there to play the game for them.

“It’s happened in a lot of instances. They feel a new ball park is going to be what gets them over the hump, gets them to that point where they want to be, but it’s not always the case. Winning will guarantee it. It might not happen right away, but when there’s something major that’s about to be won, that’s the only guarantee that (the fans) will be there.

“Still, Montreal and the Expos are going to be synonymous with baseball. I don’t think people are just going to forget about it and it’ll be gone at the drop of the hat.”

And finally, a list of top 10 Expos memories from the introduction to Anthony Buccongello’s 2,463-page Expos Encyclopedia:

10. Return of popular outfielder Rusty Staub, acquired by trade from the Detroit Tigers, July 20, 1979.

9. Pitcher Bill Gullickson strikes out 18 Chicago Cubs, a major- league rookie record, at Olympic Stadium, Sept. 10, 1980.

8. The team’s first game at Jarry Park, April 14, 1969.

7. Pitcher Bill Stoneman’s two no-hitters, 1969 and ’72.

6. The All-Star Game played in Montreal, featuring five Expos, July 13, 1982.

5. Pitcher Dennis Martinez’s perfect game, July 28, 1991.

4. Pennant race of 1980, the Expos falling one game short.

3. Expos beat the Philadelphia Phillies in a best-of-five series to advance to the National League Championship Series in strike- shortened 1981.

2. 1994 Expos, the best team in the majors with a 74-40 record before a players’ strike begins Aug. 12, 1994.

1. Blue Monday: Expos lose five-game NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Rick Monday’s two-out, ninth-inning home run off pitcher Steve Rogers at Olympic Stadium, Oct. 19, 1981.

Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 4:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Closing Down Milwaukee’s County Stadium in 2000

Milwaukee’s County Stadium hosted its last Brewers game on September 28, 2000. Arnie Stapleton of the AP wrote:

County Stadium always was an acquired taste.

The drab decor and corrugated steel, exposed beams and electrical wires. The black-and-white scoreboard that made instant replays look like old newsreels.

The splintered wooden seats with chipped green paint. The Formica-topped concession tables. The stench of beer nullified only by the aroma of sizzling bratwurst.

It staged few pennant races, but plenty of sausage races.

But what a view, and what a place to play.

Today, the Brewers will play Cincinnati, one last game at the nation’s first publicly financed ballpark that was built in 1953 for $4.8 million, about what outfielder Jeromy Burnitz made this season alone.

Then, the wrecking ball will begin ripping down the old place where the Braves won the ’57 World Series, the Brewers won the ’82 AL pennant and the Green Bay Packers played for 41 years.

Hank Aaron. Warren Spahn. Lew Burdette. Eddie Mathews. Robin Yount. Paul Molitor. Cecil Cooper. Jim Gantner. Jim Taylor. Willie Davis. Vince Lombardi. Paul Hornung. Brett Favre. They were all here. And they created an abundance of memories:

* Aaron hit an 11th-inning homer off St. Louis’ Billy Muffet to clinch Milwaukee’s first NL pennant in 1957.

* In 1959, Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings before losing both the no-hitter and the game in the 13th inning.

* On July 20, 1976, Aaron hit his 755th and last home run. A grounds crew member kept the ball for more than 20 years before cunningly getting Aaron to sign it at an autograph show.

* On Dec. 18, 1994, the Packers ended a 62-year tradition in Milwaukee with a 21-17 victory over Atlanta.

As for the game, the Chicago Tribune reported:

So much for Milwaukee County Stadium.

And so much for Jeff D’Amico’s shot at winning the National League ERA title.

Elmer Dessens pitched a two-hitter for his first career complete game as the Cincinnati Reds beat the Milwaukee Brewers 8-1 Thursday in the final game at the 48-year-old ballpark.

“That was a nice way to end it,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “Blow it up.”

The Reds tagged D’Amico (12-7) for six earned runs and 10 hits in six innings. Afterward, D’Amico, who finished with a 2.66 ERA, was taken to a hospital for an MRI on his left ankle for evaluation of a possible torn tendon, team spokesman Jason Parry said.

The same teams are scheduled to open Miller Park–probably under its retractable roof–with a night game next April 6.

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Sean Casey, who drove in four runs to go with Dmitri Young’s four hits and four runs scored.

Casey’s three-run homer in the fifth was the last one hit at the ballpark, which began hosting major-league play in 1953 when the Braves arrived from Boston. After the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1965, it was empty for five years except for occasional White Sox games in 1968 and 1969.

In 1970, the Brewers moved from Seattle, where they played one season as the Pilots.

Bob Uecker, who played for the Milwaukee Braves and has been the Brewers’ broadcaster since 1970, hosted ceremonies after the game.

“It was here that boys became men,” Uecker said. “And men became champions, and champions became legends.”

Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history with 363 victories, threw the ceremonial first pitch to Del Crandall, his batterymate on opening day with the Milwaukee Braves 48 years ago.

“It’s like the curtain’s falling,” said Spahn, 79, who tossed a two-bouncer from about 30 feet away Thursday. “The party’s over.”

All-time home-run leader Hank Aaron, decked out in his old Milwaukee Braves uniform, was the first one introduced in a postgame celebration.

Hall of Famer Robin Yount rode in on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and circled the field just like he did after the 1982 World Series.

Fans applauded wildly in the middle of the fifth, when Olympic hero Ben Sheets was introduced on the field.

Sheets, the Brewers’ top minor-league pitching prospect, shut out Cuba in the gold-medal game at Sydney earlier this week.

And a closing note from The La Crosse Tribune:

Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who threw the first pitch when the stadium opened in 1953 and came back to toss the ceremonial first pitch on Thursday, would like to lay claim to the pitching rubber.

And why not?

Spahn won more than 300 games and pitched the Milwaukee Braves to the 1957 National League pennant, when Milwaukee beat the New York Yankees in seven games to win the World Series.

“I’m going to take the pitcher’s mound. No, not the whole thing. I’m going to take the (pitching) rubber the 78-yearold Spahn said sternly. “I would like to have it. I pitched two no-hitters here I won my 300th game here. I guess I deserve it.”

No one surrounding Spahn argued.

It was just part of a memorable day in which the Brewers said farewell to their 47-year-old home. After the game, a forgettable 8-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, 40 different players, managers and a manager’s wife Audrey Kuehn – took fans on a walk through the Milwaukee Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers history.

It provided a dramatic ending to an era that will give way to $346 million Miller Park in 2001.

“Tonight is the final curtain,” said former Braves catcher and 30-year radio broadcaster Bob Uecker. “It’s time to say goodbye. For what was, will always be.”

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 6:20 am  Comments (4)  
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The Montreal Expos’ Last Home Game and Final Game

The final mlb game at Olympic Stadium was played on September 29, 2004. Stephanie Myles of the Montreal Gazette wrote:

For the history books, it ended at 10:01 p.m., when Terrmel Sledge took a 3-1 pitch from Florida Marlins right-hander Rudy Seanez, and popped it up to a former Expo who served with honour for several years, Marlins third-baseman Mike Mordecai.

But in the end, the 9-1 loss wasn’t how the Expos wanted to end it.

And after the love shown by every one of the 31,395 fans on hand at Olympic Stadium last night, save for a very, very few yahoos, it was harder to say goodbye than the players thought it would be.

“It was kind of overwhelming, really. The reception makes it tougher to move on. It’s like you want to stand still right now and savour the moment, because you know when you walk out of this ball park tonight, it’ll be for the last time,” manager Frank Robinson said. “A lot of the players are in no rush to leave.”

The perfect ending, of course, would have been a win. But reality has no script, and Sunny Kim probably felt as badly about that as anyone. The Expos starter allowed the the Marlins to zip to a quick 5-0 lead, and it’s surprising there weren’t more miscreants than the ones who threw four golf balls on the field.

It all began in orderly fashion, as thousands of fans milled about the outfield getting autographs from current players and members of the near-championship class of 1994, invited for the occasion.

They filed off to take their seats as soon as they were told. And when some of the troublemakers in the crowd began booing the U.S. national anthem, they were immediately drowned out by the majority, who kept cheering until its conclusion.

The golf balls bounced onto the field in the third, once Expos reliever Gary Majewski began to pitch to Jeff Conine.

By angry crowd standards, it was as mildly Canadian as could be. But at 8:01 p.m., Robinson took the field and motioned his players off. The crowd booed. Flyers proclaiming “Bud Sucks” came fluttering down from the upper deck. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” wafted over the public-address system, and the fans were warned that the game would be cancelled if they continued to throw objects on the field.

Eight minutes later, the Expos came back on to the field, and Majewski warmed up again.

At 8:14 p.m. the fans started the first wave, right about the time the police flashing lights appeared behind the outfield wall, and officers with impressive-looking gear started patrolling.

As it turned out, they weren’t needed.

By the sixth, with the score already 9-1, Robinson took several regulars out of the game, including first-baseman Brad Wilkerson and third-baseman Tony Batista.

And that’s when everything suddenly, serendipitously turned.

Leave it to Batista – who will be a one-year Expo, but who has shown an unexpected flair for the rightness of the moment – to lighten the mood.

As the cameras flashed to him in the dugout, with the scoreboard congratulating him on his 32 home runs, a franchise record for third basemen, Batista stood up and reached for the sky.

He then ran through the dugout low-fiving his teammates, then began applauding the crowd right back before walking onto the field, and once again reaching for the sky. The crowd loved it. They began chanting his name, one last time.

“It felt pretty good. It was an exciting moment. They surprised me with that kind of ovation,” Batista said afterward. “I tried to do my best for the team, and for myself.”

At 9:11 p.m., another golf ball was thrown into left field from the bleachers, leading to another warning on the giant screen. Play was stopped for two minutes, but that was it. No bedlam. As president Tony Tavares said before the game, they prepared for the worst, hoped for the best.

After the game, even the stoic Tavares, who was charged with making the announcement that the Espos were leaving, even though Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseballs chief operating officer, was at the stadium, had suspiciously red eyes.

Coach Claude Raymond, who pitched for the team in its infancy, was charged with thanking the crowd in French.

Utility-player Jamey Carroll, who finally became a major-leaguer here at age 30 after so many years of struggling, and who said afterward this was the place where his dreams became a reality, spoke in English.

Livan Hernandez, who also came out for a curtain call and a wave when his accomplishments were lauded, addressed the crowd in Spanish.

And that was it.

Turn out the lights.

Of all the creative signs in the stands, many of which contained language unsuitable for print, one stood out.

Is this how it ends? Thanks for nothing, it read.

As Robinson put it yesterday, “It’s sad any time a franchise moves, because you’re saying that you failed.”

The Gazette’s Jack Todd added:

The end is here. After 36 seasons, 2,753 wins, 2,942 losses, 2,786 home games, two inadequate ball parks, 12 general managers, 11 managers, one good owner, two bad owners and 108,858,412 fans who saw too few triumphs, too many heartbreaks and a single postseason appearance that ended with the Bluest Monday of them all, the Montreal Expos are no more.

Near-simultaneous announcements in Montreal and Washington, D.C., yesterday afternoon signalled the end after a week of furious rumours, a clumsy three-year search for a new home and at least seven years of waiting for the other shoe to drop. After playing a three-game series at Shea Stadium in New York this weekend, the team that played its first game at Jarry Park on April 14, 1969, will begin the process of moving to the U.S. capital in time to play its first home game at the refurbished RFK Stadium on April 15, 2005.

Expos president Tony Tavares made the announcement at Olympic Stadium, saying simply: “I am here today to confirm the movement of the franchise from Montreal to Washington.”

An extraordinary day ended with extraordinary scenes last night, with the season’s largest crowd, 31,395 fans, offering a classy farewell, standing and cheering through standing ovations for this year’s stars, Tony Batista, Brad Wilkerson and Livan Hernandez – and then falling silent to hear a few words from former relief pitcher Claude Raymond.

Raymond broke down after addressing the crowd.

“I wanted to give him a big hug,” said catcher Brian Schneider, who embraced the grief-stricken Raymond. “I know how much this team means to him.”

Wilkerson, sitting at an adjoining locker near the end of an outstanding season, tried to talk to a few reporters, broke down himself and slumped weeping over his spikes, too upset to speak.

Despite fears of a fan invasion of the field – or worse – the only real incident came in the top of the third inning, when manager Frank Robinson pulled his team off the field because someone was throwing golf balls at the players. Umpires and security people conferred and the game was delayed for 10 minutes, but it was concluded without further incident.

The outcome was a disappointment: The Florida Marlins of despised former owner Jeffrey Loria completed a three-game sweep with a 9-1 win. For the record, the winning pitcher was Carl Pavano (18-8), a former Expo who was a flop in this city. Expos starter Sun-woo Kim (4-6) became the last pitcher to lose a game in Montreal. The crowd sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game for the last time during the seventh-inning stretch, at 9:22 p.m., and the final out at the Big O was made by Terrmel Sledge on a pop-up to third base at 10:01 p.m.

Asked if he was surprised at the warm reaction of the fans, who applauded until the final out as though the Expos were winning a World Series game, manager Frank Robinson said, “I don’t know if I was surprised. I just liked to see what happened. It was very, very nice and kind of overwhelming. When I went out on the field at the end, I happened to look up and I said to myself, ‘Hey, there’s fans in the upper deck!’ It was unbelievable.”

The Expos’ final game was a little anti-climactic. It came on October 3, 2004, at Shea Stadium, which of course has joined the Expos in the memory/history books. The National Post reported:

The Montreal Expos era ended on a sad note yesterday as Todd Zeile smacked a three-run homer to lead the New York Mets to a 8-1 victory.

The Expos will move to Washington, D.C. next season after 36 years in Montreal.

They finished in last place with a 67-95 record and concluded with an all-time mark of 2,755-2,943.

“The name ‘Montreal Expos’ will not be used again. It’s a rude awakening,” Expos manager Frank Robinson said.

“It’s a sad situation because people in Montreal are losing a team. It’s a shame it didn’t work out.”

It ended where it began, in New York’s Shea Stadium. Montreal entered Major League Baseball with an 11-10 victory over the Mets at Shea Stadium on April 8, 1969.

Montreal had far less offence in its final game as Tom Glavine (11-14) pitched six strong innings, allowing one run and three hits.

Montreal infielder Brad Wilkerson said the news is not all bad.

“It’s both special and sad at the same time,” Wilkerson said.

Dodgers pitcher Eric Gagne, who grew up in Montreal, said the Expos demise will be felt more than just on the field.

Gagne is afraid the decision will also mean less young players will play baseball in Montreal.

“It is sad,” Gagne said. “I can’t tell you how many Expos games I went to when I was a kid.

“It is going to be hard for the economy and hard for the people in Montreal and everyone needs to realize that.”

The game also marked the last for Zeile, who is retiring after playing for 11 teams in 16 seasons.

A former Expo, Zeile started at catcher and went out in style with his home run.

“I was relaxed at the plate. If ever there was a time, this was it,” said Zeile.

“I would have liked to be playing some October baseball, but I couldn’t have been happier from a personal standpoint.”

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 5:34 am  Comments (2)  
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