A Few Items on Dave Henderson

Hendu was, on an Oakland A’s team filled with star power from 1988 to 1992, perhaps the A’s player who most appealed to fans. If you remember those teams, you know why he was so popular. In ’88, his quadruple slash line was .304/.363/.525/.887, for a 149 OPS+, second-best on the team and not that far behind Jose Canseco. In ’88 Hendu set career bests for runs, hits, homers, RBIs, doubles, batting average, and slugging percentage. In the World Series that year, his .300 batting average (6 for 20) led A’s hitters who played in all 5 games. He was the only A with more than one extra-base hit off the Dodgers.

Hendu made a lot of good memories for Mariners, Red Sox, and A’s fans, but he ended his career playing 56 games for the Royals in 1994. Despite playing most of his career as a center fielder, he never stole more than 9 bases in a season. He nearly hit 3 homers in the post-Loma Prieta earthquake game 3 of the 1989 World Series, with a 1st-inning double that hit off the top of the Candlestick fence.

His most famous hit is the homer off Donnie Moore in the 1986 ALCS, but he then hit the go-ahead homer in the 10th inning of game 6 of the World Series vs. the Mets. In that Series, Hendu was 10-25 with 6 runs scored, 2 homers, 5 RBIs, and a .760 slugging percentage. He presumably was going to be the Series MVP if the Red Sox won game 6-or game 7. Those ’86 postseason feats are probably why he got two Hall of Fame votes on the 2000 ballot.

This post isn’t so much about memorializing Hendu-a lot of people did that in the days following his death just after Christmas-as it is about highlighting some of the notable stats from his career.

Published in: on January 12, 2016 at 1:34 pm  Comments (3)  
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Statements From Bart Giamatti and Pete Rose on Rose’s Banishment From Baseball in 1989

Here are the statements of MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and Pete Rose, responding to Rose’s banishment by Giamatti for gambling on baseball on August 24, 1989. First Giamatti:

The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode. One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts. By choosing not to come to a hearing before me, and by choosing not to proffer any testimony or evidence contrary to the evidence and information contained in the report of the Special Counsel to the Commissioner, Mr. Rose has accepted baseball’s ultimate sanction, lifetime ineligibiliy.

This sorry episode began last February when baseball received firm allegations that Mr. Rose bet on baseball games and on the Reds’ games. Such grave charges could not and must never be ignored. Accordingly, I engaged and Mr. Ueberroth appointed John Dowd as Special Counsel to investigate these and any other allegations that might arise and to pursue the truth wherever it took him. I believed then and believe now that such a process, whereby an experienced professional inquires on behalf of the Commissioner as the Commissioner’s agent, is fair and appropriate. To pretend that serious charges of any kind can be responsibly examined by a Commissioner alone fails to recognize the necessity to bring professionalism and fairness to any examination and the complexity a private entity encounters when, without judicial or legal powers, it pursues allegations in the complex, real world.

Baseball had never before undertaken such a process because there had not been such grave allegations since the time of Landis. If one is responsible for protecting the integrity of the game of baseball – that is, the game’s authenticity, honesty and coherence – then the process one uses to protect the integrity of baseball must itself embody that integrity.

I sought by means of a Special Counsel of proven professionalism and integrity, who was obliged to keep the subject of the investigation and his representatives informed about key information, to create a mechanism whereby the integrity we sought to protect was itself never violated. Similarly, in writing to Mr. Rose on May 11, I designed, as is my responsibility, a set of procedures for a hearing that would have afforded him every opportunity to present statements or testimony of witnesses or any other evidence he saw fit to answer the information and evidence presented in the Report of the Special Counsel and its accompanying materials.

That Mr. Rose and his counsel chose to pursue a course in the courts rather than appear at hearings scheduled for May 25 and then June 26, and then chose to come forward with a stated desire to settle this matter is now well known to all. My purpose in recounting the process and the procedures animating that process is to make two points that the American public deserves to know:

First, that the integrity of the game cannot be defended except by a process that itself embodies integrity and fairness; Second, should any other occasion arise where charges are made or acts are said to be committed that are contrary to the interests of the game or that undermine the integrity of baseball, I fully intend to use such a process and procedure to get to the truth and, if need be, to root out offending behavior. I intend to use, in short, every lawful and ethical means to defend and protect the game.

I say this so that there may be no doubt about where I stand or why I stand there. I believe baseball is a beautiful and exciting game, loved by millions – I among them -and I believe baseball is an important, enduring American institution. It must assert and aspire to the highest principles – of integrity, of professionalism of performance, of fair play within its rules. It will come as no surprise that like any institution composed of human beings, this institution will not always fulfill its highest aspirations. I know of no earthly institution that does. But this one, because it is so much a part of our history as a people and because it has such a purchase on our national soul, has an obligation to the people for whom it is played – to its fans and well-wishers – to strive for excellence in all things and to promote the highest ideals.

I will be told that I am an idealist. I hope so. I will continue to locate ideals I hold for myself and for my country in the national game as well as in other of our national institutions. And while there will be debate and dissent about this or that or another occurrence on or off the field, and while the game’s nobler parts will always be enmeshed in the human frailties of those who, whatever their role, have stewardship of this game, let there be no doubt or dissent about our goals for baseball or our dedication to it. Nor about our vigilance and vigor – and patience – in protecting the game from blemish or stain or disgrace.

The matter of Mr. Rose is now closed. It will be debated and discussed. Let no one think that it did not hurt baseball. That hurt will pass, however, as the great glory of the game asserts itself and a resilient institution goes forward. Let it also be clear that no individual is superior to the game.

And Rose’s statement:
I’d like to apologize for this controversy lingering on into the ’89 season. I hope it didn’t detract from the championship season of the 12 teams in the National League and I hope it didn’t detract from the All-Star Game. I know now it won’t detract from the upcoming playoffs and the showcase of baseball, the World Series.

I made some mistakes and I think I’m being punished for those mistakes. However, the settlement is fair – especially the wording that says they have no finding that I bet on baseball. It’s something I told the commissioner back in February and I’ve told you people the last four months. My only regret up to this time is I will not have the opportunity to tell my side of the story. However, I would add, I will tell my side of the story in the very near future.

I’d like to thank you people, as members of the media, for understanding me as a player, for trying to understand me as a manager. I’m hoping that you would give the guy that replaces me the benefit of the doubt as he takes over a very young, banged up baseball team.

My life is baseball. I hope to get back into baseball as soon as I possibly can. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve never looked forward to a birthday like I’m looking forward to my new daughter’s birthday, ’cause two days after that is when I can apply for reinstatement.

Published in: on March 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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An Interview With Mike Pagliarulo About the ’95 Mariners, ’89 A’s, and Billy Martin

A few years ago, after I’d written some articles for a website, Dugout Central, that he owned at the time, I talked with Mike Pagliarulo, the ’80s and ’90s third baseman for the Yankees, Twins, and other teams, on the phone. The bulk of the interview was about the 1991 Minnesota Twins, and that part was published in a Twins season preview magazine. But we also talked about some other things I was interested in learning from Mike. Here are those exchanges, organized into three subjects:

The 1995 Seattle Mariners

Q: I wondered what you saw in the Mariners that year in September as they made their comeback, whether there was a sense of them having changed from earlier in the season.

Mike: Yes, we had, in the final series there in Texas, we stopped the Mariners from winning the division, won the last two games against them. Johnny Oates, God bless his soul, he was our manager. The Mariners, they were a very well-balanced team, power from the right side, the left side, good pitching, ran the bases very well, they really knew how to play the game. They had dangerous hitters, could score a bunch of runs in a minute.

Q: What was it like facing Randy Johnson, someone who, at 6-10, he’d be throwing the ball a half-foot higher up than most pitchers. Was it hard to change your eye level and pick up his pitches?

Mike: You have to change, make an adjustment according to the different pitchers, so you’ll see the ball better out of his hand. With a left-hander like Johnson, I’d try to hit everything off the left-field wall. You had to have a plan for the opposition.

Randy was very deceptive, with a lower arm slot, you fought to pick up the ball. There was always a battle going on, facing him. I’d come up, struggle to see how the ball’s moving, and all of a sudden I’d be saying hey, what the heck, what happened, I’m down 0-1, 0-2.

Q: That year, you were playing against Lou Piniella, one of your former managers with the Yankees. Could you say something about his qualities as a manager?

Mike: He’s a super guy, just one of the greatest. He’s one of the most brilliant men at teaching hitting mechanics. It was fascinating to play for him with the Yankees. I was fortunate to get the chance to learn from him.

The 1989 Oakland A’s and S.F. Giants

Q: To start off, I figured I’d ask if you remember the near-perfect game the A’s threw against the Yankees on May 26 in New York?

Mike: No, I don’t. What was that?

Q: The one guy to get on was Rickey Henderson, on an infield single, and then the very next hitter, Steve Sax maybe, hit into a double play. That was the only runner of the game.

Mike: Huh. That’s funny, I don’t know that game at all. We had an injury, someone-Winfield-was out with a bad back in 1989. That year my elbow was a mess. I tried to play, but it wasn’t fully recovered.

Q: What was your response when you learned of Rickey Henderson’s trade to the A’s?

Mike: In New York, we had all come up with each other in the Yankees’ tremendous minor league system. Played on the same teams, winning teams. And some guys from the organization, they had played with Rickey for 5 years. He was one of the guys, a great teammate, a phenomenal athlete, so it was hard to see people like him go.

Q: I was reading through some articles from the time, where the Yankees management was saying that Rickey’s legs were going, he wasn’t that great a player anymore. He’d been struggling a bit with the Yankees, but did you guys have any sense of him running down?

Mike: No, I wouldn’t say he was running down. When you play with a good teammate, you never want to see them go, whether they’re going well or not. You rely on each other day and day out, so you never expect someone to be traded. You never think in those terms. Rickey was a real impact player, he helped the whole lineup.

Baseball is the ultimate team game, your teammates affect how you play offense and defense, what kind of pitches you get to hit-look at the Red Sox this year [2008], J.D. Drew batting ahead of Manny Ramirez, and how well he did. There are so many variables, it’s hard to say which one it is that impacts whether you do well.

Q: What was your impression of Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk? Because when I went through those articles about the trade I saw Cadaret saying that at least in New York he’d still be able to talk about hunting and fishing with Plunk in the bullpen. Were they out of place in the Bronx?

Mike: [laughs] Well, some players don’t feel very comfortable in New York. It can be a rude awakening for some players, they’re out of place. Some, they adapt, but I was always real comfortable there, didn’t have to get used to New York.

Q: What, for you, were the biggest reasons why the A’s were so good in ’88 and ’89?

Mike: The A’s, they had those two big guys (McGwire and Canseco) coming up. I was talking to La Russa one day not long after he got hired by the A’s. When was that, 1986 or so? (It was.) And he had a pretty good plan for what to do with the team. They had Ron Hassey, a good friend and teammate with the Yankees.

On the A’s, everyone knew their role, what their job was, and that’s a compliment to La Russa. He ran a pretty tight ship, everyone had a place they fit into, and there was a really good mix of young and old players. Every good team I’ve been on has had that characteristic. It’s a prerequisite for winning. And they had really good coaches.

Lansford, he was a steady, steady, steady player, a real tough out. Stewart, I don’t remember how I did against. But he was like Clemens: the ultimate challenge for a hitter. You want that so much-that challenge, and the great ones, they’re great challenges. The A’s were very prepared, they always gave their best game.

In ’89, we had a coach, Dallas Green, we went outside the organization to get him, and people said, “this guy’s not a Yankee”-he wasn’t Billy (Martin) or Piniella or Yogi Berra. So it was different: he had some trouble adjusting, it wasn’t easy there.

Q: And then you got traded to the Padres not long after Rickey went to Oakland. What did you remember from playing against the Giants late that year? You guys in San Diego were running right alongside the Giants for the division title.

Mike: I remember Matt Williams having a great year, and that guy in left field, Mitchell, just everything they had (offensively). You’d look up and boom! there’s the ball flying out of the yard. The Padres had a tremendous team, one of the most talented sets of players I’ve seen. We had Jack Clark, Bip Roberts, Alomar, Santiago, Gwynn, but we were missing one pitcher.

Billy Martin’s death on Christmas day, 1989

Q: How did you respond to Billy Martin, first as your coach on the Yankees, and then upon learning of his death?

Mike: I loved Billy Martin. That was a very sad day for me. I burst out crying when I heard the news.

He was the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought of you. If I got one hit in a game and hit a couple other balls well, but they were caught, what he’d say to me was, “You dumb-ass dago, you can’t get more than one hit.” Billy was very honest.

I remember one day, a game against the Angels. It was 1985, my first full season. In the eighth inning I fielded a bunt, threw the ball to second, and the throw pulled the man off base. When I got back to the dugout, Billy was waiting on the top step, screaming at me, “What the hell were you thinking out there? That wasn’t the right play.” I didn’t back down; I told him, “It was the right play, I just didn’t make the throw.”

A little while later Clete Boyer, our third base coach, says Billy wants to see me in his office. I’m thinking I’m going to get sent down, but Billy said, “Hey look, maybe you were right about that play.” He didn’t say “You’re right,” but he said maybe I was right. He was willing to admit he was wrong. Of course he added, “You dago son of a bitch, I’m only saying this because you’re Italian.”

Billy could see the field so completely; he knew what everybody was doing. My manager with the Twins, Tom Kelly, was like that. One day I made a step on third and throw to first double play, and back in the dugout T.K. said, “Maybe you should have stepped on the base with your other foot, it would have put you into better position to make the throw.” T.K. did the same kind of ribbing as Billy, just a little quieter. I’m half-Irish, and it’s funny, one day T.K. said the exact same thing Billy had: “I’m only saying this because you’re Irish. Now get the hell out of here.” Billy and T.K., they noticed everything. Sometimes you didn’t necessarily like it, but they noticed everything.

Published in: on January 2, 2013 at 8:42 am  Comments (2)  
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Sammy Sosa in the Minor Leagues

In July 1986, a few months after Sammy Sosa’s pro baseball career began, the Dallas Morning News reported from Sarasota, Florida:

Sammy Sosa doesn’t miss anything about his home in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.

In March, he left the three-room house with no indoor plumbing that he shared with nine other family members.

He left desperately hoping to find a future.

Having dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work 12 hours a day in a shoe factory, Sosa’s only chance is baseball.

Major league scouts report that young Dominican players looking to escape their impoverished homeland, where the per capita income is $1,300 a year, are the most driven of all Latin players. Puerto Rico, by contrast, has a per capita income of $12,000 per person.

“In terms of demands, there is no comparison,’ says Luis Rosa, the Latin America scouting coordinator for the Texas Rangers, whose responsibilities include Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. “You could sign most Dominican kids for the price of a visa and $1,000. Kids from Puerto Rico, for example, begin by demanding the sun and the moon.’

San Pedro de Macoris, a port city of 128,000 on the Dominican Republic’s southeast coast, has produced 11 of the country’s 25 current major leaguers. Sammy Sosa, a 5-11, 170-pound outfielder, dreams only of joining Pedro Guerrero, Joaquin Andujar, George Bell, Carmen Castillo, Mariano Duncan, Tony Fernandez, Julio Franco, Alfredo Griffin, Stan Javier, Rafael Ramirez and Juan Samuel in the major leagues.

Sosa, who has shown his skills in Dominican camps run by the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays, signed his first contract with the Phillies. He was 15.

Dominican players must be 17 before they can sign. The Phillies’ scout, who has since been fired, planned to hide Sosa until he turned 17. But when the scout was fired, Sosa found himself a man without a connection.

Omar Minaya, the Rangers’ scout responsible for the Dominican Republic, heard about Sosa and legally signed him for this season.

Sosa, who turned 17 in November, signed with the Rangers for $3,500. He has spent this season playing right field for the Sarasota Rangers in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. Like all his teammates, Sosa earns $700 a month. What money he has left at the end of the month is sent home.

Sosa’s signing bonus went to buying a 10-year-old Toyota van the family planned to convert into a taxi. Unfortunately, the van proved to be too old and too weary. The Sosas sold it for $100.

“It was God’s will,’ Sosa says. “What can we do?” Sosa answers his rhetorical question. “We can work harder.”

No one, Sarasota manager Rudy Jaramillo says, works harder than Sosa. Jaramillo mentions Sosa in the same sentence as the touted Juan Gonzalez when discussing his team’s top prospects.

“Why not?” Sosa says. “If I don’t try to take someone’s job away from them, they will keep it and I will have to go home.”

Three years later, Sosa was a big Rangers prospect, playing for the Tulsa team. The Tulsa World took a look at his status in June 1989:

Of all the gifted prospects the Texas Rangers have assembled in a flourishing farm system, Sammy Sosa has perhaps the most uncertain future.

At 20 and in his fourth year as a professional, Sosa is the leading hitter on the most talented team the Rangers have ever assigned to Tulsa. He is the fastest player in the organization, a good outfielder and has a powerful and accurate arm. Sosa is the prototype rightfielder. However, that is the position of the Rangers’ Ruben Sierra, 23, and blooming into one of the American League’s better players. Sosa has been told he might play centerfield. Driller Manager Tommy Thompson thinks Sosa can be a major league centerfielder. So does Sosa.

But centerfield is the position of Sosa’s 19-year-old teammate Juan Gonzalez, the Rangers’ most raved-about prospect. Before Gonzalez turned 18, veteran scouts predicted he would be the Rangers’ centerfielder for 10 years.

Where all of this leaves Sosa is anyone’s guess. He does not begin his days by looking at Texas box scores to see what Sierra did or end his days wondering if he should be playing centerfield or if his future is somewhere other than Arlington.

“My time is coming,” Sosa said. “I don’t worry. I will play wherever they tell me. I don’t know when I will get there. I don’t think it will be too long. I think it’s good that they don’t push me too fast. I don’t have a time when I think I will be there, but I will get there.”

The Dominican Republic native “can do everything, all he needs is some refining,” Thompson said. The one thing about Sosa that Thompson wants most to refine is a line drive swing.

Sosa’s baseball hero is Rickey Henderson of the Yankees. The Rangers think Sosa could become a Henderson-type hitter if he avoids lapses of swinging as though he wanted to be Jose Canseco.

At 6-0, 175, the right-handed batting Sosa has the body and skills of a leadoff hitter. He never hit more than 11 home runs but led two leagues in doubles and triples.

“He gets out of kilter and swings for home runs,” Thompson said. “We want him to keep that line drive swing and hit doubles. He might hit 15 home runs without trying and hit .280 to .320. By trying to hit home runs, he might still hit only 15 and hit .240.”

Sosa agrees and said he “is trying hard to keep my swing under control. I know I am not a home run hitter. I don’t want to hurt my batting average.”

Another habit Sosa must temper is his temper. After striking out swinging in his second time at bat in Thursday night’s doubleheader with Arkansas, Sosa slammed his bat to the turf. Thompson removed him from the lineup.

It was a low point of an 0-6 night by Sosa that saw the division leading Drillers lose both games and plunge themselves into a pennant race they once controlled. It dropped Sosa’s batting average under .300.

It was an a typical night for Sosa. This has been his best season. After hitting .275 and .279 his first two seasons, Sosa hit only .229 last year at Port Charlotte in the Class-A Florida State League.

Winter ball “really helped me,” spring training with the Rangers and buoyed by Sierra’s encouragement, Sosa has been hitting better here than Sierra did in 1985.
The only part of his game that is down is stolen bases. He had 42 last year.

Although on base considerably more season, he has but 15 stolen bases. Being caught 10 times explains why Thompson has not given Sosa the green light he had at Port Charlotte.

“I think he can steal 30, maybe 50 bases,” Thompson said. “But I don’t see him as a (Vince) Coleman who steals 80.”

Sosa said, “I’d like to steal more but he doesn’t give me the light.” He stressed he was not complaining.

“I feel good about everything this year,” Sosa said. “I like it here, I like this park and this is the best year I’ve had.”

He thinks his figures should improve, because he is a hot weather hitter. He said, “In my home in the Dominican Republic it never gets cold. I play winter ball in hot weather. I play pro ball in Florida. I never play in the cold until I get here. If I hit .300 now, I think I will do better when it gets hot.”

Sosa said he was not adept at hitting in rain, which he has seen a lot of this week. But a postponement Wednesday night gave him an opportunity to exercise another talent.

Sosa cooked a chicken dinner at his apartment for three members of the Arkansas team – second baseman Geromino Pena, rightfielder Jesus Mendez and shortstop Julian Martinez, his teammates in winter ball.

“I am a pretty good cook,” Sosa said. On minor league wages, he explained, it “helps” to be able to cook.

Sosa was traded to the White Sox for Harold Baines in the summer of ’89; the above stories are intended to show what he was like as a teenager and the kind of pressure that he probably felt to become a bigtime player who could bring home million-dollar salaries.

Published in: on November 27, 2012 at 8:05 am  Comments (2)  

Some Excellent 1980s Pitchers Who Aren’t in the Hall of Fame

If you followed baseball in the ’80s, it’s probably at some point occurred to you that the decade had a lot of very good, occasionally great starting pitchers who aren’t in the Hall of Fame now and are very unlikely to ever be inducted. They’re overshadowed by younger pitchers (for the most part) whose careers typically began in the ’80s but had their best years in the ’90s: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson; and by older pitchers, such as Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Jim Palmer, who had the bulk of their career in the ’70s.

They were durable, sometimes won Cy Youngs, were often in the World Series, but either never became major stars or lost a lot of their fame after retirement. This casually assembled list of 23 ’80s pitchers with about 150 wins to 250 wins in their career is not a referendum on Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy; it’s just an attempt to group together some fine pitchers who made up a lot of the starting talent in a decade that lacked clearly great starters pitching in their prime.

Bob Welch
Fernando Valenzuela
Orel Hershiser
Dave Stewart
Rick Reuschel
Rick Rhoden
Mike Moore
Mark Langston
Bret Saberhagen
John Tudor
Charlie Hough
Rick Sutcliffe
Frank Viola
Teddy Higuera
Mark Gubicza
Frank Tanana
Jimmy Key
Bruce Hurst
Dennis Martinez
Joe Niekro
Jerry Reuss
John Candelaria
Mike Flanagan

Published in: on November 10, 2012 at 6:50 am  Comments (4)  

The Early Stages of Australian Pro and Olympic Baseball

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted of baseball in Australia:

The Japanese have long had their hearts set on catching up with American major-league baseball, and Korea of late has been trying to catch Japan. And it isn’t terribly difficult to imagine Canadians playing baseball, now that Toronto and Montreal have major-league franchises.

But Holland and Australia, those hotbeds of soccer and cricket, respectively, were the fascinating teams of this tournament, while they were in it.

Both missed semifinals, but barely. Australia fell a game short with a 2-1 loss to Korea on Friday, and Holland was knocked out 6-1 by Japan on Saturday, also one game short of the medal rounds.

That Australia and Holland made the Seoul field of eight teams at all is indicative of the worldwide upswing in baseball interest and prowess.

” Baseball ‘s going to be one heck of a big game around the world in the next 10 years,” says [Mike Young, the Australian coach]. “It’s gonna be rocking and rolling.”

Baseball becomes an official Olympic sport at the Barcelona Games of 1992, and by then, Young believes the tournament will be truly balanced.

“I haven’t seen any major-league prospects, but we have a couple of good young kids on this team,” Young says of the Aussies.

More than 100,000 Australians play baseball, from peewee leagues to adult clubs.

“There’s some kids that can play,” says Young. Some organizations, including the Atlanta Braves, are doing some limited scouting in Australia.

“But because Australia is so far away, the scouts don’t see them very often or for any length of time,” says Young. “The Australian kids who do get to the States just jump – their tools develop very quickly with American coaching.”

Young’s pitching coach on this team, Phil Dale, is an example. Dale visited Georgia Southern College for a baseball camp and wound up with a scholarship to play there in the early ’80s. He is now a pitcher with Chattanooga of the Class AA Southern League.

Not quite four full years later, the Syracuse Post-Standard checked in on Young again:

When Mike Young started playing baseball in Australia in 1981, the games were played on pastures, not fields.

The bases were marked by rubber cones, and spikes were hammered into the ground to simulate a home-run fence. Between innings the players sat on picnic benches.

Now turn the clock ahead to the Australian summer of November to February 1991-92. The Australian Baseball League operated with eight teams representing five of the six territories, or states, in a country that is roughly the size of the United States.

The games were played in stadiums, and in some of the larger cities like Melbourne and Sydney the crowds often reached 6,000. Most of the teams traveled by air, and they all stayed in five-star hotels when they were on the road.

Americans have taken notice of the ABL’s success. Ten major-league clubs, including the Toronto Blue Jays, have agreed to supply two to four players to each ABL club during the 48-game season, making the ABL another winter league for American players.

“I would say that without a doubt, it’s the best winter league in all the world,” said Young, a coach for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings who manages the Perth entry in the ABL. “I can’t say the standard is of the quality of the Dominican Republic, but the travel, accommodations, climate, environment, fans, media – all of that is major league.”

One man’s vision

Through the 1987-88 season, Australian baseball players spent their weekends competing in a loosely connected collection of amateur leagues. Young, the manager of the 1988 Australian Olympic baseball team, wanted to start a professional league, and he went toe-to-toe with less ambitious baseball officials.

In what amounted to a strike, there was no organized baseball played in 1988-89 as the two sides dickered.

“I felt if somebody didn’t stand up and say what was needed to be said, the baseball would stagnate,” Young said. “I said, `This is what needs to happen and this is why.’

“A lot of people followed me, a lot of people didn’t. But by me standing up, it made people take notice and it turned the boil up.”

It worked. The ABL was formed out of the conflict, and in three years it has started to rival cricket as the most popular summer sport (Australian rules football is still No.1 overall).

The use of American players has created great interest in the ABL. Clubs are allowed to import four players – almost always Americans – none of whom has played above Class-A.

“We hadn’t seen people who can throw the ball 90 miles an hour, or hit and field the way that these players do, so it has improved our baseball,” said Australian Graeme Lloyd, a Toronto farmhand who’s now pitching at Double-A Knoxville.

The benefits are mutual for the Americans, who otherwise would be shut out of the more experienced winter leagues in Latin America. Besides, where else can a Class-A player be treated like a hero?

“They’re real receptive to Americans; they kind of admire us,” said New York Yankees farmhand and Liverpool native Pat Morphy, who pitched for Sydney last winter. “A lot of guys I talk to ask if I would recommend it, and I say definitely.”

Americans must also adapt to speed-up rules designed to keep Australians who are used to football and rugby into the game. For games in Adelaide, Morphy said pitchers and hitters have 10 seconds between pitches, and a ball or strike can be called automatically if either player violates the rule.

In other cities, the public address announcer gives play-by-play descriptions of the game. That serves as a supplement to a manual distributed at all parks called “Understanding Baseball.”

It’s going to take a while before baseball is ingrained in the Australian consciousness the way it is in America, but already there are signs that Australia can produce major-league talent. Milwaukee Brewers catcher Dave Nilsson, Young’s protege in Australia, led all minor-leaguers with a .366 batting average last season, and earlier this year he became the first product of the ABL to play in the majors (Australian shortstop Craig Shipley also played in the majors, but he was the product of a U.S. college).

Lloyd, who will probably pitch in Syracuse next season, said baseball was a hobby when he was growing up in Melbourne, and the only sports played in grade school were cricket and football. But T-ball, where children hit off tees instead of facing live pitching, is taking hold, and the trick now is keeping the children interested until they’re old enough to play in the ABL.

“They kind of move off to the other sports after T-ball, but hopefully now that baseball is getting a higher profile the kids might stay with it,” Lloyd said.

They better. If they don’t, they’ll miss out on the fastest-growing baseball league in the world.

What seems to be the best overall portrait of early pro baseball in Australia was written by Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune in March 1993. Here is quite a bit of his long feature on a tour of the country’s baseball culture:

We arrived late because the ballpark was supposed to be in Altona and we got off the train at the Altona station. After walking around for 30 minutes and finding no baseball stadium, we asked a taxi driver. Oh, he said, the baseball stadium is closer to Laverton. Another five miles.

We got there in the bottom of the seventh inning, there being an AstroTurf infield and grass outfield and chainlink fence and dirt parking lot in a marsh not far from a chemical plant. A team wearing gray pants and gray jerseys with blue undershirts was playing a team wearing gray pants and gray jerseys with blue undershirts.

The public-address announcer was explaining the basics of the ground-rule double, why the runner who’d been on first base had to return to third despite crossing home plate. No one seemed to get it.

“Each runner is allowed only two bases on a ground-rule double . . . ”

After an intentional walk (the fans didn’t get that, either, and booed heartily), the guy with the dark blue batting helmet with “Texas Instruments” written across it bounced to the shortstop. The throw to first was in the dirt, and the umpire with the MasterCard logo on his back signaled safe.

The visiting manager sprinted from the dugout, which consisted of two rows of numbered stadium seats with a protective net in front. He argued, threw his cap on the ground, kicked some dirt. The first-base umpire jogged down the line and consulted with the plate ump.

And changed his call. Out.

The inning ended with the home team scoring four runs to take a 5-2 lead. “And every time the Monarchs have a big inning,” blurted the announcer, “we get the Monarch Dancers, part of the great Monarchs entertainment package . . . ”

Four teen-age girls in satin hot pants and sequined bikini tops, holding pom-pons, began gyrating every joint in the human body to the beat of Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” Ben Hammer, after all, had scored the go-ahead run.

Now the home pitching coach was looking to the bullpen. “If they bring in the guy who throws underhand,” said a woman in the stands, “you’ll really see something different.”

Welcome to the ABL, the Australian Baseball League. Something different.

There is no seventh-inning stretch in Australia. They tried it. Didn’t work.

One problem was that no one knew exactly when to have it. Some teams stretched in the sixth inning, some in the eighth. Some fans didn’t want to stretch at all.

Another, stickier, problem was the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Seems in Australia the colloquial meaning of “root” is to have sex, and ABL management felt promoting orgies with the home team was an inappropriate message.

But no worries, mate. Here, there are plenty of other attractions to America’s national pastime, which is actually a derivative of Australia ‘s national pastime. American Rules cricket, if you will. In the land Down Under, you play baseball from November to February. And there are cheerleaders. This season, Melbourne and Brisbane played a triple-header.

In Australia, you play on cricket ovals and Australian Rules Football grounds and rugby fields with bases stuck in the grass. Dugouts sometimes are a row of lawn chairs with beach umbrellas and a water cooler. One field has a stiff warm wind that converts pop-ups to home runs; another has a stiff cold wind that renders 450-foot shots shallow fly balls; another measures 240 feet to right field.

In Australia, if the batter isn’t ready and the pitcher is, it’s an automatic strike. (Said Melbourne Monarchs outfielder Pookie Wilson, of Sylacauga, Ala.: “I was like, ‘Damn, I never had this happen to me before.'”) If the pitcher isn’t ready, it’s a ball. If the catcher reaches base with two outs, he must be replaced by a designated runner so he has time to strap on his gear before the next inning. If you’re ahead by 10 runs after the fifth inning in a double-header, game’s over, you win.

In Australia, you can’t chew tobacco, but you can use aluminum or wood bats.

In Australia, there are 48 games in the regular season, followed by best-of-three playoff series at the higher-seeded team’s home park. Practice is occasional and sometimes optional.

In Australia, 39-year-old infielders bat against 16-year-old pitchers.

In Australia, managers can and do play. This season, a general manager led the league in innings pitched.

In Australia, you hit a home run to centre field with an aluminum bat in the fifth dig to take a 1-nil lead in the first match of a double-header.

Baseball has existed here since the 1850s, when Americans came to Ballarat in search of gold and left behind Abner Doubleday’s game. Professional baseball has existed since 1989.

In between, baseball was mainly a club sport. Until the late 1960s, you played during the winter, or the North American summer, so you wouldn’t bump caps with beloved cricket. Until recently, you played on weekends in a local park and never practiced.

Until recently. Basketball was the first “fringe” sport to break the stereotype that cricket, rugby and Australian Rules Football would always rule. The National Basketball League was formed a decade ago; crowds of 15,000 are common now. Baseball, even the basketballers admit, is further along in four years than they were.

Already, major-league teams own the rights to 24 Australians in a country of 17 million people, roughly the equivalent of Southern California. Already, American farm systems are talking about the ABL replacing Latin America as the premier “winter” league, a place where there is no language barrier or military junta.

There are eight teams in the ABL, scattered across a country the size of the U.S. mainland (we’re talking serious road trips), and each is affiliated with a major-league club. The Padres were married to the Brisbane Bandits but divorced shortly before this season as part of franchise-wide budget cuts. The New York Yankees replaced them. Toronto, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Houston and the Florida Marlins also have affiliates.

In the States, the minor leagues are divided into five general levels: rookie ball, low A, high A, AA and AAA. Most players and scouts agree the ABL is equivalent to high A and is knocking on the door of AA.

Four Americans — “imports,” they’re called — are allowed to play on each team, and no more than two may be pitchers. Some Americans, such as Melbourne Monarchs outfielder Ron Carothers, never went home. Carothers, who attended high school in East St. Louis, Ill., with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, became an Australian citizen in 1991.

Predicted Carothers: “In the next five or 10 years, Australia is going to become THE place to play in the (major-league) off-season.”

[In the Australian Baseball League] half the eight teams are said to be on solid financial footing. For two, it’s kind of marshy. For two, we’re talking Everglades. There have been crowds as large as 11,444, but average attendance at several stadiums is less than 3,000 per game.

The ABL salary cap is 42,000 Australian dollars, which computes to about $28,500 in the United States. That excludes the four imports, whose salaries and expenses are paid by their parent clubs. The highest-paid player in ABL history reportedly got $5,400, or slightly more than $100 per game. Barry Bonds, by contrast, will make roughly $37,600 per game for San Francisco this season.

The umpires get $21.50 in the field and $35.50 behind the plate, which might be a large part of the problem. Umpires in San Diego’s adult weekend leagues make $40 each.

Translation: Get a day job.

The ’92-93 champion Melbourne Monarchs have bankers and teachers and firemen and car salesmen. Each team has a 30-man roster but can suit up 20 for any particular game. On road trips, even that is sometimes a problem, because a guy making $1,500 for 48 games can afford only so much unpaid leave.

Leigh McIntyre, 45, who played on the Australian national team for six years and now is a Monarchs coach, is a draftsman by trade. In the current Australian recession, he drives a garbage truck. Like everyone else in the ABL, McIntyre watches the occasional major-league game broadcast on Australian TV, sees the 40,000 fans and multideck stadiums and multimillion-dollar players.

And thinks, “What if?”

“Yeah, you get a little frustrated sometimes. You think about it,” McIntyre said as he walked across Altona’s dirt parking lot after a late-season double-header. It was nearly midnight. He had to be behind the wheel of the garbage truck at 6 a.m.

“But no worries. I have a young family. I’m happy. I have a couple of cars. I have a house. I just enjoy baseball. That’s the only reason anyone is playing here, because they love the game.”

Australia would win the silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics; there are now a handful of Australians in major-league baseball. The Australian Baseball League collapsed in 1999 but was reborn in 2010, with six teams and primarily funded by MLB. Their website has a sizable history section that explains “baseball was brought to Australia by American gold miners and played on the gold fields of Ballarat for fun on their rest days in the 1850s.” David Nilsson is the unquestionable key figure in Australian organized baseball from the late ’80s on to today, as player, organizer, owner, and manager.

Published in: on August 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The First Two U.S. Olympic Baseball Teams

Here are two plain lists, showing who was on the first two U.S. Olympic baseball teams, the ones that played demonstration tournaments in Los Angeles and Seoul, with links to the professional statistics of the players: major league in most cases, and noted (not major leaguer) for those who didn’t get out of the minors.

Ben Abner (not major leaguer)
Sid Akins (not major leaguer)
Flavio Alfaro (not major leaguer)
Don August
Scott Bankhead
Bob Caffrey (not major leaguer)
Ken Caminiti
Norm Charlton
Mike Christ (not major leaguer)
Will Clark
Mike Dunne
Dave Graybill (not major leaguer)
Gary Green
Chris Gwynn
Drew Hall
John Hoover
Barry Larkin
Mike Loynd
Shane Mack
John Marzano
Oddibe McDowell
Bill McGuire
Mark McGwire
Pat Pacillo
Kevin Renz (not major leaguer)
Cory Snyder
Mel Stottlemyre, Jr.
B.J. Surhoff
Bill Swift
Greg Swindell
Bobby Witt

Jim Abbott
Bret Barberie
Andy Benes
Jeff Branson
Mike Fiore (not major leaguer)
Tom Goodwin
Ty Griffin
Tino Martinez
Billy Masse (not major leaguer)
Ben McDonald
Mike Milchin
Mickey Morandini
Charles Nagy
Doug Robbins (not major leaguer)
Scott Servais
Dave Silvestri
Joe Sularski
Ed Sprague
Robin Ventura
Ted Wood

Published in: on July 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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Baseball in the Last Years of the Soviet Union

A while ago I got a few programs from the 1990 Goodwill Games: one of them had a Soviet pitcher on the cover:

Baseball is about the last major sport you associate with the Soviet Union, but in the last half-decade of its existence, Soviet planners had dreams of taking on the Americans on the diamond as equals by some point in the ’90s. I’ve already taken a look at baseball in China: this post looks at baseball in that other, now-defunct Communist country.

Here’s an Associated Press story from Managua, Nicaragua, on June 22, 1987. The headline: “A Plan to Beat U.S. – Soviets Take Aim at Baseball”:

The Soviet Union hopes to make significant progress in baseball for future Olympics competition, according to a Soviet coach visiting Nicaragua, where the sport is a national passion.
“We have 20 teams in the Soviet Union,” said Alexander Ardatov as he watched a game between Nicaraguans hoping to be selected for the team that will travel to the Pan American Games this August in Indianapolis.
“But we plan to field thousands. We like baseball. It’s nice, but it’s even more fascinating for us to compete with the United States and beat them.”
The 29-year-old Ardatov, who spoke through an interpreter, is a graduate of a Moscow sports institute. He and Ian Martienzonov arrived last week and plan to stay a month in the first Soviet baseball scouting visit to Nicaragua.
He said Soviet plans to develop baseball started by contracting several Cuban coaches, who traveled to Moscow “to teach theory.”
But he said the sport is so incipient in his country that “we have very little equipment to play. For now we have to get everything (bats, balls, gloves, etc.) from the Latin Americans.”
Ardatov said Soviet baseball players still don’t have uniforms.
“We play in sweatsuits,” he said, adding that he would take some Nicaraguan-made uniforms back to the Soviet Union as examples to be copied there.
Rafael Obando, a former player with the Nicaraguan national team and currently a sports commentator, believes “the Soviets have a lot to learn, but they can do it.”
The International Olympic Committee declared baseball an Olympic sport this year.
Among the difficulties facing the Soviets will be adapting from their homegrown game known as “laptak,” where they use a bigger and more active ball than is used in modern baseball . “Laptak” is played on a pentagonal field.
Nicaraguan Baseball Commissioner Rolando Cerna said the Nicaraguan Sports Insitute will donate enough equipment to outfit three teams for the two visiting sports experts to take back with them.
Cerna also said that the Nicaraguan “B” team will travel to the Soviet Union in August for exhibition games against a Soviet team.
“I think we can beat the Americans in about 10 years, and maybe in less time,” Ardatov said.

A year later, the Orange County Register reported on a thaw in Soviet-U.S. baseball relations:

While the United States and Soviet Union move toward a gradual reduction in nuclear arms, the two — as sporting powers — held an unofficial summit this summer in an effort to increase the number of baseball arms.
An eight-member Swedish/American Baseball Coaches Clinic team was greeted with open arms by Soviet baseball coaches and players when they arrived in Moscow in early July for a 21/2-week instructional-league tour showing off America’s national pastime.
Although the first Soviet team began receiving ideas and information more than a year ago from Cubans, Nicaraguans, Japanese and Canadians, it was the first time the players received detailed demonstrations, clinics and practice sessions.
Leading the visiting contingent was Ron Brown, a consultant and US representative to the Swedish Baseball Softball Federation. Brown, a career-guidance counselor at Santa Ana Valley High School, is a former Chapman College pitching coach, and minor-league coach and scout for the California Angels.
The Angels organized an international baseball and softball program nearly 14 years ago in Sweden.”I’ve been going to Sweden every summer, wanting to develop an international baseball program on a higher level,” said Brown, 45, of Orange. “When the opportunity came up to go to the Soviet Union , we jumped at it.”
Brown is a goodwill ambassador in spiked shoes.
He was a founding member of the Swedish Baseball and Softball Federation and coach of the Swedish National Team.
Two years ago, he helped establish the Stockholm International Baseball and Softball Tournament and has helped organize an international sports exchange program in such countries as Denmark, Italy, Germany and Poland. He threw out the first pitch last year in what is believed to be the first US-Poland baseball game.
The Swedish and American coaches’ team submitted its request for an exchange with the Soviet Union to its sports federation in December. When the two federations agreed on specifics, the visiting country’s group provided the cost of air fare, and the host country’s group took care of all additional costs.
“Thanks to Dr. Robert Smith (president of the International Baseball Association and United States Baseball Federation), we were able to secure our visas through the sports attache to the Soviet Embassy (in Stockholm),” Brown said. “The first week we gave clinics to the Soviet coaches and players at Moscow.”
The US and Swedish coaches worked with clubs from the Russian Federation, Gorki, Tashkent and Moscow. They would arrive at a different location throughout the capital city each morning to “eagerly awaiting coaches and players,” Brown said.
Russian athletes in track and field, water polo, team handball, volleyball and basketball between the ages of 18 and 26 were recruited to learn nearly every facet of the game.
Almost 30 club teams from Leningrad, in northern Russia, to Tashkent, in the southeast, already had been established. They play approximately 40 games each season. In addition, a post-season national baseball tournament that rotates among eight Soviet cities was initiated last year.
“(The Soviets ) want to field a world-class baseball team by the 1996 Olympic Games,” Brown said.
Baseball became a demonstration sport at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 and again during the ’88 Games in Seoul but will be an Olympic medal sport at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
During the second week, the US-Swedish team stayed in Kiev, capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, to preside over the Kiev National Tournament. The eight teams arrived from Moscow, Gorki, Leningrad, Tallin, Kaunas, Kiev, Tibilsi and Tashkent.
Games were played on soccer fields because no baseball fields exist. Brown said fields are being planned in Moscow and Kiev.
The Swedish and American coaches were assigned to a club and critiqued the team’s play during and after the games.
Of course, exchanges made between the three nations were not relegated just to on-field activities. The American coaches got the young Soviet players into some American baseball -card swapping.
“During the opening ceremonies, we presented the Soviet players and coaches with a baseball packet,” Brown said. “It contained some Dodger pins, some Angel decals, some `I Love Baseball’ pins and Topps baseball cards. The interest created by that packet, especially the baseball cards, was amazing. The only problem I had was trying to explain the meaning of `ERA’ (earned run average) and `slugging percentage’ to them. I haven’t learned to speak Russian yet. … I might have to.”

By September 1989, with Eastern Europe about to start breaking out of the Soviet bloc, the Soviets were confident enough to claim the sport as its own. From the Fort Lauderdale News & Sun-Sentinel:

MOSCOW – A Russian baseball player handed Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley a figurine during the Soviet Union’s first international baseball tournament last weekend.
It was a caveman poised to swing a giant club. The player offered it as proof of what many Russians suspect. Baseball is really the Russian pastime. Its origin is buried in their ancestral roots.
One Soviet writer theorizes that baseball’s origin can be directly traced To Russia. Sergei Scachin created a mild controversy last year when he wrote that an ancient Russian game dating back to Ivan the Terrible’s reign is the inspiration for baseball. He theorized that Russian immigrants took lapta to the United States in the 1800s. It’s a loosely organized game played with a stick and ball.
”Look out,” warns Constantine Bondarenko, a U.S. history specialist and interpreter. ”This new sport is not so new after all. It has roots deep in our country’s soul.”
Baseball was introduced in the Soviet Union two years ago. The Kremlin ordered its development in preparation for the game’s new status as a medal sport in the 1992 Olympics.
The Big Red Machine’s passion for sport has Americans wondering how long it will take before the Soviets master baseball.
”Slowly but surely,” said Alexei Nikolov of the Soviet Baseball Federation. ”We have many difficulties to work out.”
Sturmovschina, the Russian word for taking something by storm and perfecting it, isn’t being applied to baseball the way it had been to hockey and basketball. At least not yet. Still, there’s a plan with a gold medal in mind. Soviet baseball officials hope the international baseball tournament they hosted last weekend will hasten other plans.
”I couldn’t overstate how important the tournament was to baseball’s development here,” Nikolov said. ”Many important officials watched, and they were impressed.”
The four-team tourney, which included the University of Miami and Moscow State, was a two-day gala, a celebration of the opening of the Soviet Union’s first baseball stadium. Top-ranking Soviets from the Politburo and the Ministry of Sport watched the tourney and stadium dedication on the Moscow State University campus.
”It was a chance to show off our new sport,” said Evgeny Isyanov, the general director of the Moscow Sports Committee. ”To show baseball is big and important. I think we changed some minds.”
Baseball has received little support from the strained resources of the Soviet Ministry of Sport. The new baseball stadium was a $3.7 million gift from a Japanese philanthropist. Until its construction, games were played on soccer fields.
Bats, balls and gloves are still hard to come by. Just six months ago, a Soviet baseball official estimated there were as few as 100 baseballs in the country.
For the most part, the sport’s new enthusiasts were left to manage for themselves. About 30 clubs played last spring. They are made up of former track athletes, soccer players and the like.
Mendeleyev, the first Soviet baseball team to tour the United States, formed typically. Andy Petrov read about the Kremlin’s endorsement of baseball and approached the Mendeleyev Chemical Institute for sponsorship. He was introduced to the game while living in Montreal, where his father was a Soviet trade representative.
Petrov’s team started from scratch. In fact, before it was officially formed, Petrov organized a six-on-six game in Moscow’s Sukolniky Park. They played with a broom handle and a tennis ball.
Rick Spooner, an American working for a trade consortium in Moscow, saw the game. He volunteered to help coach. He also provided some gloves and balls.
Still, Mendeleyev had little. They practiced for their U.S. tour with three bats, seven balls, hockey goalie pads for the catcher and a broken helmet. When a ball got knocked into a nearby river, they went swimming after it.
”We made our own field, and it was pretty rough,” Petrov said, stretching his lower lip to reveal a chipped tooth. ”Lots of bad hops.”
The state of the game is slowly improving. An organizational plan is unfolding.
Twenty-four clubs played this summer in the Soviet Union’s first national baseball tournament. The Soviet Army and Kiev will play for the championship this month.
”There are about 50 clubs now,” Isyanov said. ”And more are forming every day. We have teams in all 15 republics.”
Next year, he said, the first official Soviet league will be formed. The top 12 teams from this year’s national tournament will play ”professionally.” Many players from those teams have signed contracts with the Ministry of Sport and will compete full-time, much the way Soviet soccer, hockey and basketball players do.
”I will be making 200 rubles (about $320) a month,” said Petrov, who switched from volleyball. ”That could change depending on how well I play.”
Youth clubs are being formed independently, but Isyanov said he hoped it wouldn’t be long before a national youth team and official youth leagues were organized.
”We’re betting on them,” Isyanov said. ”They are our hope. Those kids who will know only baseball.”
For the first time, in fall, two of the nation’s 28 specialized youth sports academies will include baseball in their academic-athletic curricula.
”It’s a beginning,” Nikolov said. ”Not all of the structure, or even its concept, is in place yet.”
Isayanov said new fields are planned in all the republics. Though the government recently purchased 1,000 baseball gloves from Cuba, equipment remains a problem. The Soviets don’t produce any equipment themselves, but officials say tentative plans are being made to build a plant. Teams get most of their equipment any way they can.
A touring Latin American team left many of its gloves and balls. Bunny Mick, a hitting instructor for the Cardinals who journeyed to Russia on his own this month to give clinics, brought $5,000 in equipment from Hillerich and Bradsby.
Soviet coaches also pick up instruction where they can. Mick isn’t the first American to offer his services. Two Johns Hopkins coaches returned to the USSR this summer to give clinics. A year ago, Johns Hopkins became the first American team to play here. Cuban and Japanese coaches also have been imported for clinics.
The Soviets won’t predict how long it will take them to challenge for a gold medal. Isyanov says the first goal is to overtake the Netherlands and Italy in the European championships. Then, perhaps by 1996, they can qualify for the Olympics.
”When we have players who are baseball players first,” Isyanov said, ”then we can begin to expect more.”

Published in: on July 22, 2012 at 2:27 pm  Comments (8)  

Omar Vizquel’s Early Years

It is hard to believe that Omar Vizquel has been in the majors since 1989, and was not even a remarkably young rookie that year, at 21 for his big-league debut. That April, the Seattle Times explained how Omar landed the shortstop job in the Kingdome:

When the Seattle Mariners traded for shortstop Rey Quinones in August 1986, they figured they had filled their shortstop need into the next century.
But Quinones, a 26-year-old with a world of talent, abused his talent and ultimately wore out his stay in Seattle. He was traded Friday to Pittsburgh.
For three years the Mariners had no option but to tolerate Quinones’ convenient injuries and unapproved sabbaticals back to Puerto Rico. There was no prospect in the entire system who could be considered an everyday major-league shortstop.
Shortstop and catcher, traditionally, are the two most difficult positions to fill adequately. Quinones knew he held the hammer and he used it. Then along came Omar Vizquel , at 5 foot-9 and 150 pounds.
In 1986, when the M’s acquired Quinones, Vizquel was only 18 and hitting but .213 for Class AA Wausau. Good field, no future.
His fine glove work slowly would advance him through the system, but his hitting was not keeping pace. Then in the Instructional League in Tempe in 1986, hitting instructor Bobby Tolan made one suggestion – try hitting left-handed.
“He told me I could take advantage of my speed if I hit from the left side,” said Vizquel. Coming out of the left side, he could have better success on the bunt and could beat out more infield grounders.
In addition, there are four times as many right-handed pitchers as lefties in the majors.
“I never hit from the left side. I never even had it in my mind,” said Vizquel, a native of Venezuela. “When I was in high school I was a home-run hitter. I never thought I needed to hit left-handed.”
He started working with fungoes, then soft-surface balls. He had to adjust to a mirror-opposite perspective and the change of his dominant hand.
“It affected my right-handed hitting. I was kind of lost at the plate. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
But he stayed with it. He worked on it for three weeks and in his first left-handed at-bat in a game he hit a hard ground ball to short. He knew he was on his way.
“I saw the ball better and I started to like it more and more,” Vizquel said.
The Mariners’ hitting instructor, Gene Clines, said, “I can’t think of anyone who made this kind of transition and did as well as he has. It usually takes three or four years before you even get a feel for it. But he’s up there battling major-league pitching already. It’s amazing what he has been able to do.”
In three years, Vizquel has made the transition from strictly right-hand dominance to two-sided confidence.
“It’s natural now. I feel more comfortable left-handed,” he said. “Everyone says I even look better left-handed.”
His development as a switch-hitter accelerated his rise through the system and made Quinones expendable.
“He’s going to be steady in the field and hit in the .275 range. He’s going to be good, an All-Star caliber player,” added Clines.
Vizquel made three errors in the first eight games he has played, not an acceptable pace for a season. But he calls them “stupid errors.”
“On Opening Day (in Oakland), with it on TV, the big scoreboard, all the people and the wave going around, it was exciting just to be on the field,” Vizquel said of his major-league debut. “I couldn’t concentrate. I was nervous that day.”
So he threw the ball into the seats. Two days later, he made a fielding error, then another Sunday.
“(Manager) Jim Lefebvre tells me it’s all right. He gives me confidence,” said Vizquel, who was the best fielding shortstop in both the Midwest and Eastern Leagues.
“I’m not comparing myself to these guys,” he added. “But I think I can play in the major leagues with my glove. I know they need me out there every day to fill Rey’s role. He was a good shortstop.”

Earlier that April of 1989, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported:

At the Seattle Mariners’ headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., early last week, rookie shortstop Omar Vizquel was talking to a reporter about some of the roster cuts that still had to be made.
“I don’t think anything about it because I know where I’m going,” he said. “I’m going to Calgary where I can play everyday.”
The next day, veteran shortstop Rey Quinones sprained his ankle and suddenly Calgary was removed from Vizquel’s immediate travel plans.
He still may wind up with the Triple-A club as early as next week when Quinones is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list, but the quiet, 21-year-old Venezuelan has established himself as the club’s shortstop of the future.
“I didn’t expect to be here and I’m happy for me,” Vizquel said.
Defensively, Vizquel has as much range as Quinones, but his arm isn’t as strong. His throws, however, aren’t as erratic as his Puerto Rican counterpart.
M’s bullpen coach Bill Plummer has watched Vizquel through his development stages, particularly during winter ball in Venezuela, and says the youngster has such good hands “the ball never seems to take a bad hop.”
The first time Plummer saw Vizquel play was in the winter of 1986, two years after he signed as a 16-year-old.
“I was managing the Caracas team and about a week into the season my veteran shortstop wasn’t doing the job,” he recalled. “I knew that Omar was in our (the M’s) organization, so I decided to give him a shot to see what he could do.
“He played the remainder of the season and made only two errors. He handled the position like a pro and we won the Venezuelan league title. You could see he took a lot of pride in what he did and there was a lot of pressure on him playing in front of his countrymen.”
Although his advancement through the organization has been steady, hardly anyone had a clue that the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder would be starting the season with the M’s this year.
It took two events this spring for him to enter the picture: Quinones was late reporting to camp because of a contractual hassle and Mario Diaz sustained a sore right elbow.
“I was the only shortstop left so I got to play a lot,” he said. “I was very relaxed because I had nothing to lose.”
His talents quickly became obvious.
“He’s so smooth,” Lefebvre remarked.
“The reason he’s such a good fielder is because as a kid, he played on some pretty tough diamonds in Venezuela,” Plummer said. “Playing under those conditions has to make you better.”

And in June of ’89, the Seattle Times checked in on Omar again:

Vizquel, barely 22, gives the Mariners everything Rey Quinones didn’t at shortstop. For his age – especially for his age – he is a dependable, cooperative, dedicated and consistent player.
Vizquel plays every day. Against right-handers, left-handers, inside and out. He has been so reliable, so promising – recently even as a hitter – that the Mariners believe they are fixed at shortstop for a decade.
We tend to forget that Vizquel, though capable enough to make Quinones expendable, spent the vast majority of last season in Burlington, Vt., playing Class A ball.
Jim Lefebvre, the rookie manager who currently employs more rookies (eight) than any team in the majors, smiled when asked about his young shortstop.
“When we got to the point of remaking this thing, I said, ‘What the heck, let’s give the kid a chance.’ ”
Although younger, Griffey grew up around major-league baseball.
At one point in the first days of spring practice, Lefebvre asked Griffey how many major-league camps he had attended. Griffey said 12.
He’d been to them with his father.
At a similar time, Vizquel was growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, in the poor neighborhood of Santa Eduvigis.
“We played baseball always,” he said. “We played with a tennis ball. Sometimes we played with a ball made out of socks and tape.”
Baseball is the favored sport in Venezuela. Vizquel’s hero was the same as everyone else’s, Dave Concepcion, No. 13, the shortstop for the world-champion Cincinnati Reds. Now Omar Vizquel wears No. 13.
Marty Martinez, a former Mariner coach, signed Vizquel, who was then 16, to a contract in January of his senior year in high school.
“My parents decided it was a good deal,” said Vizquel. “I didn’t care about money. I just wanted to play baseball.”
Omar’s parents – his father is a technician at an electric company and his mother a kindergarten teacher – made him take a three-month crash course in English before he left for his professional baseball debut, in Butte, Mont.
“My parents told me people wouldn’t speak Spanish at all. They told me, ‘Omar, you’d better listen to those guys when they try to teach you about baseball.’ ”
It is difficult to determine how much being able to speak English helped Vizquel make his way through the minors, but as Lefebvre said, it suggests what kind of person he is, how dedicated he is to improving himself.
In Salinas, Calif., where he played Class A ball, Vizquel volunteered to live with an American family so he would be forced to break away from his Latin friends on the team and the comfort of the Spanish language.
“One of the reasons so many Latin players fail in baseball,” Vizquel said, “is they don’t always understand what they are told, and they can’t tell the coaches and managers how they really feel about things.
“Only about 10 percent of the Latin players take the time to learn English from a teacher.”
Gene Clines, the Mariners’ batting coach, understands the language problem.
“A lot of Latin players will tell you they understand what you’re teaching because they are embarrassed because they don’t,” he said.
Vizquel says it is simply his nature to want to communicate better with people.
“It is my personality, one of my characteristics,” he said as if to show how good his use of the English language had become. “I’m just the kind of person who likes to talk a lot. I’m not very shy.”
A broad, inviting smile is as much a part of Vizquel’s uniform as is Concepcion’s number. Still, playing here when you’re from there is never easy.
“In Butte,” he recalled, “I missed my family so much. I started to cry at night. I didn’t have any advice from my mom. I didn’t even know what to eat. I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ ”
He described his first confrontation with an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, the affordable bailiwick of minor-league players.
“The stuff tasted all right,” he said, “but I just had no idea what it was. I’d never seen any of those things before, especially the salads.
“I just can’t believe this,” said Vizquel, looking around his hotel room in Minneapolis. “I just can’t believe where I am.”

Published in: on April 24, 2012 at 6:09 am  Comments (2)  

A Few Notes on Ozzie Guillen, White Sox Shortstop

In July 1986, Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times profiled Guillen at a time when, as he wrote:

The mere mention of the name “Ozzie” stirs images of a shortstop diving to his right to snag a line drive or ranging far to his left to field a grounder and throw a runner out.

Guys named Ozzie are defensive wizards. They make the spectacular plays seem ordinary. They save as many runs with their gloves as they knock in with their bats.

But with the name comes the responsibility. If your name is Ozzie, you’d better be good.

That’s what the Chicago White Sox organization figured when it packaged second-year shortstop Ozzie Guillen on the cover of its 1986 media guide with former White Sox Hall of Famers Luke Appling and Luis Aparicio.
Guillen was coming off a fine 1985 season that included a .273 batting average, just 12 errors in 150 games, and rookie-of-the-year honors in the American League.

It was Guillen who led all major league shortstops with a .980 fielding percentage last season.

He was at it again Monday night. In the fourth inning, Guillen fielded Rob Wilfong’s one-hop smash to his right and, from the outfield grass, threw Wilfong out.

After Dick Schofield walked, was balked to second and stole third, Bob Boone ripped a grounder that was headed for the hole between Guillen and third baseman Wayne Tolleson, who were playing in. But Guillen dived to his right to stop the ball, got up, and threw Boone out, holding Schofield at third. Ruppert Jones then flied out to end the inning.

With the Angels trailing, 4-3, Wilfong led off the eighth with a shot up the middle, but Guillen fielded it behind second base and threw Wilfong out.

“I saved a few runs and killed some rallies tonight, but no one can see that but management,” Guillen said. “They say Ozzie Smith only has 30 RBIs a year, but they don’t know how much he helps the team with his defense. I can help this team a lot more with my glove than with my bat.”

His bat didn’t hurt Monday night. Guillen, with Chicago trailing, 2-1, cleared the bases with a triple to center field off Kirk McCaskill in the fifth. The ball sailed well over the head of Gary Pettis, who was playing Guillen shallow and toward left-center field.

“I think he played me in a good spot,” said Guillen, who moved from the No. 8 spot in the order to No. 2 when Fregosi became manager eight games ago. “I got lucky and hit the ball in the gap. There was nothing he could do.”

Julio Cruz, Chicago’s second baseman, said: “He has this aura about him. He plays like a guy who has been in the big leagues for 10 years. He has this air of confidence. He’s cocky in his own way, but he doesn’t show it to opponents.”

I don’t remember this cockiness being expressed when Guillen was a player, but then, I wasn’t paying much attention. In March 1986, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson was quoted in a Chicago Sun-Times article:

“Ozzie may be the most unique player I’ve ever encountered in this game, and I’ve encountered all kinds. With Ozzie, it’s, `There’s the field! There’s the ball! Go play!’

“He doesn’t need instruction, but don’t ask me why.”

Looking toward heaven, Harrelson added, “Maybe He said, `I’m going to bless this kid from Venezuela.’ Or maybe his mom and dad had something to do with it.

“Whatever, he’s an enigma, and I use that word in the most positive way. To me, enigma means someone who should be able to do something, but for some reason, can’t or doesn’t. Ozzie already can and does.”

Late in the season, Harrelson said Fernandez was the only league shortstop physically better than Guillen, and he included Detroit’s Alan Trammell and Oakland’s Alfredo Griffen.

“But I wouldn’t trade Ozzie for Fernandez,” Harrelson said. “He has the best over-all talent at shortstop I’ve ever seen.”

Better than Luis Aparicio, whose uncle Ernesto taught Guillen the fine points of shortstop? Off rookie seasons, yes. Aparicio committed 35 errors as a freshman.

“With his skill, instincts and attitude, and with the Good Lord willing, he can only get better,” Harrelson said.

“Suppose you get a shy, retiring type who doesn’t have the confidence Ozzie has,” LaRussa said. “A kind like that would get buried.

“Now take Ozzie. He’s going to be a real treat if he doesn’t change. You know he won’t.”

Sox coach Eddie Brinkman calls Guillen’s freshman year “exceptional.” “To be that poised that young stuns me,” Brinkman said. “Ozzie keeps his feet on the ground when he throws, and he’s accurate from all over the field. Usually, a shortstop going into the hole has to throw in the air, but somehow, Ozzie gets his feet planted.

“It didn’t take him long to learn runners’ speeds, and he knows what to do with the ball before it’s even hit to him. And sneaky? I’ve seen him sneak in behind runners who have no idea he’s there. They never hear him – until it’s too late.”

For all his range and instincts, Guillen does not have a classic shortstop arm. To make up for it, he plays shallower than most.

“I don’t think I ever saw him throw one to first base that wasn’t a rainbow, but somehow, he always got his man,” said Tim Hulett, whose 23 errors at third base almost doubled Guillen’s total.

“Oz can make anybody look good. He brings out the strong points in you. Besides, he loves to play the game. He makes it fun for everyone around him.”

Just before winning his 300th lifetime game last summer, Tom Seaver was asked whom he would think about on the last out. He said his parents and family, some coaches and managers, and Ozzie Guillen.

“The first day of spring training last year, this kid ran up and said, `I’m going to make the last out of your 300th game, and I’m not going to give you the ball.’ And he ran away.

“I didn’t even know who he was, but it didn’t take long to find out.”

A few years later, in 1990, Guillen offered some quotes to the San Diego Union:
“I hope to try to be a matador after my career is over. I want to learn. I don’t know if I have the guts to see the bull in the face and do it. But I just want to dress like that and be in the bullring. Bullfighting is, how do you call, real elegant. It’s something real nice to see.

“A lot of people play third base; it’s tough. You’ve got to be tough to play third base. In the outfield, you’ve got to be big and quick. And catcher, you’ve got to be an animal. To be a pitcher, you’ve got to be mean.”

“Shortstop is kind of nice. You have to do everything relaxed to be good. It’s elegant.”

“Should I be an All-Star? Of course.”

“I can be from the best to worst in one inning, maybe two pitches. I can go out and make plays that Ozzie, me and Templeton can’t even make in the big leagues and then, after that, they hit me a ground ball anybody can catch and I miss it.

“I like volleyball better than baseball when I grow up. That’s why I make so many errors then, because I really don’t care about baseball that much.”

Finally, there’s this interesting note in the Chicago Sun-Times of July 14, 1991:

White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen can’t become a free agent until after the 1993 season. But he knows where he would go if he could.

“If there’s any place I want to go if I leave Chicago, Miami would be the first one,” the All-Star shortstop said.

Miami will start play in 1993 as a National League expansion team and Guillen, the native Venezuelan, says the area has very good Latin American ties.

“It’s too early to talk about (leaving) right now,” he said. “That is in (board chairman) Jerry Reinsdorf’s hands. I feel comfortable in Chicago, but when you’re in baseball, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Published in: on April 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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