Saturday, March 25, 2017

MEMORABLE OPENING DAY HAPPENINGS



Opening day of the major league season is among the most anticipated events in all of sports. It marks the arrival of spring and the beginning of a new chapter in baseball history. It’s a day filled with hope and promise. Even the worst teams start out with a clean record. And the most obscure players can have a major impact. As a collective unit, the American and National Leagues will celebrate their 114th anniversary in 2017. To honor the occasion, I’ve compiled a short list of remarkable opening day events.




1907

With the Giants trailing the Phillies 3-0 at the Polo Grounds, fans begin to wander onto the field while the game is in progress. Other unruly spectators participate in a massive snowball fight, forcing umpire Bill Klem to declare a forfeit in favor of Philadelphia. Another point of interest, Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan becomes the first major league catcher to wear shin guards during a game. He is widely ridiculed for it.

 

1915

A’s southpaw Herb Pennock holds the Red Sox hitless for 8.2 innings. With two outs in the ninth, Boston’s speedy right fielder Harry Hooper beats out a high chopper for an infield hit, spoiling Pennock’s no-hit bid. The Hall of Fame hurler settles for a 1-hit shutout.    



1923

After sharing the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants for a decade, the Yankees open their new stadium for business. Fittingly, Babe Ruth is the first player to go deep, thrilling the crowd of 74,000-plus with a moon shot off of Red Sox starter Howard Ehmke. For Ruth, it’s the 198th home run of his career. Including the postseason, he’ll add 530 more before he retires.  



1940

Bob Feller picks up where Herb Pennock left off 25 years earlier, going 8.2 innings without yielding a hit to the White Sox. With two-outs in the bottom of the ninth, former batting champ Luke Appling draws a walk. But Feller bears down and retires right fielder Taffy Wright on an easy grounder to second base. It’s the first opening day no-hitter in history. The feat has not been duplicated since. 



1946

In preparation for their home opener, the grounds crew at Braves Field applies a fresh coat of red paint to the outfield bleachers. Unfortunately, damp weather prevents the paint from drying completely. Hundreds of disgruntled fans go home with crimson stains on their clothes, obligating the Braves to cover dry-cleaning costs. The game ends well for the hometown crew as they walk away with a 5-3 win.



1947

Ignoring multiple death threats, Jackie Robinson appears at first base for the Dodgers, officially breaking the Major League color barrier. More than 26,000 fans at Ebbets Field watch the “Bums” beat the Boston Braves, 5-3. Robinson scores the first run of his career and handles 11 chances without an error.  



1974

On his first swing of the season, Hank Aaron takes Reds starter Jack Billingham deep, tying him with Babe Ruth for the all-time home run lead. Four days later, Aaron will club #715 off of Al Downing, becoming baseball’s reigning home run king.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

MY UPCOMING BOOK RELEASE



For years, I have felt that the contributions of Latino ballplayers have been largely overlooked. My latest book gives more than 140 Latin American standouts due credit for their accomplishments. It's called Latino Stars in Major League Baseball and is scheduled for a June release. I'm posting the introduction here to give potential readers a feel for what it's all about. 



Some of the best players in major league history were born outside the United States. According to an ESPN article, Latin American ballplayers held twenty-seven percent of all major league contracts and forty percent of all minor league contracts in 2013. In fact, Latino players represent one of the fastest growing ethnicities in baseball. But the road to “The Show” has not been easy for many.
            MLB’s dreaded color barrier prevented many of the greatest players of all time from competing on baseball’s grandest stage. Though Cuban luminaries Cristobal Torriente, Martin Dihigo and Jose Mendez were all elected to Cooperstown, none of them saw major league action. The abolishment of the color barrier did little to alleviate other problems faced by Latin American ballplayers. Many grow up in poverty using improvised materials (such as milk cartons for gloves and tree branches for bats) to learn the rudiments of the game. Language barriers leave many feeling isolated and misunderstood once they reach America.
            Recognizing the depth of the talent pool in Venezuela, major league teams began establishing training camps there during the 1990s. At one point, twenty-three major league clubs had set up operations. But by 2016, only four camps remained. Economic troubles, political unrest, food shortages and rising crime rates have made it difficult for the surviving facilities to function.
            An entirely different dilemma is faced by players from Cuba, where the communist government prohibits prospects from signing with major league teams. Desperate to realize their dreams, many players risk life and limb escaping the country. Dodger outfielder Yasiel Puig was held hostage by the criminals who smuggled him out of Cuba. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu nearly drowned in fifteen foot waves.  
            The struggles faced by numerous Latin American players make their stories all the more triumphant. And as the diversity of baseball continues to grow, the quality of play is enhanced exponentially. At the time of this writing, there were ten Latino players enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Many others have played on major league All-Star teams, led their respective leagues in various statistical categories, won prestigious awards and guided their clubs to the postseason. The most succesful Latino stars are profiled on the pages that follow.   

Saturday, February 25, 2017

THINGS I'LL BE WATCHING IN 2017



  
Can the Cubs Do it Again?
Now that they’ve broken baseball’s longest standing curse, there are plenty of people wondering if it’s going to be another hundred years before the Cubs capture a World Series title. This seems highly unlikely. The team is relatively young and last year’s roster remains intact (for the most part). Power-hitting prospect Kyle Schwarber is expected to fill the hole left by the departure of center fielder Dexter Fowler. Aside from that, there are few question marks this year. Have no fear Wrigley Field faithful! The Cubs should definitely contend again in 2017.


Baseball’s New Loveable Losers
The Cleveland Indians have taken over as major league baseball’s longest suffering franchise. They’re on a roll with four consecutive World Series losses dating back to 1954. The last time the Indians emerged victorious in a Fall Classic, Harry Truman was President and the cost of a new car was just over $1,200.  But there’s reason to be optimistic. Like the Cubs, the defending American League champions are a young team with an intact roster. In fact, they look even better this year with Andrew Miller anchoring the bullpen and Edwin Encarnacion signed as a DH. Carlos Santana will take over for Mike Napoli (lost to free agency) at first base and the transition should be seamless. Not only is Santana a decent fielder, but he reached career-high marks in nearly every offensive category last year.  The Tribe will almost certainly have another good run in 2017.


Pujols Securing His Legacy
With sixteen years of major league service behind him, Albert Pujols has distinguished himself as one of the greatest hitters of a generation. This year, he is poised to join the 600 home run club—a milestone reached by only eight other players before him (three of which have been linked to steroids). Another 100 RBI campaign will tie Pujols with Alex Rodriguez for the most seasons reaching the century mark (14).  


Beltre’s Quiet Ascension to Greatness
One of the best players no one ever talks about, Beltre needs 58 more base hits to join the 3,000 hit club. Barring a major injury or statistical collapse, he should also reach 600 career doubles and 1,500 runs scored. Those numbers compare favorably to every third basemen currently in the Hall of Fame. Additionally, Beltre will be going for his sixth Gold Glove—a feat matched by only six other players at his position.


The Ageless Wonder
In November, right-hander Bartolo Colon signed a one-year contract with the Atlanta Braves worth over $12 million. It will be interesting to see if he has anything left in the tank. At forty-three, the Dominican control specialist is the oldest player in the major leagues. 10 more wins in 2017 will tie him with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. 15 victories will move him into the top fifty of all time behind Cooperstown incumbents Vic Willis and Bob Gibson. Colon is a savvy player and has developed a sense of humor about himself that is contagious. It’s fun to root for the old guys!

Monday, February 6, 2017

NED GARVER'S REMARKABLE 1951 SEASON



 In the early part of the twentieth century, only four pitchers reached the 20-win mark while playing for last place teams.



1901- Noodles Hahn Cincinnati Reds (22-19)

1918- Scott Perry Philadelphia A’s (20-19)

1923- Howard Ehmke  Philadelphia A’s (20-17)

1924- Sloppy Thurston White Sox (20-14)



In 1951, Ned Garver pulled off the impossible, becoming the first and only pitcher to post 20 wins for a club that lost more than 100 games. He accomplished this unusual feat while playing for the lowly St. Louis Browns. At the time, the Browns were owned by Bill Veeck, a self-proclaimed “hustler” who often resorted to wild publicity stunts in order to draw fans to the ballpark. In his most famous gag, Veeck sent a 3-foot-7 circus performer named Eddie Gaedel to the plate to face Tigers hurler Bob Cain. Ned Garver was the Browns’ most reliable pitcher in 1951 and Veeck knew it. “There was almost nothing Ned could do to get knocked out of a game short of allowing ten runs in the first inning,” Veeck remarked in his 1962 autobiography. “We’d take him out then so we could start him again in a day or two.”

            
 Highly durable, Garver worked at least ten innings in a game on seventeen occasions. A finesse pitcher, he used various arm slots to produce an assortment of curve balls and sliders. He was an excellent hitter, compiling a .258 batting average and .328 on-base percentage over portions of five seasons with the Browns. In 1951, he put forth his finest all around effort, hitting .305 with 5 extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. By the All-Star break, he had won 11 games. In stark contrast, the Browns had lost 52 and were sitting 25 games out of first place. Despite the lackluster play of his teammates, Garver had 15 wins to his credit by the end of August. Under strict orders from Bill Veeck, St. Louis manager Zack Taylor started Garver every fourth day and left him on the mound for as long as possible. Garver made 8 starts in September and was the pitcher of record in all of them. From September 7 through September 30, he logged 6 consecutive complete games, leading the league in that category for the second year in a row. On the last day of the season, he gave up 11 hits and 2 walks to the White Sox yet still managed to record his twentieth win. The Browns finished with a 52-102 record. 

 In August of '52, Garver was traded to the Tigers in a deal involving eight players. He finished with double digit win totals five more times before retiring. Because he spent the majority of his career with lackluster clubs, he posted a lifetime .451 winning percentage. During his time in St. Louis, he accounted for 22 percent of the team's total victories.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

HOT STOVE HAPPENINGS

TOP FREE AGENTS AND WHERE THEY ARE HEADED IN 2017


YOENIS CESPEDES

Cespedes has collected no fewer than 22 homers and 80 RBIs in each of his five seasons in the majors. He was the driving force in the Mets lineup until a quadriceps injury kept him out for two weeks last year. He returned to action in late-August, finishing with 31 long balls and 86 RBIs. The Mets waited until November 29th to sign him to a four-year contract worth an average of $27.5 million per year. 

EDWIN ENCARNACION

Encarnacion has been among the most reliable sluggers in the AL over the last five seasons. In that span, he has averaged 39 homers and 110 RBIs. In 2016, he led the AL with 127 runs batted in. Even so, the Blue Jays didn't feel he was worth the investment. The Indians ended up signing him on January 5th for an average of $18.7 million per year over the next four seasons. 

CHRIS SALE

A left-hander, Sale has spent his entire seven-year career with the White Sox. Since 2012, he has posted a 70-47 record while leading the league twice in complete games. The five-time All-Star signed a three-year contract with the Red Sox in early-December, joining a pitching staff that is already one  of the best in the majors.

MARK TRUMBO

Trumbo is the American League's reigning home run king, having launched 47 bombs last year. On the downside, he struck out a whopping 170 times and posted a mediocre .316 on-base percentage. Perhaps that's why the Orioles waited until January 20th to meet his salary demands (3 years $37.5 million). The Rangers were said to be seriously pursuing Trumbo before then. 

JOSE BAUTISTA

Bautista was on target for another 30 homer 100 RBI season before losing time to multiple injuries in 2016. When healthy, he can slug with the best of them and draws a lot of walks. On January 18th, the Blue Jays decided it would be best not to let Bautista go, re-signing their perennial fan favorite to a multi-year contract with mutual options. 

IAN DESMOND

Desmond has been one of the top offensive shortstops in the majors for seven years now. In 2016, he had one of his finest seasons ever, reaching career-highs in runs scored (107) and runs batted in (86). Mixing speed with power, he has captured three Silver Slugger Awards and played on two All-Star teams. In mid-December, the Rockies took advantage of his availability, signing him through 2021. The thin air in Colorado can only serve to pad his numbers.

AROLDIS CHAPMAN

Chapman's 100-plus mph fastball made a nice addition to the Cubs bullpen in July of 2016. Chapman saved 16 games down the stretch, helping Chicago break a World Series curse spanning more than a century. In December, the Yankees decided they wanted him back, inking a five-year deal worth $17.2 million per year.

JUSTIN TURNER
    
 Turner is among the most productive third baseman in the majors. He had a breakout season with the Dodgers in 2014, accruing a robust .340 average in 109 games. He hasn't come close to matching that figure since, but he reached career-high marks with 34 doubles, 27 homers and 90 RBIs in 2016. He spent well over a month on the free agent market before the Dodgers locked down his contract through 2020. 

KENLEY JANSEN

A mountain of a man at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, Jansen had his best season ever in 2016, gathering 47 saves--second only to Jeurys Familia of the Mets. Jansen also recorded an impressive 1.83 ERA in 71 appearances. Despite those numbers, he remained a free agent until January 10th, when the Dodgers finally made him an offer he could not refuse (5 years $80 million).

BARTOLO COLON

Colon has averaged 15 wins per year over the last four seasons. He posted a 3.43 ERA last year and came close to the 200 inning mark at the age of forty-three. A smart, savvy right-hander, Colon signed with the Braves in Mid-November, leaving behind a legion of fans in New York.  

R.A. DICKEY

Knuckleballers are a dying breed. And despite Dickey's sub-par performance in 2016 (10-15/ 4.46 ERA), the Braves have much to gain by adding him to their rotation. A change of scenery might be just what the veteran right-hander needs. During his three previous seasons in the National League, he posted a 39-28 record with an ERA of 2.95.   

DEXTER FOWLER

Fowler was a key ingredient in the Cubs success last season. When he sustained a hamstring injury in late-July, the team hit a rough patch until his return. The highly regarded Fowler hits, runs and fields well. He seems to be getting better with age, making his first All-Star appearance last year at 30 years old. In early-December, the Cardinals signed him to a five-year contract.