Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Terrible Tigers of 2003

If you've picked up a copy of Cellar Dwellers, you may have had a chance to review Chapter 13, which recounts the exploits of the abominable Tiger squad of 2003. The team sputtered to a 43-119 record, narrowly missing the all-time mark for losses in a 162-game season. They were so bad, the VP in charge of roster management griped: "I was confident that I would be able to succeed in this organization. Then I looked at the roster...It was like being a kid in a candy store, except the store was full with candy nobody liked, like 800 year-old Tootsie Rolls that old guys would hand out on Halloween. Heck,that old guy probably could have made the team...I wanted to cry when I called Alan (Trammell) to let him know what we had to work with that year."

Grant Brisbee of the popular website SB Nation, more or less echoed those sentiments, commenting: "They were like a participant in the World Baseball Classic from a country that you didn't know played baseball. Luxembourg? Well, Okay. Astoundingly bad. Once in a generation bad."

As the season wore on, players themselves stopped believing in the team. After a humiliating string of defeats, first baseman Carlos Pena griped to reporters: "It's mind boggling. I would say, out of luck, somebody on the team would be contributing." Outfielder Bobby Higginson became equally frustrated, telling one writer: "We're a bad club right now. Nobody's helping us out." Veteran Dean Palmer felt the strain as well. "Everybody young and old feels responsible for this. And whether you're a rookie or a guy toward the end of your career, this feels awful."

Just how awful was it? Grab a copy of Cellar Dwellers and read more about it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

More Cellar Dwellers

In my first post back in August, I promised I would share some unpublished notes from my book, Cellar Dwellers. Since then, I have veered away from that pledge to an extent, but I would now like to add two teams to the ranks of baseball's all-time worst squads: the 1889 Louisville Colonels and the 1898 St. Louis Browns. I considered including both in the "Dishonorable Mention" chapter of Cellar Dwellers, but decided against it. Why? Well, because the Colonels played in the American Association and I was limiting my survey to National and American League clubs. The Browns were already mentioned (though briefly) in the book's second chapter, which covers the plight of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. At any rate, if Cellar Dwellers ever makes it to a second printing, I will be sure to add both clubs to the book's final chapter. Here are some fast facts about both teams.

The 1889 LOUISVILE COLONELS were managed by four different men that year, among them Dude Esterbrook and Chicken Wolf (gotta love the monikers of the 1800's). The team played 138 games, losing 111 of them and finishing 66.5 games out of first place. Their longest losing streak was an incredible 26 games and lasted for entire month. The man with the funny name--Chicken Wolf--was the most productive player on the squad, hitting .291 with 72 runs scored and 57 runs batted-in. Phil Tomney was the team's weakest link with 114 errors in 112 games, which may or may not be some kind of record (I haven't had a chance to look it up). He didn't help his cause with a bat much either, hitting .213 overall. Tomney played much better the following year for Louisville then defected to a team in Lincoln. He died in the spring of 1892 from a lung infection.

The 1898 ST. LOUIS BROWNS were managed by the colorful Tim Hurst, who had been fired from his NL umpiring job the previous year after he threw a beer stein into the stands and hit a fan in the head, opening a nasty cut. He would later be fired by the American League for spitting in the face of A's star second baseman Eddie Collins. Hurst's jaunt into managing wasn't terribly successful as he led the club to a 39-111 record, 63.5 games out of the running. About the only bright spot for the Browns that year was third baseman Lave Cross, who hit .317 while driving in 79 runs. Right-hander Kid Carsey was a candidate for least valuable player with a 2-12 record and 6.33 ERA in 25 games. He may or may not have been on the mound during the Browns most lopsided loss of the season, a 14-1 thrashing at the hands of the Colonels on July 27. To find out what happened to the Browns in 1899, one needs only to purchase a copy of my book.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Unorthodox Deliveries

Inspired by my last post, in which I became fixated upon unusual batting stances, I feel compelled to discuss the most unique pitching styles I've ever seen. Here are a few of my favorites:

LUIS TIANT: Reggie Jackson once commented that Tiant was the "Fred Astaire of Baseball." The Cuban-born right-hander used a quirky wind-up (which featured a series of head bobs and glove wags) with a pirouette dielivery, turning his back completely on the batter before wheeling around for the release. "The motion depends on how I think the batter is thinking," Tiant told writers one day."You can't use it too much or they will get used to it." Immensely popular among teammates and fans, Tiant won 229 games, mostly for the Red Sox, between 1964 and 1982.

MARK FIDRYCH: Rookie of the Year in 1976, Fidrych was one of the most unusual characters ever to pitch in the majors. Sensitive to the plight of each ball, the Tiger staff ace would often request new ones from umpires, believing that the old ones still "had hits in them" and needed to mix with fellow baseballs to "get right" again. Tall and lanky with blonde curly hair, he was nicknamed"The Bird" after a Sesame Street character. On the mound, he exhibited a host of odd behaviors, talking to balls and grooming the dirt with his bare hands.  An arm injury in '77 reduced his effectiveness and ended his career prematurely. An unfortunate farm accident ended his life prematurely in 2009.

AL HRABOSKY: Nicknamed "The Mad Hungarian," Hrabosky was an intimidating figure on the hill. Before facing each batter, he would walk to the back of the mound and meditate. When he was finished, he would slam the ball into his mitt as if he were furious with the hitter. Primarily a relief pitcher, he won 64% of his lifetime decisions and saved 97 games. "My goal when I'm on the road is to get a standing boo," he once said.

HIDEO NOMO: 'Fluid' is not a word to describe the pitching motion of Hideo Nomo. During the windup, he raised his arms so far above his head he resembled a contortionist. He would then twirl around with his back to the plate before feeding hitters a steady diet of heaters and forkballs. The entire routine was a series of abrupt starts and stops--as if someone were controlling him with a TV remote. Nomo became the second Japanese hurler to make it to the majors (after Masanari Murakami in 1964) when his agent exploited a loophole in his contract with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1995, but paid the price when his family disowned him for "shaming them" by defecting to the States.

KENT TEKULVE: Out of uniform, Tekulve would scarcely have been recognized as an athlete. At 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, he looked like a contemporary version of Ichabod Crane. Appearanes were deceiving as the gangly fireman with the tinted glasses kept hitters on their heels for 16 seasons with his unique slingshot delivery. What I remember most about him is that he threw from such a low angle, his knuckles appeared to scrape the ground on every pitch. By the time he retired in 1989, the durable side-winder had saved 184 games and led the Pirates to a World Championship.

FERNANDO VALENZUELA: A lefty screwball specialist, Valenzuela became famous for gazing toward the sky during his windup. His delivery was puncuated with a leg kick that appeared awkward because of his husky build. A Mexican import, Fernando didn't speak much English, but his appeal was universal. He smiled a lot and when he did, his pudgy face seemed almost cherubic. By the time he received Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors in 1981, the jovial southpaw had given birth to a craze known as "Fernandomania."

ORLANDO HERNANDEZ: Anyone attending a game in which "El Duque" was the starter hopefully had plenty of time on their hands. The Cuban defector and former Yankee star was a notoriously slow worker, holding up games with a variety of tactics that included shaking off signs, throwing repeatedly to first and fixing imagined wardrobe malfunctions. If that wasn't enough to throw off a batter's timing, he would request new balls from umpires and ask to speak to his catcher. When he was finally ready to throw, he would bring his knee all the way up to his chin before releasing an assortment of sloppy curves and sliders. At one point, he was among the most successful pitchers in postseason history with an 8-0 record and a microscopic ERA.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Peculiar Batting Stances

As a kid playing recreational baseball in the backyards of Schenectady, New York, I would often imitate the various hitting styles of major league players. Batting stances are like fingerprints in that no two are exactly alike. Some are designed to intimidate or distract pitchers it seems while others arise from various mechanical weaknesses at the plate. Whatever the case, as a child of the '70's, I have seen some memorable batting stances in 40 years of following baseball. Here are some that come to mind:

MICKEY RIVERS: Nicknamed "Mick the Quick," Rivers had blazing speed at the top of the order yet hobbled around as if nursing sore hamstrings when he wasn't running the bases or tracking flies in center field. Best known for his time with the pennant-winning Yankee clubs of the late-'70's, he hit from a crouched position, wiggling the bat and shuffling his feet restlessly. His signature move was the twirling of his bat like a baton after he had swung through a pitch or fouled one off, a maneuver convincingly imitated by Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz years later.

JOEMORGAN: The Hall of Fame second baseman was known for flapping his left arm at the plate as if he were performing a modified version of the Chicken Dance. He won two MVP awards and helped guide the Reds to numerous World Series appearances during his long, productive career. He once said of his famous batting quirk: "It became a habit where I wasn't even aware I was doing it."

DWIGHT EVANS: Evans was dubbed "the Man of a Thousand Stances" because he was always tinkering with his mechanics. Hit by a pitch early in his career, he suffered from vertigo afterward and called upon Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hirniak to help him get comfortable at the plate. Before the windup, Evans would assume a knock-kneed position with the bat resting on his back and his hands on his right shoulder. Before the pitch was released, he would lean back and stretch outward, extending the bat above his head. This ungainly practice aided him in the collection of nearly 2,500 career hits.

JOHN WOCKENFUSS: His batting style was as weird as his name. The long-time Detroit backup catcher stood pigeon-toed at the plate with his back to the pitcher and fingers wiggling nervously on the bat as if it were a musical instrument. In his finest offensive campaign, (1980) he hit 16 homers and drove in 65 runs.

JEFF BAGWELL: Astros' hitting instructor Tom McCraw once said of Bagwell's cock-eyed stance: "It's something I've never seen in 40 years of baseball." Bagwell's exaggerated crouch with splayed legs and bent knees gave one the impression that he was riding an invisible horse at the plate. He made this awkward pose work for fifteen years, becoming one of few players with 1,500 runs scored and 1,500 RBI's.

That is just a small sampling. I could go on and on. If anyone out there has any favorites of their own, I would love to hear from you.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Nothing Like the Real Thing

Well, it's all over but the shouting for Yankee fans. On their way to being swept in the ALCS by the Tigers, the punchless New Yorkers managed just 2 runs in a 30-inning stretch. The most disappointing performance belonged to someone other than A-Rod for a change as Robinson Cano, arguably the club's best hitter when he's in a groove, managed just 1 hit in 18 at-bats against Detroit hurlers. While engaged in a lively water cooler discussion at work, a comrade of mine suggested that Yankee hitters may have been equally effective with Wiffle Ball bats in their hands. I assured him that this had indeed happened before.

In a 1982 exhibition game against the Padres, A's skipper Billy Martin sent pitcher Steve McCatty to the plate holding a 15-inch toy bat. Martin was unhappy with Major League Baseball's decision to ban designated hitters in NL parks during spring training that year and decided to lodge an unofficial protest. The toy was deemed inappropriate by plate umpire Jim Quick and McCatty struck out on three pitches.

Arguably, it was not the most unusual implement ever carried to the plate. Detroit infielder Norm Cash once stepped to the dish to face Nolan Ryan with a table leg he had acquired from the Tiger clubhouse. When umpire Ron Luciano told him to grab a more suitable piece of wood, Cash protested: "I can't hit him with a regular bat." He wasn't exaggerating as Ryan tossed a no-hitter that day.

...How's that for futility?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Epic Postseason Fails

It's an all too familiar scene in the Bronx: As the weather gets cooler and the leaves fall, so does Alex Rodriguez's batting average. At the close of play on Sunday, the man they call "A-Fraud" in some circles was hitting .130 in 6 playoff games and getting booed regularly by fans. Given his salary, it's difficult to feel sorry for the guy. But it's not as if he's the only October flop in history. Go ahead and look it up. In fact, you don't even have to go as far back as Buckner's infamous error in the '86 Series or Ty Cobb's failure to deliver in the 1907 Fall Classic.

In the 2011 World Series, when the Cardinals edged the Rangers 4 games to 3, Matt Holliday pulled a major disappearing act. The slugging left fielder had cracked at least 24 homers and reached the century mark in RBI's during 4 of the previous 6 seasons. He hit .158 in the Series with just 1 run scored and no ribbies.

In 2010, when the Giants rolled over the Rangers in 5 games, Pat Burrell was an offensive no show for San Francisco. A highly productive left fielder, Burrell had collected at least 30 long balls on four occasions between 2002 and 2008. In the 2010 postseason, he consistently failed to even put the ball in play, going 0 for 13 with 11 strikeouts. He performed so abominably, he was benched during Game 4.

In 2009, when the Yankees disposed of the Phillies in 6 games, it was Ryan Howard's turn to play the goat. Philly's big bopper, who had smashed 45 homers while leading the National League with 141 RBI's, gathered just 4 hits while striking out 13 times. He was in good company. In the winner's corner, Nick Swisher and Mark Texeira were a study in futility, collectively going 5 for 37 at the plate for a .135 mark.

By no means am I defending A-Rod. He gets paid an obscene amount of money to wave feebly at pitches in October. I'm just saying he's not even unique. Instead of showering him with contempt, fans should save their energy and treat him with depraved indifference. That's the opposite of love, folks. Every time the game's preeminent choke master strolls to the plate, you should be able to hear a pin drop in the Bronx.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Like Stevie Wonder Said... (The Final Chapter)

What a grind to be a Cubs' fan...
The last time they won a World Series, Theo Roosevelt was president and the Model T Ford had just been introduced. They've had their chances since 1908. They've been to the postseason on more than a dozen occasions and come out on the losing end each time. At this point, most reasonably informed fans have heard the one about the disgruntled tavern owner who was kicked out of Wrigley Field for bringing his goat to a 1945 World Series game. The curse he placed on the team allegedly still persists despite numerous attempts to drive it away. And just when things were looking up, the club got jinxed again. Ahead of the Mets by nine and a half games in early-August of '69, the lead began to slowly evaporate. During an important series of games between the two teams at Wrigley Field, a black cat that lived beneath the stands wandered in front of the Cubs' dugout in broad daylight. The Mets swept the series and stole the pennant. The Cubs would wait another 15 years to gain entry into the playoffs.

Another curse that has garnered some attention in recent years is the Sports Illustrated cover photo jinx. In 2002, researchers determinded that 37 % of all featured cover subjects had experienced "a demonstrable misfortune or decline in performance" following a cover appearance. This unfortunate run of bad luck allegedly began with Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who hurt his hand shortly after gracing the cover of the magazine in 1954. Other players who have been afflicted include Nolan Ryan (who lost 8 consecutive decisions after a '75 cover shoot), Matt Williams (who broke his foot immediately following a '95 appearance) and Nomar Garciaparra (who ripped a tendon in his wrist days after posing shirtless in 2001). A total of 2,456 issues were surveyed from a 47-year period, revealing 916 "jinxes." And though a reasonable explanation has been offered by non-believers since the 2002 study took place, the curse appears to be alive and well nevertheless (at least in the realms of baseball).

--Shortly after appearing in April of 2004, Cubs' hurler Kerry Wood was diagnosed with tendinitis. He missed more than 10 starts that year and had a sub-par season overall.

--Ken Griffey Jr. bravely agreed to a cover shoot in June of 2004. He ruptured a hamstring a few weeks later and missed the remainder of the season.

--Generally considered to be among the most promising young pitchers in the majors, Dontrelle Willis was photographed in spring training of '07. He suffered through the worst campaign of his career to that point and never returned to previous form.

--Posing for a photograph in June of ''07, Mets' manager Willie Randolph watched his team collapse down the stretch, squandering a 7-game lead to the Phillies. He was fired the following year.

--Philly southpaw Cole Hamels appeared in February of '09 then performed inconsistently all year. MVP of the World Series and NLCS in '08, he was an October flop in '09, allowing 16 earned runs in 19 innings of work.

--Numerous cover subjects have been embroiled in steroid scandals since 2002. They include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

And that is just a small sampling. Check it out for yourself and you'll see.
Have a happy and safe Halloween season everyone!!!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Like Stevie Wonder Said... (Part II)

As I stated in my last post, baseball players are among the most superstitious athletes in all of sports. For instance, the '34 Cardinals (a.k.a. "The Gashouse Gang") refused to change their uniforms when they were on a winning streak, creating a fragrant environment for reporters time and again as they captured a world championship that year. There are some who carried their belief in omens and luck to an even further extreme.

A series of arm injuries in the late-'30's/ early-'40's kept Tigers' hurler Schoolboy Rowe in search of any help he could get. This included wearing amulets, charms and placing a rabbit's foot in his pocket. He also considered his wife Edna a good luck charm, keeping her as close to him as possible. The extent to which this affected his lifetime victory total can never be accurately determined.

White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso, a seven-time All-Star during the 1950's, held a firm belief in the occult. One day, after a particularly fruitless effort at the plate, he showered in full uniform to "wash away evil spirits." When he followed with a multi-hit game, several of his teammates soaped up with their clothes on as well.

Rangers' first baseman Mike Hargrove was referred to as "The Human Rain Delay" during the '70's and '80's because of his peculiar ritual at the plate, which was deeply rooted in superstition. Before each pitch, he would walk up the first baseline and take three swings. Once in the batter's box, he would pluck at his uniform in numerous places, wipe sweat from his brow with his elbow, dig a hole with his left foot and tap his helmet. If a pitcher began his windup before Hargrove was finished, the eccentric first-sacker would call for time and start over again.

Wade Boggs, a five-time AL batting champ, was another proponent of rituals. During baseball season, he would wake at the same time every morning and eat the same pre-game meal of chicken, a habit that earned him the nickname "Chicken Man" from teammate Jim Rice. Before each at-bat, Boggs would trace the Hebrew word "chai" in the dirt, which literally means "life."

An effective reliever for the Mets and Cubs, Turk Wendell was perhaps the most superstitious man ever to grace the diamond. Wendell exhibited a host of odd compulsions such as brushing his teeth between innings, chewing black licorice, drawing three crosses in the dirt and waving at his center fielder before his first  pitch. He also wore a necklace made of teeth and claws from animals he had slain while hunting. His luck finally ran out in 2004 when he compiled a 7.02 ERA for the Rockies.
In my next installment, we will discuss a pair of ongoing curses. (Not the one involving Babe Ruth--That one was more or less debunked in '04 when the Red Sox won the World Series.)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Like Stevie Wonder Said... (Part I)

With Halloween just around the corner, there's no better time to talk about superstitions, which have become firmly embedded in baseball culture over the years. Some players will do just about anything to gain that competitive edge--from turning their pockets inside out during a slump to avoiding foul lines when stepping onto the field. Here is the first installment in a continuing series about players past and present who have been known to go to extremes with their superstitious practices:
Hall of Fame outfielder Sam Crawford (who played with the Reds and Tigers from 1899 to 1917) relied heavily upon “lucky” trinkets. As legend has it, Crawford gave teammate Harry Heilmann quite a scare as the two were riding to a home game one day. While stopped at a traffic light, Crawford hopped out of the car and was nearly run over as he frantically searched for an item left on the ground. Assuming it must be something important, Heilmann got out to help as angry drivers sounded their horns and careened around him. “Got It!” Crawford exclaimed suddenly, holding a hair pin. “Don’t you know that?" He said to Heilmann, "A lady’s hairpin means a two-base hit!”

Pepper Martin (sparkplug of the 1934 "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals) also believed that hairpins brought good luck and, when a pair of well-meaning reporters deliberately dumped a bunch of them in the lobby of  a Cincinnati hotel to give Martin a mental boost, outfielder Joe Medwick showed up first and started scooping them up. When beat writer Roy Stockton explained who the items were for, Medwick allegedly barked: "To hell with Martin! Let him find his own hairpins!"
For eighteen seasons, a man named Alexander George Washington Rivers served as Ty Cobb’s personal assistant and Detroit's team mascot. He was also entrusted with the task of “massaging good luck” into the bats of Tiger players. An expert on the topic of bad omens, he advised against the use of broken cups or plates and encouraged players to avoid looking at cross-eyed people on Mondays, which, according to Rivers, would result in "dead bad luck all week." 

 During the 1933 slate, Braves’ slugger Wally Berger adopted the peculiar habit of seeking out a particular refreshment steward (a young African American fellow named Jim Walton) before home games and rubbing the man’s head for luck. Berger hit .309 with 41 extra-base hits and 54 RBI's in 76 home games that season.
Many years later, Derek Jeter developed a similar relationship with Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer. From his earliest days in the majors, Jeter took to rubbing Zimmer’s bald dome before plate appearances. The paternal Zimmer even tolerated having his belly patted by the iconic shortstop and his shins pelted with soft tosses during infield drills. During Zimmer's eight years as bench coach, Jeter captured Rookie of the Year honors, scored 100 or more runs in 7 straight seasons and gathered 190 or more hits six times.
We'll continue to explore the topic of superstitions in baseball as Halloween draws closer...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Adam Greenberg and Novelty At-Bats in the Majors

Adam Greenberg, a once promising prospect, made his big league debut with the Cubs on July 9, 2005. He was hit in the back of the head by a Valerio De Los Santos fastball in his first at-bat and sustained a concussion. The after-effects dampened his major league hopes as he suffered from headaches, vertigo and vision problems for nearly two years. He eventually returned to action in the independent Atlantic League, but was never considered a serious candidate for big league reinstatement--until recently.

Thanks to an on-line campaign labled "One At Bat," the Marlins--in the midst of one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history--signed Greenberg to a 1-day contract as a pinch-hitter. The Cinderella story ended anticlimactically as Greenberg struck out on three pitches from Mets' knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. But the 31 year-old Greenberg received a warm ovation from an appreciative crowd and got to live out his big league fantasy if only for a day.

Greenberg's plate appearance calls to mind various other novelty at-bats from the past.

In 1935, a nightclub entertainer named Kitty Burke was allowed to bat against Paul "Daffy" Dean of the Cardinals during an oversold game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. After grounding Dean's underhand toss back to the mound, she disappeared back into the crowd where she came from.

In perhaps the most bizarre episode in diamond history, a 3-foot-7, 65-pound circus performer named Eddie Gaedel was sent to the plate for the St. Louis Browns during the 1951 slate. Looking to boost sagging ticket sales, owner Bill Veeck allowed Gaedel to pinch-hit for Frank Saucier while wearing the number 1/8 on his jersey. Gaedel drew a four pitch walk from Tigers' hurler Bob Cain then was immediately replaced with a pinch-runner.

With the White Sox out of playoff contention and well-below the .500 mark during the 1980 campaign, Minnie Minoso became the third oldest player (at 54 years of age) to appear in the majors when he entered the last two games of the season on October 4th and 5th. He failed to reach base safely in 2 pinch-hitting assignments, but established himself as just the second player in history to make a major league appearance in five decades.