Sunday, July 27, 2014

Morgan and Maddux share deep Las Vegas baseball roots

Mike Morgan knew him when he was just a fan in the stands. Morgan was the star pitcher at Las Vegas’ Valley High School in 1978, striking out 111 batters in 72 innings, while positing a miniscule 0.68 ERA. This magical performance led to the Oakland Athletics drafting Morgan fourth overall in that summer’s draft. Watching him from the crowd when he was building his legend was Greg Maddux.

“I knew him at 11 years old when he watched me pitch when he was in grade school,” Morgan said in an interview on Friday.

It is now Morgan’s turn to watch when Maddux gets inducted into Cooperstown this Sunday.

“I wish I could be out there in Cooperstown … in the audience with Dave and Linda, his mom and dad, his sister Terri, Mike [his brother], and all of the Vegas folks because I am proud of him.”

Only a few years after Morgan’s phenomenal season at Valley, Maddux followed in his footsteps to become a second round selection of the Chicago Cubs in the 1984 draft. Both owe a great deal of credit to not only their high school coach Rodger Fairless, but also Ralph Meder, an area scout who organized Sunday workouts for all of the local players.

“Ralph Meder. I am sure he will bring him up; our mentor,” Morgan said. “A Cincinnati Reds man, he passed away of a heart attack going to a Valley baseball game 31 years ago (1983).”

Meder taught Maddux to value how his pitches moved more than how fast they traveled, an element of his pitching style that became the trademark of his career.

“He told me that movement was more important than velocity,” Maddux said to the Associated Press in 2001. “He was the first one to teach me that. When you’re 14 or 15 years old, all you want to do is throw hard.”

Both pitchers were the beneficiaries of Meder’s tutelage, amassing almost a combined 500 career major league victories in careers that spanned over 20 years a piece in the major leagues. In 1992, they were finally able to connect their lineage when Morgan was signed as a free agent by the Cubs. They formed a fearsome 1-2 punch, piling up 36 victories for Chicago that year, en route to Maddux’s first Cy Young award. Spending a season playing with Maddux allowed Morgan a full perspective of his abilities.

“To be on the bench with him, to play with him, to stand up there and hit off of him, realizing that when the ball leaves his hand, he made the ball look like a ball, but when it got to the plate, it was a strike,” Morgan said.

“He did that incredibly, [getting] guys swinging at his change-up bouncing on the plate. He made them look like balls when they left his hand, but when they got to the plate, they were strikes. That’s hard to do. It was a gift, but he worked at it.” 

When Maddux signed with the Atlanta Braves the following season, the two friends matched up for a memorable Opening Day game in Wrigley Field.

“A year later in 1993, when he left to go to Atlanta, opening day in Wrigley Field, [it was] Greg Maddux against Mo-Man, Mike Morgan,” he said. “I gave up a run in the first, a ground ball to short with one out from Ronnie Gant. 1-0. (Ed. Note – Gant scored on a single from Dave Justice.) I cruised through [seven] and I lost. He beat me 1-0.”

What incensed Morgan more that day than the 1-0 loss, was Maddux’s seventh inning single, his first and only hit off of Morgan his entire career (1-14 lifetime). It was something that Morgan (0-14 lifetime) unfortunately couldn’t match.

“I can tell you what, I went 0-fer in my career off of him,” Morgan said. “He got a base hit off of me and it was the only thing that pisses me off, that he got one off of me and I didn’t get one off of him!”

The two pitches squared off in another classic in 1995, in what Greg Maddux called the best game of his career. They met in St. Louis on August 20, 1995, taking only one hour and 50 minutes to finish a 1-0 game. 

“[We threw] ten pitches an inning,” Morgan said. “We would get strike three on an 0-2 or a 1-2 pitch. We didn’t go from 0-2 to 3-2 at all that night.”

Yet after the cleats were brushed off and the gloves were packed away, the two rivals on the field were close friends away from it.

“We would come up and hit off of each other and then after the game we’d go to dinner and do our thing,” Morgan said. “I lived out in the same country club as he did in Vegas, and in the winter we’d play golf. We were both competitive. We respected each other.”

After his 25 years in the game, Morgan is able to look back at his own lengthy career and further respect the achievements of Maddux.

“To be on that side and to realize how hard it was to do what he did … 355 wins in 20 something years, 15-plus wins a year for 20 years, it’s mind boggling to see that he’s going to be out there in the Hall of Fame in this Sunday.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

Remembering Greg Maddux in his finest hour

Greg Maddux pitched in 744 regular season games, many in heat filled pennant races with the Atlanta Braves during their nine-year playoff run from 1995-2003, but when he was asked after the announcement of his 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame induction about his best mound performance, he unequivocally responded with a 1995 mid-season game against the St. Louis Cardinals.



Greg Maddux / Jasen Leather
On August 20, 1995, Maddux was the model of efficiency, needing only 88 pitches to shut down the St. Louis Cardinals 1-0. He dueled with Cardinals pitcher Mike Morgan, who matched Maddux by allowing only one run on 84 pitches in eight innings.

It is ironic that Maddux matched up with Morgan in his finest hour. Both attended Valley High School in Las Vegas (Morgan graduating in 1978, Maddux in 1984), learning under the careful guidance of area scout Ralph Meder. As a young kid, Maddux grew up watching Morgan pitch in high school, a teammate of his older brother Mike.

“I knew him at 11 years old when he watched me pitch when he was in grade school,” Morgan said in a phone interview on Friday.

Morgan, who has been actively working to rebuild the youth baseball programs in Park City, Utah, immediately remembered the quick pace of their match-up.

“It was an hour and fifty-three minutes or something like that,” he said. “They barely got a run off of me.”

The Braves scored first when Chipper Jones plated Marquis Grisson in the third inning on a ground out to second base.

With the Cardinals down by a run early in the game, catcher Danny Sheaffer knew that both pitchers were going to be unyielding with their offerings.

Sheaffer got one of the only two hits surrendered by Maddux in that game. Speaking recently with Sheaffer, who is the current manager of the Tampa Bay Rays rookie affiliate in Princeton, W.Va, he recalled the evening well.

“It was obvious from the first inning that one run may be the difference in this game,” Sheaffer said. “Both were in control and [the] hitters knew it; [the] umpires were expecting strikes and made it clear that was their intention, a fast paced, as well as a well-played game.”

Seemingly in a race to get back to the dugout, Maddux struck out nine, surrendering no walks while only allowing two hits — a lead off single to outfielder Brian Jordan in the fifth inning, and a lead off double to Sheaffer in the sixth.

“He’s the best, he’s the best,” Jordan told The Dispatch in 1995. “As long as he continues to do that, he’s going to continue to win Cy Youngs every year. I don’t think there’s another pitcher out there who has such control.”

The Cardinals did whatever they could to scratch a run home against Maddux. Jordan stole second after his single in the fifth, only to have Maddux retire the next three batters, stranding him in scoring position.

“At least I feel like I did something,” Jordan said about his attempt to score.

In the later innings both clubs worked feverishly to tally another run. Maddux and Morgan continued to stifle their efforts.

“[We threw] ten pitches an inning,” Morgan said. “We would get strike three on an 0-2 or a 1-2 pitch. We didn’t go from 0-2 to 3-2 at all that night.”

Positioned behind the plate, Sheaffer could feel the heightened sense of urgency by the two clubs as both pitchers breezed through the lineups.

“Both teams played the game as if one run was going to potentially win,” Sheaffer said. “Both teams focused [on] situational hitting and neither had success; that's how good both pitchers were.”

Taking matters into his own hands while walking to the batter’s box to start the sixth inning, Sheaffer decided on a more aggressive approach against Maddux.

“The deeper in the count we would get with Greg, the more he would force us to hit "his" pitch,” he said. “I didn't want to be in that position.”

Sheaffer took a mighty cut at a first pitch fastball and came within inches of evening the score.

“I came within a foot of tying the game,” he said. “Yes, it was a mistake in location looking back at the tape, but without that mistake we wouldn't have come close.”

Just as Maddux did in the previous inning after Jordan’s lead off hit, he sent the next three batters after Sheaffer down in order, quelling whatever resistance the Cardinals could muster.

Despite the quiet bats of his teammates, Morgan remained firmly entrenched in giving his club the best shot against the junior statesman from his hometown.

“I was locked in,” he said. “He was one pitch better that day.”

Maddux retired the Cardinals in order for the next three innings, diminishing their efforts to match the lone run from the Braves in the third inning.

“He was never overpowering, but in every at-bat he would always give the impression that he could do whatever he wanted to with the baseball,” Sheaffer said.

Although Maddux said that he tired after the seventh, he continued to pound the strike zone with his impeccable control.

“I kept getting the fastball in there,” Maddux said. “That was my best pitch tonight.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ken Griffey's new book 'Big Red' sheds light on a family tradition

Ken Griffey Sr. (r.) with co-author Phil Pepe
Create a strong lineage and your legacy will last forever. Following in the footsteps of Stan Musial, Ken Griffey left the small town Donora, Pennsylvania in search of a career that would be more exciting than a life working in the steel mills.

Two World Series championships and an unprecedented father-son combination later, the Griffey name became synonymous with excellence in baseball. On Tuesday July 15, 2014, Griffey appeared with co-author Phil Pepe at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan to discuss their new book, “Big Red” (Triumph, 2014).

The video below is the entire 40 minute question and answer session with Griffey and Pepe about many topics in Griffey's career including his relationship with Ken Jr., the Big Red Machine, and why Billy Martin's treatment of a young Ken Jr. caused him never to sign with the New York Yankees.



Monday, July 14, 2014

All Star Game in Minnesota brings back bittersweet memories for Ed Kranepool

Ed Kranepool
The clamor over the 2014 All-Star game at Target Field in Minnesota roused up memories of New York Mets Hall of Famer Ed Kranepool’s selection to the 1965 All-Star Game at Metropolitan Stadium. Only 20 years old, Kranepool was the youngest member of a National League squad that featured Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax.

“That was a tremendous feat for myself, I was only 20 when I made the All-Star team,” Kranepool recalled.

As excited that Kranepool was to be representing the Mets in Minnesota, he would have enjoyed it more if Philadelphia Phillies manager Gene Mauch would have called Kranepool’s number off of the bench.

“I didn’t play in the game. I was disappointed," he said. "It’s kind of frustrating because I never made it again. You want to play. … What’s the sense of sending a guy to the All-Star Game, if he’s not going to play? Not that you want the three days off, you’d rather be in the All-Star Game, but if you’re going there, I want to say I played in the game. Let the country see you play the game.”

Kranepool's ill-feelings towards Mauch lingered well past the All-Star Game.

"I held a grudge against Gene Mauch my whole career," he said. "Every time I played him, I wanted to beat him, because I didn't play and I wanted to play."

While he acknowledges that the managers of the All-Star teams have been more aware about getting everyone involved in the mid-summer classic; however, he still thinks the game can stand a few minor adjustments.

“They do a better job of managing the players today in the game," he said, "they get everybody in, but I think they should have free substitution with a couple of players. They ought to mark before the game, two-to-three guys who play a lot of positions and keep them around. If you put them in the game, you’re allowed to remove them, [to] get everybody in the game. … They should change certain rules. Baseball in certain ways is trying to make changes and other ways, they’re antiquated in their positioning.”

Kranepool explains in the video below how Casey Stengel notified him of being selected to the 1965 All-Star team, and his thoughts on the All-Star voting process.


The entire 1965 All-Star Game.
 

Mariano Rivera and Pelé meet for the first time at the World Cup in Brazil


Pele meets Mariano Rivera, for the first time ever
at a SUBWAY Restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,
on Saturday, July 12, 2014.  
(Photo by Dado Galdieri/Invision
for SUBWAY Restaurants/AP Images)
The greatest closer in baseball history, New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera met with the world renown fútbol superstar Pelé for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Saturday July 12, 2014.

Pelé was on hand to promote Subway's healthy eating campaign prior to the World Cup finals. Rivera met with Pelé during his appearance on Subway's behalf. The two exchanged pleasantries and Pelé shared a story about how he was asked to be a kicker in the NFL while he was playing with the New York Cosmos.

Their entire exchange (in English and Spanish) are in the video below.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bill Renna, 89, played with Yankees, Athletics and Red Sox 1924-2014

Bill Renna, 1955 A's
Bill Renna, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia / Kansas City Athletics, and Boston Red Sox from 1953-1959, passed away June 19, 2014 in San Jose, California. He was 89.

Renna returned from military service in World War II to become a two-sport star at the University of Santa Clara, playing outfield for the baseball team, and both fullback and center on the football team. His play on the gridiron earned him a spot in the East-West game in 1949, drawing the attention of the Los Angeles Rams; however, he chose to stick with baseball, learning under the guidance of Santa Clara’s legendary coach, Paddy Cottrell.

“Paddy Cottrell my coach at Santa Clara was a bird dog [scout] for the Yankees,” Renna said to me in a 2008 interview. “He used to teach us everything that was taught in spring training by the Yankees.”

Cottrell tipped Yankees scout Joe Devine to his prized outfielder who signed Renna in 1949 to a contract for $5,000. His signing paid immediate dividends, as he hit an eye-opening .385 with 21 home runs for Twin Falls in the Pioneer League. His play impressed his Twin Falls manager Charlie Metro, who was a former major leaguer himself.

“He hit like heck up there, and they called him “Bull,” because he was a big guy,” Metro said in his autobiography “Safe by a Mile.” “He was a delight to have on the team.”

The Yankees were so impressed with Renna’s 1949 season that they sent him to their AAA team in Kansas City. Renna was hit with the injury bug injuries in 1950 and could not duplicate his torrid start from the year prior. The Yankees sent him down to Class B Norfolk, where he hit .291 with 26 home runs.

“Bull” worked his way back to AAA in 1952 and played well enough to earn a promotion to the big leagues with the Yankees in 1953.

“I went to spring training with the Yankees in 1953 and there was an outfielder spot available, so I grabbed it and held onto it,” Renna said to Ed Attanasio of This Great Game. “Stengel platooned me with Gene Woodling in left field, alongside (Mickey) Mantle in center and with (Hank) Bauer and (Irv) Noren in right field.”
Bill Renna - 1953 Yankees

Renna hit .314 in 61 games, filling in at all three outfield spots to spell Mantle and Woodling while they recovered from various ailments. While he was on the roster for their World Series championship, he did not see any action during the series.

“I did not get to play but I was on deck to pinch hit a couple times,” Renna said. “It was a little frustrating to get that close and not even get an at-bat.”

Despite being shut out during the World Series, one of Renna’s fondest memories from his rookie season with the Yankees was witnessing Mantle’s monstrous shot off of Chuck Stobbs in Griffith’s Stadium.

“I saw him hit the 565-foot homer out of Griffith’s Stadium in 1953 against Chuck Stobbs,” Renna said to John McCarthy of the Old Timers Baseball Association in 2008. “Mickey was batting right-handed against the lefty Stobbs who threw him an off-speed pitch that almost fooled him, but he stayed back and waited on the pitch. When it left the bat we all stood up in the dugout and watched the flight of the ball as it kept on going and when it cleared the clock at t at the top of the stadium in left-centerfield we were all in total amazement.”

Renna’s glory days with the Yankees would be unfortunately short-lived. In the 1953 off-season, he was part of an 11-player deal that sent Vic Power to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first-baseman Eddie Robinson and pitcher Harry Byrd. Going from the perennial champs to the perennial cellar dwellers would have fazed most players, but not Renna.

“I have no complaint about that deal,” Renna said in 1958 to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “In fact, the trade was a benefit for me because I got the chance to be the regular right fielder with the A’s.”

Now with the opportunity to play full-time, Renna had his best major league season in 1954. In 123 games, he hit 13 home runs while gunning out 13 runners from the outfield. He played two more seasons with the Athletics, staying with them through their move to familiar territory, Kansas City.

“Moving back to Kansas City was kind of neat being I played there for awhile,” he said in his 2008 interview with me. “Kansas City received the A’s very well. They were excited about it. … They had a great fan base that liked the game of baseball.”

During the 1956 season, Renna was essentially traded for himself, returning to the Yankees in exchange for Eddie Robinson.

“The Yanks had a plan in mind for me, which probably boiled down to giving me another crack at making the grade,” Renna said in 1958. “I admit that I didn’t do the job at Richmond that either the Yankees or I expected that I would do. That’s why they traded me when I told them that I either stay in the majors or be traded.”

Renna got his wish, as the Yankees traded him to the Boston Red Sox for Eli Grba and Gordie Windhorn. After a monster 1957 season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League where he slugged 29 home runs and drove in 105 runs, the Red Sox gave him another chance at the major league life.

He made the Red Sox in 1958 and spent the entire season as a backup to Ted Williams.

“I was Ted Williams’ caddy in Boston,” he said in our 2008 interview. “Vern Stephens and myself; he was lefty and I was righty. We’d play left field whenever Ted didn’t play.”

Williams tried to impart sage hitting advice to Renna one day during batting practice, but as many that Williams attempted to council would find out, what came naturally for Williams was a struggle for most.

“One day we were in the outfield during batting practice and Ted said to crowd the plate a little more. I said, ‘I can’t handle that, just like you do, you have a quick bat and you hit that inside pitch really well’. He said, ‘You want them to pitch you tight.’ I said, ‘I don’t want that, I can’t hit on that part, that hard fastball gives me trouble. I have plate coverage; I go over the plate and tap the outside. I’m not going to crowd the plate; I can’t flip the bat like you do.’”

The Red Sox sent Renna back to the minor leagues during the 1959 season and he retired after finishing out the year with San Diego. While he felt he could physically play a few more years, family responsibilities trumped his desires to continue.

“I retired in 1959 from San Diego, came here to San Jose, and got a job with Central Concrete Supplies selling ready mix concrete,” he said. “I had three children to worry about; I didn’t want to follow a minor league club around as a coach with three kids that were getting ready to start school. I didn’t think it was fair to them.”

Renna worked with Central Concrete for over 26 years retiring in 1990, retiring to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren.

Very much a student of the game, Renna looked at the current state of play in Major League Baseball with a critical eye.

“When I was playing,” he said, “there were only 16 teams, as opposed to 30 now. Half of the league wouldn’t have had a shot. There are a lot of more opportunities to play in the majors now. It’s a different situation completely. It was more difficult then to make it to the majors then it is now. There were a lot more kids playing professional baseball, as there were so many leagues.

“If you watch the game the way it is played in the majors now there are a lot of things that are done that shouldn’t be done because if they have been taught to play the game, they would know to do these things the proper way. For example, people running into each other, infielders and outfielders. Its communication, I learned it in college. When we went into the pros, we were taught it again in the minors. Evidently, these poor kids aren’t taught a lot of this stuff. It’s unfortunate.”