Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Kal Segrist, 84, infielder with New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in 1950s

Kal Segrist, a former infielder with the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s, and the longtime head baseball coach at Texas Tech, passed away in Lubbock, Texas this weekend. He was 84.
Kal Segrist (l.) with Casey Stengel (c.) and Tom Gorman (r.) in 1952

While Segrist only amassed 32 major league at-bats (23 with the Yankees in 1952 and nine with the Orioles in 1955), his greatest impact on the game was at the collegiate level with the Texas Tech baseball program. While serving as the head baseball coach from 1968-1983, he made major improvements to the program and facilities.
Segrist signing autographs for Chris Potter / Chris Potter Sports

During his coaching tenure, he was also a member of the NCAA rules committee, helping to enact two significant changes to post-season play. The first change expanded the number of teams who qualified for regional play each year, while the second change allowed more than one team from a conference to qualify for the regional.

Click here to read an in depth interview with Segrist regarding his professional baseball career and how he helped to transform the program at Texas Tech.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Fritz Peterson

Former New York Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson was recently in New York at Carmine's Pizzeria in Brooklyn promoting his book, "When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years." Peterson sat down to discuss his inspiration for writing the book, as well as his memories of playing alongside Thurman Munson, Mel Stottlemyre, and yes, Horace Clarke.

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Fritz Peterson / N. Diunte



Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lennie Merullo made an unlikely pairing with the great Dizzy Dean

Lennie Merullo, a longtime baseball scout and the last living player from the Chicago Cubs World Series team from 1945, passed away at the age of 98 on May 30, 2015. Career baseball men of his ilk who stormed the back roads of the United States looking for a diamond in the rough without the aid of the Internet and advanced statistics are a vanishing breed. They have been replaced in great number by personnel who no longer have to endure hours of travel across state lines to check out a kid whose exploits are fully available online.

Lennie Merullo / Baseball-Almanac.com
Not only are these seasoned scouts being replaced, or in Merullo’s case passing on, so are the volumes of stories they have accumulated through their years of travel across the bush leagues as players and scouts. During his 65-year career, there was nary a star that hadn’t crossed Merullo’s path, and even rarer was the one for whom he didn’t have a special story to tell.

One tale he was gracious enough to share was from his second year in professional baseball with the Tulsa Oilers in 1940. This yarn wasn’t about how he played all 162 games that season in the sweltering heat, taking off his shoes and socks in between innings to find relief from the hot fields, or how his teammate Eddie Watikus (The Natural) didn’t sit out a single play the entire season. A few feet farther down the bench resided an unlikely colleague in a 30-year-old pitcher named Dizzy Dean.

Dean was in the twilight of his career when he played with Merullo in Tulsa. It was just nine years earlier that Dean was MVP of the same league, en route to one of the briefest Hall of Fame careers in Major League Baseball. After suffering a broken toe during the 1937 All-Star Game, he struggled to regain the form that garnered him 30 victories and a World Series championship with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ol’ Diz was trying to hang on with the Cubs and was a far cry from his former self.

“When he was traded from the Cardinals to the Cubs, he was traded with an arm that was giving him trouble,” Merullo said from his home in Reading, Massachusetts in 2009. “They [the Cubs] thought the hot weather would be good for his arm.”

Despite not having his best stuff, Dean was still an attraction everywhere he went. His star performance from only a few years earlier in the 1934 World Series endeared him to fans across the Texas League. Not only did they fill up the ballpark to see him play, they came bearing gifts.

“The fans came out [from] everywhere to see Dizzy pitch,” he said. “They would come out with baskets of fried chicken and they would be at the train station and everything that goes with it. Limburger cheese to stink out the train! … The fans were great!”

Dean wasn’t the only beneficiary of the adulation; Merullo also had his day in the sun thanks to his famous teammate. It involved an off-day and a trip to a car dealership that only the great Dizzy Dean could negotiate.

“Dizzy came by one time and he had a station wagon,” Merullo recalled. “The dealer was Jerry Frey Motors in Dallas. He came by and picked up Hank Wise who was sitting in the wicker chairs outside of the hotel. He asked us if we wanted to take a ride. He took us to his home and to the dealer. We spent the day with Dizzy. He was getting his radio checked out.”

The 23-year-old Merullo was mesmerized by what he saw on the lot, pristine top of the line models worth than what the young rookie could dream up at the time. One car stood out amongst the entire stock.

“There was a brand new Ford Club Coupe with the jump seats in the back,” he said. “There I was sitting there in the front seat, in the driver seat, holding on to the steering wheel of that car. I envisioned myself driving back home to Boston in this new 1940 Ford Coupe.”

Apparently Dean noticed Merullo’s immediate attachment to the car. In a veteran sort of way, Dean gently planted a seed in Merullo’s head. That’s all Dizzy Dean needed to work his magic.

“Dizzy walked by and must have saw the look on my face. He just said, ‘I think I can get you a good buy on this, you thinking of buying the car?’ I got out of the car quick. All I could see was dollar signs. It was about $1,000. Just the thought of it, I couldn't afford it.

“He said, ‘I can get you a good buy on this car.’ He came back with the figures; he got it like $200 off of that. I drove that car home with Eddie Watikus and Barney Olson! I wouldn’t let Olson drive because he drank beer, and Watikus didn't have a license. I drove that car 1,400 miles from Tulsa to Boston, the three of us cramped in the front seat of that Ford Club Coupe. A couple nights on that road and we were home. I remember him [Dean] saying [to the dealer], ‘Change those figures around and that car is yours.’... He was something special.”

Monday, May 25, 2015

How Bernie Williams tried to lure Juan Gonzalez from Puerto Rico to the Yankees

The New York Yankees honored their star center fielder Bernie Williams on Sunday evening at Yankee Stadium with a special ceremony to retire his number 51 and put him among the legends in Monument Park. The festivities included Williams accepting this lavish praise alongside his long standing teammates Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, from his four World Series victories with the Yankees. If Williams' parent club was willing to spend just a few extra dollars when they brought him to the United States to sign his contract some thirty years ago, that group could have easily included two-time American League MVP Juan Gonzalez.

Williams and Gonzalez in Puerto Rico
Yankees scout Fred Ferreira was one of George Steinbrenner's most prized eyes for spotting talent across the globe. Steinbrenner recruited Ferreira in 1981 after Ferreira's team from his baseball school put up a 12-0 lead in an exhibition game against the Yankees. The Yankees owner immediately wanted the man who assembled the talented group of youngsters to be a part of the Yankees organization. A few years later, Ferreira's sharp eye would pay dividends, as he was responsible for helping to lure Bernie Williams to the United States before his 16th birthday in order for the Yankees could sign him. While Ferreira was in the process of bringing Williams to a baseball school in Connecticut, the young Puerto Rican had requested for his cousin to come along. Surely the Yankees with all of their fortunes could find the means to bring one more player with them for an extended look.

"I told him sorry, but we couldn't afford it," Ferreira said to the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1996. "And that's how I missed out on signing Juan Gonzalez."

Gonzalez hit 434 home runs in his career, and was ironically the MVP of the American League in 1996 and 1998, the first two years that Williams' Yankees won the World Series. Yankees fans can only imagine how much more potent their lineup would have been if it included Gonzalez's 47 and 45 home runs during those championship years.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Brian Giles 21-year baseball career sparked from grandfather's Negro League legacy



Brian Giles didn’t have to go any farther than his own household in search of baseball lessons. His grandfather George Sr., was a legend in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, and his father George Jr., was a farmhand in the Cincinnati Reds organization in the 1950s. It was only natural that his family became his most effective instructors as he made his own path to the major leagues.
Brian Giles makes a leaping grab for the Mets

“When we’re talking about the best instructors I’ve had, I have to stay in the family,” Giles said during a 2015 phone interview from his home in Las Vegas. “My grandfather instilled that work ethic; making sure you’re practicing, doing it right, and staying in shape. My father instilled the fundamentals with ground balls, throwing, fielding, and hitting.”

To better understand Giles’ 21-year journey in the family trade, the lesson starts with his grandfather’s mark in the Negro Leagues. The elder Giles was known as one of the top first basemen in the history of the league while playing primarily with the Kansas City Monarchs and the St. Louis Stars.

“George Giles … could hit the ball to all fields and run like the wind,” Buck O’Neil said in a 1990 Seattle Times article. “No lie. He was as good a first baseman as you'd ever want to see.''

Standing 6’3”, his grandfather had a rare blend of size and speed, especially at first base, a position not known for the fleet of foot. His speed was comparable to his teammate Cool Papa Bell, one who many regarded as the fastest in the league. Giles made a more modern comparison of his grandfather to Dave Parker, in terms of a baseball player who gracefully blended such size and athleticism.

As Giles matured, he sought the counsel of his grandfather who was living in Manhattan, Kansas. Going through his teenage years, they shared many conversations on the phone, not only about the game, but the harsh realities that Negro League ballplayers encountered due to segregation.
George Giles Sr.  - Author's Collection

“Their traveling was chaotic and ongoing,” Giles said. “[They played] three games a day and [at night] they would travel. I don’t know how many different times they did that. He told me of all of the travel, the long days, sleeping on the bus, their problems finding hotels, and places to stay.”

Later in Giles’ major league career, playing in the American League provided him the opportunity to visit his grandfather in person, to tighten a bond that was formed mostly over the phone. Those face-to-face meetings focused more on what his grandfather told him he needed to do to be successful on the field, rather than his tales of traversing the country playing in the Negro Leagues.

Giles started his own journey in 1978, when was drafted by the New York Mets in the third round from Kearny High School in San Diego. After cups of coffee with the Mets in 1981 and 1982, he was finally handed the keys to the Mets second base position in 1983. Playing alongside 19-year-old Jose Oquendo, they formed one of the youngest double play combinations in the league.

The Mets had been mired for years in mediocrity, ten years removed from their 1973 World Series appearance. The aforementioned duo, alongside Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry, and a young right-hander from Yale, Ron Darling, represented a glimpse of hope for the stagnant franchise.

“We finished last that year, or just close to it,” he said. “We just didn’t hit. We played defense. … We had a nucleus of young talent that came from a winning type of feeling [in the minors].”

With a full year in the major leagues behind him, Giles was optimistic about his chances for the 1984 season; however, his hopes were quickly dashed when the Mets replaced manager Frank Howard with Davey Johnson, who was fresh off of a minor league championship with their AAA team in Tidewater. The new skipper had plans to bring in his guys from the minors, which didn’t include Giles in the infield.

“The Mets sent down [Wally] Backman and Ron Gardenhire, and kept Brian Giles and Jose Oquendo, and I thought they improved my ball club and hurt theirs,” Johnson said in a 1985 interview with the Star-News.

Giles felt that the Mets had too much turnover with their managers to have a clear vision for their franchise in the early 80s, starting with the firing of his first manager, Joe Torre. With the Hall of Famer's guidance, he envisioned Torre taking the Mets to World Series victory the same way he did with the Yankees in the 1990s.

“I just wish Torre wouldn’t have left because that team would have probably stayed together,” he said. “We had a passion to win. … We just need somebody, we needed Joe Torre! We could have been like the Yankees. He left way too soon. He was going to have the best team and he was going to have a nucleus of guys around that fit roles like he did with the Yankees. We had it. We had the veteran savvy guys and some young talented infielders and pitchers.

“I just wanted to be a part of it because I thought I belonged. We had Oquendo, [myself], Gardenhire; we could have all rotated, but they had different plans.”

As a member of the Brewers
With the emergence of Wally Backman, Kelvin Chapman, and Rafael Santana, the Mets had a logjam of middle infielders in their system. They left Giles unprotected in the 1984 Rule 5 Draft, and he was signed by his former manager George Bamberger, who was now piloting the Milwaukee Brewers. His new boss was ecstatic about his acquisition.

“I think it might be one of the best deals in baseball for just $25,000,” Bamberger said to the Milwaukee Journal in 1985. “I’ll tell you how I classified him with New York; an excellent second baseman, a good shortstop.”

Stuck in a crowded infield with mainstays Jim Gantner and Paul Molitor, Giles was relegated to filling in as a late-inning defensive replacement. He was unfamiliar with the intermittent role, and his performance suffered as a result of his lack of time on the field, hitting only .172 in 58 at-bats. The Brewers parted ways with Giles at the end of the season, leaving him to sign with the Chicago White Sox in the winter.

Playing with his third team in three years, Giles had difficulty establishing himself in Chicago. He spent most of 1986 in the minors, only playing nine games for the White Sox. Suddenly, he went from a courted prospect to a journeyman trying to prove his major league worthiness. Unfazed by his demotion, he continued to put his nose to the grindstone, batting .274 and .296 at AAA in 1988 and 1989 respectively; however, he couldn’t find an open door to return to the majors.

Kevin Mitchell (l.) w/ Giles (r.) as a member of the White Sox
“I went to spring training for a little time and then I was supposed to get called up or traded in ‘88,” he said. “In ‘89, I went to Cleveland and got a couple of spring training games in and had a good year in Colorado Springs. I thought I was going to get in because [Mike] Hargrove really liked me, but it didn’t happen.”

Giles found his angel in an old friend, Roger Jongewaard. The vice president of player development for the Seattle Mariners at the time, Jongewaard was responsible for scouting Giles when he was drafted by the Mets in the late 70s. A dozen years later, he was encouraged enough by Giles’ performance in 1989 with Colorado Springs to offer him an invite to spring training with the Mariners in 1990. Finally, Giles’ refusal to give up paid off.

“I made the big league team out of spring training,” he said. “That was the year Omar Vizquel broke his leg. I had a good spring and halfway through that spring training, [Jim] Lefebvre called me in and told me I made the team.”

After a four year hiatus, Giles relished the opportunity to once again wear a big league uniform; however, Lefebvre had him platoon with Mike Brumley in Vizquel’s absence. Giles struggled to find his swing during the first month of the season, going 0-16 in April. Getting a fresh start in May, Giles redeemed himself during a May 17, 1990 game against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he went 3-4 with two home runs and seven RBIs. Lefebrve rode Giles’ hot hand at the plate after his breakout game until Vizquel returned from his leg injury.

Needing room on the roster for their budding star at shortstop, the Mariners sent Giles down to their AAA club in Calgary. At season’s end, the Mariners granted the 30-year-old infielder free agency, effectively ending his big league career. Most ballplayers at this stage of their career are faced with the tough choice of moving on from their playing days; however, for Giles, it opened up an entire new world of possibilities.

“I went to Italy in 1991 for a year, and in 1992 I went to Mexico. After that year, I went to Taiwan. I was trying to get to Japan or Korea. I played [in Taiwan] there from ‘93-‘95. ... Going abroad, it’s a lot different for Americans. I got treated pretty well. It’s like you’re in the big leagues. You’ve got the Superman on your chest. You go 3-4, drive in four runs, but if you lined out or flied out, you didn’t do enough. I enjoyed it. It was quite an experience. I got to meet other American players that didn’t really make it and help them out. We all helped each other because of the culture difference.”

Giles returned to the United States in 1996, foregoing a few offers to break the line during the spring of 1995. He played independent ball with Minot in the Prairie League, winning a championship in 1996. Holding on to the faint hope that he would receive another offer to return overseas to play ball, he spent two more seasons playing in the Prairie League and the Atlantic League, finishing his career with the Newark Bears in 1998.

After 21 years in professional baseball, few thought that the length of Giles’ career would outlast all of the young talent he paralleled in the Mets organization, including Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. While his exploits were not as loud as the aforementioned duo, Giles felt that if he was given the opportunity to play a few consecutive seasons full-time after 1983, that he would have been well on his way to a notable major league career.

“If I got my time in, I just know in my heart I could have easily gotten 3,000 hits with my longevity,” he said. “I didn’t get hurt that much. When I got back to the big leagues, I played part-time. I wasn’t using my body. That’s what I had to do at the end. It was hard to get in the groove.”

Now the 55-year-old former big leaguer is passing on his experience to the fourth generation of Giles men exploring the family trade, his son Garrett. The youngest member of the Giles baseball clan is a freshman at Basic High School in Henderson, Nevada, and is already a starting member of their varsity team. When he isn’t working with his son, he runs his non-profit ICE Youth Program, where he helps to train youngsters on the finer points of the game. One of his prized pupils is Oakland A’s outfielder, Coco Crisp.

"One of my first players that I started training was Coco Crisp," he said. "I had him at 12 years old, taught him how to switch hit. The way he played, I embedded that in him. … When I was playing, I would come home and train him 3-4 days per week and then it would be every day. … He’s my prodigy.”

The hallmark of Giles’ training is to help the young players find a love for the game and a devotion to controlling their mental focus on the field at all times. It is this level of heightened awareness that he feels can push these aspiring athletes towards to reach their fullest potential.

“I use ‘ACCE’ — attitude, concentrate, confidence and effort,” he said. “I try to use that to have a guideline. … Have the right attitude to finish the play with effort.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Signatures for Soldiers giving a boost to military veterans through baseball

Tim Virgilio had found a way to celebrate two of America’s most prominent institutions, baseball and the United States Military. The Georgia resident has enlisted over 100 retired major league baseball players to donate autographed baseball cards to raise funds for Military Missions in Action. A project that started with some loose baseball cards around the house has quickly turned into a wide reaching charitable undertaking.

“I started Signatures for Soldiers in November, 2014,” Virgilio said. “It initially started as an idea to use some of the baseball cards that I had sitting around that I collected as a kid to get signed and sell to help raise money for charity. I’ve always enjoyed collecting autographs as a hobby and decided that this would be a fun way to try to raise a few dollars.”
Courtesy of Signatures for Soldiers
While Virgilio and his wife were living in North Carolina, they became involved with MMIA right around its inception in 2008. Impressed by the financially prudent work that MMIA was doing for disabled veterans and their families by providing home repairs and renovations at no cost, choosing to raise awareness for their cause was an easy decision.

“I’ve always had a passion for supporting the men and women of the military who chose to do a job that less than 1% of our population chooses to do,” he said. “MMIA has done great things for our nation’s disabled veterans by providing over $3.5 million worth of services since being founded, [while] keeping their administrative costs [less than] 10% annually. Because of how fiscally responsible they have been, I have chosen to make MMIA my charity of choice.”

In only six months, the response from the baseball family has been incredible. Many players not only jumped at the opportunity to be involved, they even furnished their own material for Virgilio to offer up to collectors.

“There are a few players who have really gone above and beyond up to this point in their assistance,” he said. “Jim Leyritz has been wonderful and I’ve had the opportunity to speak with him on several occasions about this project and others. Woody Williams is another player who has been absolutely wonderful. I had quickly sold out of the cards that he signed and when I informed him of this, he then sent me 25 cards, 25 postcards, and 10 8x10 photos all signed from his own personal collection.”
Courtesy of Signatures for Soldiers

In addition to the players who have volunteered their time and effort to sign autographs for Signatures for Soldiers, the collecting community has rallied around the cause. Baseball fans and collectors have not only bought the autographed cards to raise money for MMIA, they have donated their own cards so that Virgilio could send them to the players to build the charity’s inventory.

“The response from [both the] fans and collectors has been awesome,” he said. “I’ve been able to help some collectors who have been trying to add a certain autograph to their collection. … I’ve had people who are fans of a particular player and don’t necessarily collect autographs, but have paid above and beyond what I’ve asked for the autograph because they are a fan of the player and want to help support a charity that does a lot of good for disabled veterans. I’ve had collectors who have donated extra signed cards that they’ve had in their collection for me to sell and raise money for MMIA. Overall, the support has been great.”

All of the proceeds that Virgilio has raised goes directly to MMIA. As of this writing, he has raised over $3,000, which was his original goal when he started Signatures for Soldiers. Surpassing that amount in less than six month, fueled by an overwhelming response from his supporters, he has plans to expand the program as the baseball season progresses.

“I’ve had to rethink my goal for this whole program,” he said. “I’ve focused primarily on retired players and the response has been great. Since the season is underway, I’m really going to reach out to more active players to see what type of support I may be able to receive.”

While the program has quickly expanded much faster than Virgilio had imagined, he plans to push forward as long as the journey will allow. It has been an enjoyable ride that he doesn’t plan to abandon for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve had so much fun with this and have had the opportunity to talk with such great people (both players and non-players),” he said, “that I just can’t see myself giving it up anytime soon. Plus, I have over 1500 signed cards and other items that I have to sell with more items coming in every day. Until I run out of items to sell, I plan to continue to do this.”

If you want to help Signatures for Soldiers, reach out to Tim Virgilio directly via e-mail - signaturesforsoldiers@yahoo.com

To keep up with Signatures for Soldiers, follow them on social media –

Twitter - @tvirgilio22

Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/Signaturesforsoldiers/

Friday, April 10, 2015

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Charlton Jimerson discusses his new book, 'Against All Odds'

Charlton Jimerson, former major league outfielder with the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners, discusses in this interview the motivation for writing his autobiography, "Against All Odds: A Success Story." Jimerson tells how he rose up from a a childhood dominated by instability that would have defeated most future ballplayers before they ever took the field.

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