Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hector Maestri, Cuban pitcher for both Washington Senators teams, dies at 78

Hector Maestri, one of only nine major leaguers to ever play for both versions of the Washington Senators, passed away Friday February 21, 2014 in Miami according to his former teammate Jose Padilla. He was 78.

Click here to read the complete story of Maestri's career, including how his baseball career almost ended only a few weeks after it started, as well as how he managed to get back to the United States from Cuba after Fidel Castro no longer let players leave in 1962.
 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Drew Denson, former Atlanta Braves first-round pick, dies at 48

Drew Denson, the first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in the 1984 draft, passed away February 13, 2014 in Cincinnati due to complications from a rare blood condition called amyloidosis. He was 48.

Standing 6-foot-5, he was an ominous figure, earning all-city honors in basketball and baseball, at Cincinnati's Purcell Marian High School. As a switch-hitting first baseman, he gained notoriety for his monstrous home runs, including one that was estimated at over 500 feet.

Braves scout Hep Cronin told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the forecast was exceptionally bright for the young slugger.

“I not only thought he would be playing in the big leagues, I thought he would be a Hall of Famer,” Cronin said . “He had Frank Thomas power. He was big and strong and the ball just jumped off his bat.”

In his first two seasons in the minor leagues, Denson was right on track, batting over .300 in both campaigns. He hit a wall in 1986, experiencing a sharp decline, posting a lowly .234 average in Durham while fighting injuries all season.

Entering the 1988 season sensing a need for a change, he returned to switch-hitting. During his previous four seasons in the minors, he hit exclusively from the right side, abandoning his switch-hitting duties in his junior year in high school due to the urgings of his high school coach.  After a conversation with teammate and childhood friend David Justice, Denson started to take batting practice left-handed, and after getting confirmation from Hank Aaron, he returned as a switch-hitter to All-Star form with Greenville.

The Braves gave Denson a chance in 1989 as a September call-up, and he batted .250 with no home runs in 36 at-bats. He returned to their Triple A team in Richmond in 1990, but his path was blocked by his friend Justice, who was his teammate on a Cincinnati little league team in 1976.

"It makes me happy knowing he's up there, doing what he can do," said Denson to the Free-Lance Star in 1990. "It's made me resolve to do that too."

Denson lived up to his word, returning to the majors in 1993, but with a different club, the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox were fighting for the American League West championship, and manager Gene Lamont waited until they had clinched the pennant before using Denson. He spelled Frank Thomas for a few games, batting 1-for-5, singling in what was his last major league at-bat against Jerry DiPoto.

Drew Denson at Orioles Spring Training 1997 / N. Diunte
He played in the minor leagues and Mexico through 1997. After his playing days, he returned to Cincinnati where he was a police officer and youth baseball coach until his blood disorder forced him to stop working.

How Jim Fregosi resurrected Dave Gallagher's major league career

Dave Gallagher with the White Sox
Dave Gallagher defined the blue-collar, lunch pail toting types that populate spring training every year. He did not have the one dominant skill that made heads turn during batting or fielding practice, but quietly got the job done with his steady play across the board. In 1988, Gallagher entered the Chicago White Sox camp with one last chance to make it in professional baseball; he just needed a believer. He found one in manager Jim Fregosi, but his conversion did not come easily.

Click here to read how Gallagher made a believer out of Fregosi to spur a nine-year major league career.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Rare footage of Ralph Kiner interviewing Roger Craig during Mets 1962 spring training

A predecesor to Kiner's Korner, this is rare footage of the late Ralph Kiner interviewing newly minted New York Mets pitcher Roger Craig in 1962 during the team's first spring training. Craig entered the majors in 1955 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kiner's last year in the majors. They never faced off in a major league game, as Kiner was in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ralph Kiner's early embrace of weight lifting fueled his prodigious drives

If more baseball players knew in the 1940’s how lifting weights would enhance their careers, Cadillacs would have been in short supply. What is now a common practice in all of professional sports, was often discouraged during the Golden Era of baseball.

Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame outfielder and legendary New York Mets broadcaster who passed away Thursday at the age of 91, was one of the early major league players to experience tangible results from weight training when it was unfashionable to do so.

Click here to read how Kiner started on his weight lifting regime and the unlikely major leaguer that he turned to for help.
 

Monday, January 27, 2014

An unlikely reunion for Wil Cordero and his first major league home run

My ticket from 9/18/1992
On the night of September 18, 1992, the New York Mets played the Montreal Expos, and I was excited to get to the park because my favorite Met Gary Carter was now playing for the Expos. I hoped that I would have one more chance to see him play up close. When my mom told me that we had tickets to the picnic area, my eyes grew wide with passion.

Attending a Mets game in the picnic area was an annual tradition for our family, as my mom was able to secure tickets through an event her job held there annually. For a young kid, it made going to a baseball game an even more enjoyable affair, as there was free food and an opportunity to be up close and personal with the opposing team’s bullpen. This usually meant that some of the members of the bullpen would make themselves available to sign a few autographs, something I looked forward to as much as the game.

We usually made sure that we arrived early when the gates opened, but this year we were delayed in getting to the park. By the time we arrived at the picnic area, the members of the Expos bullpen were fully focused in getting prepared for the game. There would be no chance to get some signatures, so I sat closer to the bullpen, hoping in my naiveté that by sitting near the pitchers, that I could somehow reverse my fortunes. Little did I know that later in the game, my sulking behavior a few rows away from my family would pay greater dividends than I expected.

Dwight Gooden was pitching for the Mets, and I remember him hitting the skids late in the game, necessitating Mets manager Jeff Torborg to quickly go to the bullpen. After making a pitching change, Wil Cordero, a young prospect at shortstop was preparing to take the plate. I was familiar with him largely due to his rookie baseball card that I owned, so I paid closer attention to the at-bat. A pitch or two later, a fly ball comes skyrocketing in my direction. I stand up in anticipation, noting that the ball is coming increasingly closer towards me. Steadying my hands for the catch I reach out for the ball and at the last minute someone in front of me attempts to snatch at it. It ricochets off of their hands right under my feet. Immediately, I dove on it and secured it in my possession. I was now the proud owner of a Cordero home run ball.

I stand up with the ball and get some pats on the back from fans nearby. Almost as soon as I turn around to look for my family, a Shea Stadium security guard calls for my attention. Being a good young citizen, I followed the man. He informed me that the ball in my hands was Cordero’s first major league home run, and that the Expos would like to offer me a baseball autographed by their bullpen. My earlier dejection was now turning to joy, as I would be going home with some signatures after all. I quickly made the exchange, returning Cordero’s first round-tripper to his possession.

Immediately fans came up to me, wanting to know what I traded the ball for. Some said I should have asked for a bat, his jersey, cash, or even autographs of the whole team. Everything happened so fast that I had little time to process the transaction. I was just thrilled that I was being offered something for returning the ball; never did the thought pass my mind of how I could capitalize on the situation.

A few weeks later I wrote Cordero at the Montreal Expos ballpark, explaining to him the events and how I would appreciate it if he was willing to offer his signature, as the ball I was given contained only a few members of the bullpen and not his own penmanship. I didn’t include a baseball card, or a SASE, both no-no’s in the world of writing to baseball players. Heck, I wasn’t sure if he was going to even read the letter, but I thought it was worth sending.

The card sent by Cordero himself
About a month later, an envelope comes from Canada, with the return address written in script, “Wilfredo Cordero, Montreal Expos.” I quickly open the letter, to find a beautiful baseball card, with Cordero’s signature neatly across the front. Both the envelope and card are something I’ve kept until this day.

Imagine my surprise when I read last week that Cordero would be appearing at the 2014 BBWAA Awards Dinner in New York, as part of a tribute to the 1994 Montreal Expos. Right away, I was transported to that game some 22 years ago in Flushing. I thought that if I had the chance to meet him at the event that I would relay the story to see if he remembered. There was one problem though, I didn’t have a ticket.

My friend Nick D’Arienzo of metroBASEBALL magazine must have been reading my mind, because the next day, he sent me an e-mail offering a ticket to attend. I gladly accepted and excitedly awaited my trip to the New York Hilton.

When I arrived, D’Arienzo gave me my ticket and program. Immediately, I looked for Cordero’s name in the program and found that he was not on the dais, but on the main floor with the rest of the patrons. Once we found our table, I put down my belongings and went for Cordero’s table. Sporting a mustache and a goatee, I passed his table once, not sure if it was him. I doubled back, and after a gentleman at his table confirmed that the man I was looking for was indeed Cordero, I introduced myself.

I told him the story and Cordero, as well as the rest of the members at his table, all perked up to hear the tale of his first home run. He thanked me for returning the ball, and when one of the people at the table asked what he remembered about the at-bat, he quickly replied, “You can’t sneak a fastball by me!”

Wil Cordero and the author after the dinner
He gladly signed a few baseball cards that I brought, and agreed to talk more after the dinner was over. We met in the hotel lobby and spoke for a few minutes about being a part of that 1994 Expos team that was halted by the strike, and how being honored at the dinner brought it full circle.

For a young kid that evening who caught his first and only home run ball at a big league game back in 1992, this meeting completed my small connection with Cordero’s memorable first time around the bases.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Charlie Osgood, 17-year-old hurler for the Brooklyn Dodgers, passes away at 87

Charlie Osgood
Charlie Osgood, pitcher of one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944, passed away on January 23, 2014 in Tewksbury, Mass. He was 87.

Osgood made his debut at the tender age of 17 when baseball was rapidly losing players to the World War II draft.

For most of his retirement, Osgood remained elusive to fans and collectors, ignoring requests for interviews and signatures. Only in the last few years of his life, did he entertain some of the mail that was sent his way, including the homemade baseball card on the left.

Click here to read more about Osgood career and his close relationship to the Dodgers family.

Note - Thanks to the great work of Rod Nelson and Jacob Pomrenke at SABR, the 2001 interview of Osgood conducted by Bill Nowlin has been brought to life.

 
 
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