Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mickey Rivers video interview from the 2014 Harrison Apar Foundation Golf Classic

Mickey Rivers, the starting center fielder for the New York Yankees World Series championship teams in 1977 and 1978, sat down with us at the 2014 Harrison Apar Foundation Golf Classic to talk about Yankee baseball, including both captains Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter, as well as his enjoyment of being out with the people at various charity events.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Earl Smith, last player to wear 21 on Pirates before Clemente, dies at 87

Pittsburgh Pirates fans can hardly remember a day when number 21 wasn’t worn by Roberto Clemente, but for the first month of Clemente’s 1955 rookie season, the famed number was on the back of another upstart Pirates outfielder, Earl Smith. The Fresno State graduate who challenged for the Pirates center field spot alongside Clemente that season, passed away September 27, 2014 in Fresno, California. He was 87.

Smith signed with the Pirates in 1949 and hit .324 during his first two minor league campaigns, driving in 100 runs with Modesto in 1950; however, it wasn’t until 1954 that he garnered the full attention of the Pirates front office. He hit an astonishing .387 with 32 home runs, 195 RBIs and 42 stolen bases for Phoenix, which earned him an invite to spring training in 1955.

Coming from one of the lowest levels of minor league ball at the time, he was facing an uphill battle going into spring training. Despite the long odds, he was excited to get the chance to compete for a spot on the major league roster after spending six seasons in the lower levels of their minor league system.

“It was something that you strive for,” Smith said to me during a 2011 phone interview. “You think you deserve a chance after awhile. … I don’t know all of the politics of it, but I was real happy to have the opportunity to get the chance to go there.”

Most observers felt that Smith was going to be sent down for more seasoning after a trial in front of the big wigs, but Smith persisted. In an outfield that was only returning one starter in Frank Thomas, Branch Rickey was looking to fill the rest of the lineup with promising young talent. Smith batted over .400 during spring training to earn his place with Pittsburgh when they broke camp.

Earl Smith  -  Kevin Baskin
The plan was for Smith to platoon with Tom Saffell in center field, handling the left-handed pitchers of the National League. He made his debut in Pittsburgh’s second game of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies, going 0-3 against Herm Wehmeier. The road didn’t get any smoother for Smith. He played in four of the Pirates first six games, going 1-12 with a single off of the Giants’ Don Liddle. He sensed his window of opportunity closing faster than expected.

“I was supposedly alternating with Tom Saffell,” he said, “he came from the Pacific Coast League. He was left-handed and I was right. I didn’t get too much of a chance; I had 12 [sic] at-bats or something. What I’m telling you is probably speculation; the facts I didn’t know because we weren’t told that much of anything really.”

Pirates manager Fred Haney put him in the lineup only one more time, starting in a 5-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on April 29, 1955. His 0-4 performance left him with a career batting average of .063 (1-16). He never returned to the major leagues.

“When [Branch] Rickey took over, he brought his own fellows in,” he said. “We were the last of the guys to be from the old regime so to speak, before he took over Pittsburgh. … He knew what he wanted and we didn’t fit the mold.”

His departure allowed Clemente to drop number 13 in favor of Smith’s 21. It would be the last time anyone else in a Pirates uniform wore the number. Even though their time together was brief, Smith could see Clemente’s talent and the backing he had from management.

“Without a doubt, he was one of the better up and coming young guys,” he said. “He had the full support of all the staff and that made the big difference.”

Smith last just one more season in professional baseball, calling it quits at the end of the 1956 season after bouncing around different farm clubs. The toll on his family became too great to bear.

“I look back on it, and that was probably my fault a little bit because they weren’t playing me too much in New Orleans because they had their team set,” he said. “I wanted to play more and I didn’t produce like I should have when I got in, so they moved me to Lincoln and that was sort of the downfall. ... I had a family and we were traveling. One year my wife traveled five or six-thousand miles just to keep up with me. … It was a tough go for the dough in those days so to speak.”

Back home in Fresno after hanging up his spikes, Smith found himself in a completely different line of work than what he intended to do. He studied at Fresno State to work in the athletic coaching field, but one of his baseball contacts swayed him into running a grocery store.

“When I was here and I played for the Cardinals, one of the backers had a grocery store chain,” he said. “I had gone to college to become a coach, but at that time coaching didn’t pay very much. A grocery job paid more, so that’s what I went into and stayed 40 years.”

Long removed from his playing days, Smith said enjoyed the correspondence from the Pirates semi-annual Black and Gold alumni newsletter, which gave him the chance to keep up with his former teammates.

“They send me information quite often and schedules for different things,” he said. “I haven’t been one to join up with some of the things they wanted, but I’m still interested in seeing the facts of the guys I played with.”

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tony Oliva takes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Tony Oliva
Minnesota Twins legend, the 76-year old Tony Oliva, showed that you aren't too young to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The 1964 American League Rookie of the Year cheerfully took a dip in ice water in support of ALS research.

He calls out Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, and my good friend Paul Casanova to take the corresponding plunge.



A candid Willie Mays talking baseball with Billy Sample

Willie Mays
Billy Sample, former major league outfielder of nine major league seasons, talked shop with the legendary Willie Mays in the spring of 2004.

In this 15-minute interview, Mays is rather lucid as they discuss his career from humble beginnings in Alabama, making his way from the Negro Leagues all the way to the Hall of Fame.
 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Michael Conforto's outfield play turning heads in Brooklyn

Being a first-round draft pick carries high expectations from the moment a player signs their name on a million-dollar contract. In just over a month, Michael Conforto, the New York Mets 2014 first-round draft pick from Oregon State University, has been all that was advertised and then some.

Playing in thirty-six games thus far with the Brooklyn Cyclones in the short-season New York Penn League, Conforto has been a magician at the plate, batting .321 with two home runs and 18 RBIs. His prowess with the bat comes as little surprise to baseball insiders, as his hitting was the main factor in his nomination as a finalist for the 2014 Golden Spikes Award, the honor given to the top player in college baseball.

Going into the draft however, there was much speculation about Conforto’s abilities as an outfielder, with some analysts going as far as calling his outfield play, “a mess,” and saying that his arm strength leaves much to be desired.

Michael Conforto - N. Diunte
“He has a poor throwing arm that runners can take extra bases on,” said Christopher Crawford of MLB Draft Insider. 

In the short time that he has been in Brooklyn, he has laid the foundation to quell those naysayers about his defensive capabilities. He has five outfield assists and has made quite a few acrobatic plays in left field as well.

“The reports also said he was only an adequate defender; the same with his arm. But in the reports I've been sending back to the Mets, I'm telling them he's anything but that," Cyclones Manager Tom Gamboa said to the Staten Island Advance. "He threw out a runner trying to score (Monday night at RCCC), and tonight he made a diving catch. That's about the seventh or eighth diving catch he's made."

Conforto is glad that his defense is getting attention, as it was overshadowed by his strong bat throughout his entire college career. He recognizes that it is an area of his game that is continuing to be developed as he starts his journey in professional baseball.

“That's something that's been said that may be my weakness,” Conforto said to metroBASEBALL magazine, “so it's pretty cool that its been highlighted here. I've had the opportunity to be out there in left field every day and showcase my ability, so that's been pretty cool for me and it's helped me grow in a place where I really need to grow.”

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dick Teed, former Brooklyn Dodger and longtime scout passes away at 88

Dick Teed wore the Brooklyn Dodger uniform for only one at-bat in the major leagues, but it left memories that lasted a lifetime. Teed struck out in his only plate appearance against Milwaukee Braves pitcher Max Surkont on July 24, 1953, but he didn’t go down without a fight.

''What I'll always remember,'' he said Richard Goldstein of the New York Times in 1982, ''is that I was up there challenging Surkont. I struck out, but I went down taking good cuts.''

Dick Teed Signed Photo / N. Diunte
Teed, who stayed with the Dodgers organization as a scout for 17 years, passed away August 17, 2014 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was 88.

A native of Windsor, Connecticut, Teed was a three-sport star at Windsor High, excelling in baseball, soccer and basketball. Shortly after his graduation in 1944, he entered the Marine Corps, serving for over two years during World War II. His tour included action in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Upon the completion of his military duty, he signed with the Dodgers in 1947. They started him at the bottom of their farm system with their Class D team in Thomasville, North Carolina.

He moved quickly through the ranks, reaching AAA with Montreal by 1950. Only one step away from the major leagues, Teed saw the light at the end of the tunnel approaching.

“If I improve my batting somewhat, I think I have a pretty good chance of sticking,” he said to the Sunday Herald in 1950. “They tell me my catching is satisfactory.”

While Teed was becoming a top-notch receiver, the Dodgers were looking for a way to remedy his struggles at the plate after he hit only .222 at St. Paul in 1951. During spring training, they found a solution – switch hitting.

He spent the whole season at Mobile in the Double-A Southern Association in 1952 working on hitting from both sides of the plate. A natural righty, Teed improved his batting average to .273.

“I’ve got more confidence this time after what I did at Mobile,” he said to the Sunday Herald in 1953.

With Roy Campanella and Rube Walker ahead of him and the Dodgers returning from a World Series appearance, there was little room for Teed on the roster. He returned to Mobile to start the 1953 season, but when Rube Walker injured his left hand in July, Teed finally got his chance in the majors.

“Everything seemed different in the big leagues - magnified,'' he said to the New York Times. ''The lights were brighter, the crowds were larger. I even thought the sound of the pitches hitting Campy's glove was louder.”

After striking out in his aforementioned debut, Teed remained positive that he would get another chance to redeem himself.

''I wasn't down, I figured there'd be another day,'' he said.

That opportunity never came. Teed rode out his stay with the Dodgers on the bench until Walker returned. The Dodgers sent Teed back to Mobile and despite spending over another decade in the minor leagues, it wasn’t enough to warrant another call to the big leagues.

"I went back to Mobile and finished the season," Teed told the Hartford Courant in 2013. "My only complaint is that I never really got a chance to show what I could do."

After finishing his playing career in 1963, Teed coached in the Philadelphia Phillies organization from 1964-1967, winning a division title with Spartanburg his final season as a manger. In 1968, he turned his attention to scouting, working with the Phillies until 1977, when he came home to the Dodgers organization.

As a Dodgers scout in the Northeast, his first major coup was Brooklyn’s own John Franco from St. John’s University.


He also helped the Dodgers to ink an unknown first baseman from Norristown, Pennsylvania, who was selected with the Dodgers’ last pick in the 1988 draft.

Teed, who was on his way to Montreal to sign another Dodgers’ prospect, met Mike Piazza in the Philadelphia airport to sign him for $15,000. An unlikely setting for a signing, but such was the life of a traveling scout.

He stayed with as a scout with the Dodgers until retiring in 1994. In 2001, he was inducted into the National Scouts Hall of Fame. His grandson Bryan Barnoswki kept the family tradition alive, playing minor league baseball for the Boston Red Sox from 1999-2003.

Even though his time as a major leaguer was brief, Teed said to me in a 2008 interview that being a member of such a legendary team was the highlight of his career.

“How could you get a better lineup than what they had?” he asked. “Campy, Hodges, Snider, Reese, Jackie ... what a team. I didn't play long, but I enjoyed it. I was in baseball 49 years and that was my best experience; being in the dugout and the locker room just for the short time I was there. It gave me a lot of memories.”