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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Monday, April 6, 2015

Harley Hisner, 88, gave up DiMaggio's last regular season hit

The thought of facing Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in the same lineup would make any pitcher restless, but for Harley Hisner, the uneasiness he felt on September 30, 1951 was for a much different reason. He wasn’t shaken by their feared bats, but by the 35,000 fans that would be in attendance when he made his major league debut in a Boston Red Sox uniform at Yankee Stadium.

“I was awake a few times worrying about the game, pitching in front of all of them people,” Hisner said during a 2008 phone interview.

Hisner passed away in Fort Wayne, Indiana on March 20, 2015 at the age of 88. The World War II veteran only had one major league appearance, but his name is forever associated with those Yankees legends from the game he pitched on the last day of the 1951 season.

The first batter he faced in his debut was a 19-year-old Mickey Mantle. The “Commerce Comet,” was in finishing his first major league season, one in which he spent time shuttling between New York and their Triple-A farm club in Kansas City. While pitching for Louisville earlier in the season, Hisner faced Mantle on multiple occasions. Undaunted by the presence of the young upstart, he promptly struck out Mantle to start his big league career.

After giving up a single to Phil Rizzuto and inducing Hank Bauer to hit in to a force out, the great Joe DiMaggio strolled to the plate. Closing the chapter on an illustrious Hall of Fame career, DiMaggio was on display for the Yankee fans one last time. The Red Sox manager Steve O’Neill gave the rookie advice on how to approach the Yankee Clipper.

“He said, ‘Joe − pitch him in on the fists, he can’t hit the good fastball anymore,’” Hisner recalled in a 2013 interview with Wane.com.

The rookie dutifully followed his manager’s instructions, fearlessly going at DiMaggio with his first pitch. Hisner battled the great center fielder, but in the end DiMaggio won out, scratching out a single for what would be the last of his 2,214 major league hits.

“First pitch I threw him, he hit the damn thing in the upper deck left field, foul,” he said during the Wane.com interview. “I said, ‘Uh oh,’ but I came right back with a fastball and I got it where I wanted it. He hit it on the fists; he hit it down between third and short, the shortstop fielded it, but he couldn’t throw him out. That was Joe’s last hit.”

Hisner pitched six innings against the eventual World Series champs (including another strike out of Mantle), surrendering three runs on seven hits. The Red Sox couldn’t muster even one run in support of his efforts, despite Hisner contributing at the plate with a fifth inning single of his own.

“I batted off of Spec Shea and got a hit,” he said during the 2008 interview. “It looks like a line drive in the paper, but it was a dying quail over Johnny Mize’s head into right field. They thought it was a line drive somewhere!”

Hisner was the only rookie pitcher that was called up in September to get a start for the Red Sox. His fortunes banked on the team locking down their place in the division before the end of the season. O’Neill wasn’t going to chance a potential bonus to a rookie’s nervous arm.

“Allie Reynolds threw a no-hitter against us on Saturday before the season ended,” he said. “That was when we had fourth place sewn up. Steve O’Neill told me when I got there two weeks before, ‘Whenever we get a place sewed up, you’re pitching the next day.’ Well, we didn’t get a place sewed up until the next to last day of the season. After Reynolds threw a no-hitter against us, he said, ‘You’re pitching tomorrow.’ No other pitcher that was called up got to pitch.”

Despite his promising start, Hisner would never reach the major leagues again. He was invited to spring training the following season, but with O’Neill out and Lou Boudreau in as the Red Sox new manager, Hisner lost his champion at the helm. They sent him back to Louisville to work on becoming a reliever. When an opportunity came mid-season for Hisner to return to Boston, he was passed over in favor of Al Benton.

“In 1952, they were making a relief pitcher out of me,” he said. “In the first week in July, Boston needed a relief pitcher. San Diego had one. Boston always had a verbal agreement with them. They traded me and Al Richter to San Diego for Al Benton.”

Hisner finished the season with San Diego in the Pacific Coast League and spent one more year with Wichita Falls in the Big State League in 1953. With his hopes deflated from his demotion, Hisner called it quits after his time in Wichita Falls.

"I didn't want him to give it up," his wife Anna said to the Decatur Daily Democrat in 2011. "I never did. But he was getting tired of moving around."

His love for the game couldn’t keep him away from the diamond. He played semi-pro ball in Fort Wayne until he was 37. One of his semi-pro highlights came at the 1957 National Baseball Congress tournament, where he led Fort Wayne to the finals after pitching 38 innings in 11 days, almost tying Satchel Paige’s 1935 record for most wins in the tournament.

“In 1957, we came in second place out in Wichita," he said in 2008, "Texas beat us in the finals. Clint Hartung hit a home run off me in the 10th inning and I only had one day rest off of it. I pitched a nine inning game against Arizona and had one day rest; then I went 10 innings until Hartung hit that home run off me. I can still see that ball in flight! It went over the center field lights. Satchel Paige won five games for South Dakota in 1935 and I came near to tying it. I won the first four games and lost the last game. I threw 38 innings out there in 1957 in 11 days.”

Hisner worked with the Rea Magnet Wire Company until his retirement in 1987. Despite his singular appearance in a major league box score, Hisner remained popular with baseball fans who sought the autograph of the man who stood tall against the mighty New York Yankees.

“I got requests more this year than any other year,” he said in 2008. “I probably got 75-85 this year.”


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Doc Gooden prescribes a recipe to recovery for Josh Hamilton

Dwight Gooden has walked in Josh Hamilton's shoes. Gooden battled with a cocaine addiction throughout his 16-year major league career, leaving many wondering about his Hall of Fame chances if he stayed clean. After hearing the news of Hamilton's relapse, Gooden had some reassuring words for the Angels slugger.

Click here to read Gooden's advice for Hamilton on his road to recovery.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wendell Kim, long time major league coach, dies at 64 from Alzheimer's complications

Wendell Kim, the long time coach with the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Montreal Expos, and San Francisco Giants, has passed away due to complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 64.
Kim was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease in 2006, a particularly aggressive form that affects less than 10% of all Alzheimer's patients. The condition robbed him of his ability to perform the most mundane of tasks, requiring 24-hour care in an assisted living facility.

His website "WK's Coach's Box," asks for donations to the following foundations to help fund research to cure Alzheimer's disease.