Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Review: Hard-Luck Harvey Haddix and the Greatest Game Ever Lost - Lew Freedman

"Hard-Luck Harvey Haddix and the Greatest Game Ever Lost"
Lew Freedman
McFarland Publishing, 2009
210 pages

This week Mark Buehrle set a Major League record for consecutive outs with 45. This came on heels of Buehrle pitching a perfect game, followed by almost another six "perfect" innings in the following game. Without fail, during the media coverage of Buehrle's streak, Harvey Haddix's flirt with perfection 50 years prior was ushered to the forefront of baseball discussion. Chicago-based sportswriter Lew Freedman recreates the events of May 26, 1959 with his new book, Hard-Luck Harvey Haddix and the Greatest Game Ever Lost, placing the reader in a box seat for all of the action.

Imagine pitching not only nine innings of perfect baseball as Buehrle did, but pitching 12 in an extra inning game, only to lose in the end. To add insult to injury, 30-something years later, a minor rule change strikes your no-hitter from the record books. Such is the story of "Hard-Luck" Harvey Haddix.

Follow Haddix as he battles flu-like symptoms to silence the bats of greats such as Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. Freedman keeps the reader on the edge of their seat as the game tightens with each zero placed on the board. Every inning, you receive insider commentary from Haddix's teammates as he records another trifecta. As the game goes along you hope that the Pirates can string together a few of their 12 hits off of Lew Burdette to push a runner across the plate.

You are clued into the mind of Manager Danny Murtaugh, dissecting each move as you approach the later stages of the contest. Will Murtaugh summon ace reliever Roy Face? Will a pinch-hitter appear for Haddix in the late innings? Conspicuously absent from the lineup was the injured Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, opening the door for Roman Mejias to start. Mejias would later gain infamy on a key play during the early stages of the game. Would the result have been different with the Puerto Rican star in the lineup?

In between the description of the game's events, Freedman delivers insightful profiles of the players on the field for Pittsburgh, allowing the reader to gain a look at lesser known players that contributed that day such as: Bob Skinner, Dick Schofield, Dick Stuart, Rocky Nelson, and Smoky Burgess.

Sadly, no footage of this game exists. The Pirates were on the road and the local TV station KDKA chose to show a speech of vice-president Richard Nixon instead of the game between the Braves and the Pirates. This is why this book excels. With the recently released footage of Don Larsen's perfect game, the mystique of what actually transpired has been diminished. It is no longer a story told by only those who were there to witness it. Freedman's script of Haddix's game and its surroundings only enhance the legend of Haddix's duel with Burdette. If you want an illumination of one baseball's most magical games, Freedman serves up a winner in detailing the greatest game ever lost.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Acquiring Propsects at the Trade Deadline, Fools Gold or Treasure?

Yesterday's transaction between the Cleveland Indians and the Philadelphia Phillies read as follows: July 29: Indians trade Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to the Phillies for Lou Marson , Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, & Carlos Carrasco. While the Phillies addressed their need for an additional frontline starter and a backup outfielder, what exactly did the Indians get in return?

The centerpiece of the deal for the Indians are the two pitchers they received in Knapp and Carrasco. Knapp has yet to turn 19, and is throwing in the 97 MPH range. He is a few years away from the Majors, but the scouts drool over his upside. At his age, the Indians can afford to bring him along slowly. Carrasco at 22 entered the year as the #2 prospect in the Phillies organization, and is a veteran of two Futures games. He has hit a speed bump in AAA, posting an ERA over 5, however, he could benefit from the change of moving into a lower pressure situation in Cleveland. He throws in the mid 90's with two good offspeed pitches. Donald projects as a backup infielder, as he is hitting .230 at AAA. Marson adds to an already crowded catching situation with Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach. The departure of Ryan Garko could allow Martinez to shift to first base full-time and open the door for Marson to compete for the full-time catching gig.

This trade begs the question of the title of the article, did the Indians acquire a hidden treasure from the Phillies or a bag of fools gold? Does the scouting department of the Indians see something that the rest of us do not? Was this the best offer that they could get for Lee at the trade deadline? Approaching age 31, do they Indians feel that Lee's best days are behind him? Will the two pitchers reach their potential and eventually fill the void left by the trade of Lee?

With any trade, as time passes, the answer will be revealed. History, however, tells us a different story of prospect trades gone to bust. ESPN's Jerry Crasnick offers his view on nine trades where prospects didn't pan out entitled, "They're Called 'Prospects' For a Reason".

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mets fire Tony Bernazard

According to the New York Daily News, the Mets have fired controversial VP of Player Development Tony Bernazard. A press conference was held at Citi Field Monday, where Omar Minaya announced the firing. Bernazard found himself under the microscope after recent flare-ups where he allegedly challenged the Binghamton Mets to a fight, cursed out a Mets official over a seating dispute at Citi Field, and had to be separated from Francisco Rodriguez on the team bus after an 11-0 loss to the Braves. Bernazard played 10 seasons in the Majors, as well as 3 in Japan. He had held his current position since December, 2004.

Will 2010 bring the election of the next designated hitter to the Hall of Fame?

Yesterday's induction of Joe Gordon, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice into the Baseball Hall of Fame now gives us almost an entire year to contemplate the candidacy of the new crop of players eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. The list of includes (in alphabetical order): Roberto Alomar, Kevin Appier, Andy Ashby, Ellis Burks, Andres Galarraga, Pat Hentgen, Mike Jackson, Eric Karros, Ray Lankford, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Shane Reynolds, Robin Ventura, and Todd Zeile.

A name that jumps off of this list, certain to be a hot topic of debate is Edgar Martinez. Martinez spent his last 10 seasons exclusively as a designated hitter, only appearing in 33 games in the field from 1995-2004. Paul Molitor is the only player in the Hall of Fame who spent nearly half of his career as a designated hitter. However, a quick comparison of Martinez to Molitor shows that Molitor spent substantially less time as a DH, playing 900 more games in the field. Molitor is also 9th all-time in hits with 3,319, over 1,000 more than Martinez.

Offensively, Martinez is only one of 15 players that has a lifetime BA of over .300, a lifetime OBP of over .400, and a lifetime SLG of over .500. 13 of the 15 players are in the Hall of Fame. The two that aren't are Joe Jackson and Martinez. While Martinez was one of the most feared hitters of the mid-late 1990's, are his offensive numbers dominant enough to overshadow the fact that he didn't pick up a glove for his last 10 seasons in the Majors?

When fans and voters discuss the merits of the forthcoming Hall of Fame candidates, how significant will defensive play be factored into the equation? If you only have to go up there and hit 4 times a game without the grind of playing in the field 9 innings, do you have an unfair advantage over the players who are expending their energy on both offense and defense? How far ahead offensively does one need to be for public consensus to deem them Hall of Fame worthy if you are primarily a DH? These are the questions will be investigating as Edgar Martinez begins his campaign for the Hall of Fame. There is already a website dedicated to promoting his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. You can read all about it, here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: Going, Going ... Caught! by Jason Aronoff

"Going, Going ... Caught! - Baseball's great outfield catches as described by those who saw them, 1887-1964"

Jason Aronoff
McFarland Publishing, 2009
266 pages

On the heels of Dewayne Wise's leaping catch during Mark Buehrle's perfect game, it's only appropriate that I present a book detailing the greatest outfield catches in Major League Baseball's history.

"Going, Going ... Caught!" was originally recommended to me by former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Don Thompson as he attempted to describe Duke Snider's nearly impossible catch of Willie "Puddin Head" Jones' smash in Philadelphia on Memorial Day of 1954. Thompson should know a thing or two about Snider's climb up the wall that day; he was standing next to Snider when he did the seemingly impossible, digging his spikes into the outfield fence after sprinting into the depths of left-center only to throw his glove hand above his head and across his body for the catch as he collided with the wall. While Aronoff provides an illustration recreating the catch, there are no actual photographs of his theatrics available. This goes for about 95% of the other catches mentioned in the book. All we have left of these grabs are the accounts from the sportswriters and players who saw them. These accounts are what make this book special. You are transported back to a time when mass media didn't cover baseball and left you to create your own picture of a great center fielder chasing down a ball that seems way out of his reach.

Aronoff has done painstaking research to uncover multiple sources detailing catches that the writers at the time described as the "best ever." There is great detail given to the dimensions of old ballparks and how their cavernous reaches allowed for these players to catch up to balls that everyone in the crowd thought were going to fall in for extra-base hits.. Unlike modern stadiums, outfielders had to travel farther distances and contend with unpadded wooden and concrete walls to haul in shots hit into the far reaches of the ballpark.

While "Going, Going, Caught!" is well researched, the reader is bogged down with redundant accounts of the same catch, and multiple catches made by the same player that were "very good" but not great. Aronoff could have condensed the accounts he relayed in order to make it more digestible. It may be a bit too intense for the casual baseball reader, or those not familiar with the players of yesteryear.

However, Aronoff's book not only further enlivens the debate between Mantle, Snider and Mays, it also brings up fielding stars that time has forgotten, such as Jimmy Piersall, Terry Moore, Jigger Statz, Dode Paskert, Bill Lange, and baseball's earliest deaf player, "Dummy" Hoy. It may even make you question your beliefs of who is the greatest outfielder of all time. While their Hall of Fame contemporaries of Keeler, Cobb, Speaker, and DiMaggio are all profiled at one point, it's the exploits of the lesser known aforementioned players that make "Going, Going ... Caught" run.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Carl Willey, 78, 1931-2009 Pitched For Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets

Former Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets pitcher Carlton "Carl" Willey died July 20, 2009 at the age of 78 in his hometown of Cherryfield, Maine after a long battle with lung cancer. Willey was a member of the 1958 Braves team that won the National League Pennant, and recorded two strikeouts in his only inning of pitching during the World Series against the Yankees. Willey was signed by the Braves in 1951, and missed the 1953 and 1954 seasons due to his service in the Korean War. He rose to prominence in their farm system after earning MVP honors at AAA Wichita in 1957. Willey debuted for the Braves in 1958 and pitched 8 seasons in the Major Leagues before finishing up his career in 1965 with the Mets. After his baseball career, he scouted for the Philadelphia Phillies and ran a house painting business.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sergio Mitre Wins His First Game In Two Seasons For The Yankees

Newly minted Yankees starting pitcher Sergio Mitre gave Yankee fans a glimmer of hope for plugging the rotation by pitching 5 2/3 innings in a win over the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday night. Recalled from Scranton-Wilkes Barre and making his first MLB start since 2007, Mitre scattered 8 hits and gave up 4 runs (3 earned). With a lifetime record of 10-23 with a 5.36 ERA and a 50 game suspension earlier this season for using performance enhancing drugs, Mitre appeared to be an unlikely candidate for the Yankees rotation. Injuries to the Yankees starters have paved the way for Mitre's redemption. Now that Mitre has put his first win for the Bronx Bombers behind him, the true test will be to see if he can continue to put the Yankees in a position to win as they attempt to keep a lock on first place in the American League East. While Mitre's history of mediocre performance may tell us otherwise, one of baseball's redeeming qualities is that there is that hope for at least this season that Mitre will defy the law of averages and help the Yankees push towards another pennant.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hubert "Bert" Simmons, 85, 1924-2009 - Former Negro League Pitcher / Outfielder

Bert Simmons at the 2008 Judy Johnson Foundation NightFormer Negro League pitcher and outfielder Hubert "Bert" Simmons died on Wednesday July 8, 2009 at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital Center in the Baltimore area at the age of 85. Simmons played in 1950 for the Baltimore Elite Giants. With Simmons' passing, the only four known living former Baltimore Elite Giants are James "Red" Moore, Andy Porter, Clyde Parris and Clinton "Butch" McCord.

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Simmons during the past two Judy Johnson Foundation tributes at the Wilmington Blue Rocks stadium. He was an engaging individual, signing autographs for everyone and readily willing to share his experiences about playing professional baseball and serving in World War II with anyone who asked. We talked about the finer points of throwing a curve ball (his expertise), how he was recruited by Dick Powell to play for Baltimore, and some of his great teammates in Thomas "Pee Wee" Butts, Junior Gilliam, Joe Black and Henry Kimbro. He said that Butts and Gilliam were the best double play combination that he had ever seen. Simmons was also kind enough to pass along some advice on teaching high school students, which has helped me in my journey in education.

Last summer, Simmons was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in the June 2008 Major League Baseball "Negro Leagues Draft", which he said was his greatest honor in baseball. Simmons was held in high regard in the Baltimore area, where he made countless appearances promoting the memory of Negro League baseball. His generosity will be missed, and his memory will live on through the Negro League's Baseball Museum of Maryland where he was co-president. It is located in the Lochearn Presbyterian Church on Patterson Avenue in Baltimore County, and is set to open in September. Here is a video of Simmons and Ray Banks talking about the museum.

Below is an interview from 21st Century Radio with Dr. Bob Hieronimus

For more information on Bert Simmons, explore the following websites:

Baltimore Sun Obituary
Baltimore Afro-American Obituary
North Carolina A+T Baseball Alumni Association Article
Baseball in Wartime - Detailing Bert Simmons' WWII Experience

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review: Eddie Neville of the Durham Bulls by Bill Kirkland

Although published in 1993, Bill Kirkland's, "Eddie Neville of the Durham Bulls," serves as a primer to all major league hopefuls in their quest to make it from the bushes to the big leagues.

Recommended to me by former Eddie Neville teammate Emil Restaino, Kirkland chronicles Neville's playing career from his days toiling in the sandlots of Baltimore, through the shores of the Canal Zone, to his jumping among the rungs of the Detroit Tigers minor league system. Along the way, Neville hangs on to the dream of donning the Tiger uniform, while enduring long bus rides, thrifty owners, and steady doses of winter ball in the off season.

You ride with Neville, as he makes steady progress under the watchful eye Al Kubski in Panama, leading you to believe that he is on the path to the Major Leagues. After posting 28 and 25 win seasons in Tarboro and Durham respectively, he ascends to the highest rank of the Tigers minor league organization, their AAA affiliate in Toledo. Neville struggles at AAA that season, posting a 6-15 record while battling a sore arm. It was as close as Neville would get to the Major Leagues.

Even with a sore arm, Neville displayed tremendous guile that would be his calling card throughout his career. Neville would often will his way to victory, relying on his junk as he slowly began to lose his fastball due to prolonged arm problems. During the 1950 season against first-place Indianapolis, he pitched a 16-inning victory in 90 degree heat, scoring the winning run after hitting a triple at the top of the inning. Neville would add to his legend in Durham, pitching an 18 inning victory in 1952. Such performances are rarely ever seen or heard in modern baseball. His bulldog approach drew praise from fans and sportswriters alike. Neville's reputation would earn him multiple starting day honors for Durham as he rose to the top of the class of the Carolina League. Crowds would flock to Durham Athletic Park every fifth day to see him pitch.

While Neville's stats may recommend that he was due for a promotion, there were questions about his velocity and being difficult to manage. Neville was also passed over to replace his former Durham Bulls manager, NFL Hall of Famer Clarence "Ace" Parker, when Parker took the helm at Duke University. Ironically, Neville would go on to work for 20 years as a buyer in the purchasing department at Duke. He would suffer in his later years from multi-infarct dementia.

Much of the information gathered is courtesy of Neville's diary that he kept while he was playing, and from the vast collection of his wife Janet. Kirkland meticulously combed small-town newspaper articles and conducted interviews with Neville's former teammates to accurately depict the career of Neville. The rare photos of Neville and his teammates from the 1940's and 1950's, including a young Tommy Lasorda from the Canal Zone take you back to when baseball was a reflection of close knit atmosphere of minor league baseball before the era of expansion.

Neville's grandson, Kenneth Villines was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2008. Here is the News Observer article that mentions Neville's legacy as a Durham Bull in relation to his grandson being drafted.