Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Long Island native Evans Killeen was a favorite of Stengel in Mets first spring training

Fifty years ago in February, the New York Mets opened spring training with a hodgepodge of players cast off by their respective organizations, some looking to prolong their careers, others looking to start theirs.

One of those upstarts was a local product, Evans Killeen; a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher from Elmont, N.Y. Killeen had seen action in four games with the Kansas City Athletics in 1959, winding up in Mexico before the Mets gave him another lease on his baseball career after pitching in a local semi-pro league.

Evans Killeen
“I had been with Kansas City in the AL in 1959,” Killeen said from his home in Long Island. “I hurt my leg in my fourth game in the major leagues; I stepped on a catcher’s mask backing up a play in home plate in Cleveland. In 1960, I played in the Mexican League, just going through the motions. In 1961, I was home and people talked me into playing semi-pro baseball again. I guess I dazzled them out there. St. Johns coach Jack Kaiser saw me pitch against his team and recommended me to the Mets.”

Killeen was part of a group of pitchers that arrived early to spring training that included high-priced signings such as Jay Hook and Bob “Righty” Miller. Despite not being one of the Mets prized recruits, manager Casey Stengel liked what he saw in Killeen.

“It’s got at least five promising youngsters … who will make it big in the future. When we started I didn’t think we had a single prospect. But I liked what I saw in Evans Killeen,” Stengel said to the New York Times.

He quickly gained the favor of Stengel by combining with Roger Craig to throw the first shutout in Mets history, when they blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 on March 13th. Killeen threw four no-hit shutout innings in relief. His performance not only earned him a headline in the New York Times, but more importantly the praise of his 72-year-old manager.

“Wasn’t he great? He was fast, all right, but I was particularly pleased with his slow curve. Yes, sir, that young fellow’s got a chance around here,” Stengel said.

Just as Killeen’s stock was rising, he encountered a cruel twist of fate the day after his sparkling performance. A wayward foray into his grooming supplies gave a sudden u-turn to his spring training progress.

“I had a freak accident; God must have wanted me not to be a ballplayer,” Killeen laughed. “I reached in my shaving bag and cut my right thumb. I cut it pretty good and was bandaged most of spring training.”

Killeen was relegated to short relief after his injury, pitching well enough to stay with the club until they broke camp. Just as they were to travel north, he was notified he was going to Syracuse.

“The handwriting was on the wall.” he said. “You knew they weren’t pitching you. … It was a money thing. … I had a minor league contract and they had a lot of money invested in all of those players they got in other organizations. I got caught in a numbers game.”

Killeen spent the 1962 season between Syracuse and Quincy before calling it quits. His frustrations after his ambitious spring training were mounting from the pressures of his family for him to move on.

“I didn’t even want to play after I left spring training," he said. "I asked myself, “What am I doing here?’ I was 26 years old, making no money. You couldn’t ask a girl to marry you. It’s terrible. All my friends were becoming doctors and lawyers. With all of these things, how can you hang in there? What kind of confidence do you have to want to play ball?”

The final straw came at the end of the 1962 season courtesy of general manager George Weiss.

“What kicked me in the face, George Weiss offered me to come back the next year with a contract for $700 [a $100 reduction from the prior season]," he recalled. "[After that] I said to myself, ‘I’m done, that’s it.’”

Despite leaving the Mets organization soured by Weiss’ offer, his fond memories of that inaugural spring training season have persisted a half-century later.

“It was phenomenal, just the people that were there, from Gil Hodges, to Richie Ashburn, Gus Bell, Casey Stengel, Rogers Hornsby, etc. The whole fanfare was so exciting, so tremendous.”

As the Mets dedicate the 2012 season to celebrating the 50-year history of the franchise, Killeen would welcome the opportunity to get together with his teammates.

“It would be nice, [even though] I didn’t play on the main team, to be invited to a Met reunion for their 50 years. They forgot about guys like me. We’re forgotten people. I would love to see the guys again.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

New York Mets legend John Franco to appear at Citibank locations February 27th

John Franco with the Mets Alumni Association Presented by Citi
Soon-to-be minted New York Mets Hall of Famer John Franco will be appearing at two Citibank locations in Manhattan, as well as the Mets clubhouse shop on Monday February 27th to promote an exclusive opportunity for Citi credit and debit card holders to purchase single game tickets before they go on sale to the public.

The online presale will be available at www.Mets.com/CitiPresale.

The two-day promotion begins on Monday, February 27 at 10:00 AM and ends on Tuesday, February 28 at 11:59 PM. A Citi credit or debit card must be used for the online sale. Tickets will be available for both opening day (April 5th) and the Subway Series (June 22nd-24th).

Franco will be appearing along with Mr. Met at the following locations as part of the Mets Alumni Association Presented by Citi on February 27th.
·         10:00 AM to 11:00 AM – Citibank flagship branch in Union Square (52 E. 14th Street)
·         12:30 PM to 1:30 PM – Citibank branch on 42nd Street and Madison (330 Madison Avenue)
·         2:00 PM to 3:00 PM – New York Mets Clubhouse Shop (11 W. 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues)

For further assistance, call the Mets Ticket Services team at (718) 507-TIXX.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

George Spencer's magical ride with the Giants in 1951

As one of the four living members from the 1951 National League champion New York Giants, former relief pitcher George Spencer can speak with candor about his playing career and the current state of baseball. “My playing days are long gone, but the memories are still there. It’s a great game, it seems like it’s a shame it has gotten to where it has,” he said in during a January 2012 phone interview from his home in Ohio.

“Where baseball is today, I’m very disenchanted. … I see the little leaguers when they hit a game winning home run, they all gather at home plate and hit each other and smack each other and throw helmets in the air, and that’s little league,” the 85-year-old Spencer lamented. “Instead of it being big league down, the little league has gone to the big leagues. I see them in their uniforms and it looks like half of them are getting ready to go to bed, with their pants down over their shoes. It’s a sight to behold.”

George Spencer
Well before the advent of players celebrating on the field for every diving catch, stolen base or home run, Spencer was a two-sport star at Ohio State University, where he played quarterback for their football team. More than sixty years later, Spencer has no regrets over his choice of profession. “I played football and baseball. I had two quarters, one for football and one for baseball and neither one of them took!” laughed Spencer. “I picked the right sport anyway. I can still walk and get around fairly decent."

Spencer signed with the Giants in 1948, and after three seasons in the minors, he was summoned to the majors in August 1950, albeit much to his surprise. “You won’t believe this. I won my first eight games in Jersey City. [After that] I lost either three or four in a row. I can’t remember where we were on the road, but Joe Becker the manager called me over,” said Spencer. The following exchange ensued between Spencer and his manager.

He said to me, ‘George, you’re going to the big leagues.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sure as hell am Joe, I just lost four in a row and I’m going to the big leagues!’ He said, ‘I’m serious, you’re supposed to join them in Philadelphia.’ I said, ‘That’s hard to believe.’”

Spencer joined the Giants in Philadelphia and quickly found out that things were a bit more intense on major league soil.

“I joined them in Philadelphia and we went to fist city three times in the game,” Spencer recalled. “That’s when Eddie Stanky was standing on second base waving his arms. He and [Andy] Seminick, the Philly catcher at the time, went ape over the doggone thing because they didn’t have a rule on that [relaying signs]. We cleared out; I was out of that bullpen three times. I was out there fighting and I can remember looking on my right and Tookie Gilbert is down on the ground and some cop has the billyclub right over him, ready to swipe him. Somebody grabbed his arm so Tookie didn’t get hit. I thought if this is the big leagues, I’m a lover, not a fighter. What an experience!”

A few days later at the Polo Grounds, Spencer toed the rubber for his debut against their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After getting through a scoreless first inning, Spencer again received another major league lesson.

“I’m facing the Dodgers and [Gene] Hermanski is the hitter. I got him a nice fastball right over the plate and hit a ball to the right field side of dead center. Bobby Thomson was playing center field and he hit it and it was a one-hopper to the fence out there,” said Spencer. “I finally got the side out and I come back in the dugout and Bobby comes back in and says, ‘Darn, I didn’t get a jump on that ball, that ball should have been caught.’ I said, ‘Bobby, if that ball should have been caught, this is where I should be pitching.’ I didn’t pitch there very long, but that’s where I should have been pitching.”

After posting a 2.49 ERA in ten games his rookie season, Spencer returned for a full year with the club in 1951. During that year, Spencer found himself with a front row seat to some of baseball’s most legendary spectacles which included pitching in the World Series, watching Bobby Thomson flatten the hopes of Brooklyn faithful and last but not least, the debut of a young kid from Alabama named Willie Mays.

“In my opinion, he was the best all-around ballplayer I ever saw. … He’s the only outfielder that I can remember seeing that could hit any place on the infield and it was a one-hopper to the catcher,” he said.

During the infamous playoff game where Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Spencer recalled the performance of Don Newcombe dashing his World Series hopes.

“In the eighth inning when Newcombe was still pitching and they had the lead, it looked like he was throwing nothing but bee-bees. I visually saw dollar bills flying out the window because we were going to get knocked off by him, because he looked like he had way too much,” said Spencer.

The bullpen let out a sigh of relief when Charlie Dressen went to the mound.

“Everyone on our team was pleased that they decided to make the switch, any switch to get Newcombe out of there. The way it ended up, it was all to our liking. I don’t think they were too happy with it, but that’s the way it goes. That’s baseball.”

Thomson’s home run propelled the Giants to the World Series against the New York Yankees who featured the soon-to-be retired Joe DiMaggio. In the seventh inning of Game Two of the World Series, Spencer was summoned in relief of Larry Jansen. Standing across from him as he walked to the mound in his World Series debut was the famed Yankee Clipper.

“The first guy I had to face was number five. I think I got about two-thirds of the way to the mound from the bullpen and I looked at the scoreboard and it said number five up there and I immediately thought, ‘What in the hell am I doing here pitching to this guy?’” Spencer wondered.

Even though Spencer gave up seven runs in his two World Series appearances, he had a clean slate against DiMaggio the two times they squared off.

“I always thought I was a big contributor to his retirement in 1951 because I faced him twice and I got him out both times. He must be saying, ‘If I can’t hit that guy, I must be through.’ That’s the story I always told. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him have any comment of how tough of a pitcher I ever was. I look at it a little differently.”

Spencer remained with the Giants through the 1955 season, shuttling between the major league club and AAA. He pitched in six games for the 1954 World Series champs, contributing a 1-0 record during the regular season, but wasn’t on the roster for the postseason. He resurfaced in the majors with the Detroit Tigers for cups of coffee in 1958 and 1960, playing full-time in the minors through 1963 before retiring. He became a pitching coach in the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds organizations for four years, taking the mound one last time as a player-coach in 1966 while coaching in Statesville, N.C.

Moving on from professional baseball, Spencer worked in a sheet metal factory for twenty years.

Throughout all of his travels during his 17 years in baseball, nothing matched the rivalry between the two New York National League teams during that 1951 season.

“When the Dodgers and Giants played each other, it was war. Every time we went to Brooklyn, you knew what you were going to get there and when they came to the Polo Grounds, they knew what they were going to get too. It was a thrill to be a part of that.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Oil Can Boyd admits to cocaine use in his new book

Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, major league pitcher of 10 seasons, primarily with the Boston Red Sox, admitted recently in an interview that he pitched with cocaine in his system approximately two-thirds of his career.

The 52-year-old right-hander is still active in baseball circles, participating in numerous fantasy camps and old-timers games, while running a baseball school in Rhode Island.

"Oil Can," further describes his struggles with cocaine and alcohol in his upcoming book, They Call Me Oil Can: My Life in Baseball, which will be released by Triumph Books in June.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Fritz Peterson: All my friends are hurt and dying

After meeting Fritz Peterson at the 24th annual Joe DiMaggio Legends Game in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., we traded some e-mails and he was kind enough to share this essay he wrote about his friend, Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson entitled, "All my friends are hurt and dying." With his permission, I am sharing this touching essay as well as a photo from 1970 with Brooks Robinson as Peterson received the BBWAA's "Good Guy," award.

"All my friends are hurt and dying"

Brooks Robinson and I go back to 1966. My first start in the big leagues was against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium, their season opener. I won the game 3-2 and got a complete game. That was the only game the Orioles would lose that month as they marched to become World Series Champs that year.

Within two weeks the Orioles returned the favor, beating me in New York. After the loss, I went to a pub where ballplayers hung out and met Brooks Robinson personally for the first time. What a gentleman! He actually told me that I was going to be around the big leagues for a long time. Coming from him that gave me a big boost, since I had only been with the Yankees for less than a month at that time, just feeling my way into the big leagues.

Fritz Peterson (2nd from left) next to his friend Brooks Robinson in 1970 receiving the BBWAA Good Guy Award
Friday night, January 27th, 2012, I saw Brooks at the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital's annual fund raiser in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. All the ex-major league players first met in the signing room at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino before we went downstairs to one of the ballrooms for the auction of sports memorabilia to raise money for the hospital. There would be a baseball game the next day pitting the National Leaguer's against the American Leaguer's. Many ex-players were in attendance, as it is each year due to the great cause it represents.

When I first saw Brooks, he looked very weak and frail. He has been dealing with several health issues for two or three years now and it looks like they were taking a toll on him. I sat a few feet away from him and had a little time to joke around about signing autographs with our, “off hands.” He was a righty Hall of Famer that signed autographs left handed and I was a lefty that signed right handed. After the signings, we all went down for some food before we were all introduced to all the fans that were in attendance at the auction.

There was a large dais set up on the stage with three levels of chairs for us to sit on. Brooks was on the third level while I was in front of him on the second level of chairs. After the introduction of all of us by the announcer, we were all to go down to the main floor to mingle with the guests while they looked over the various items up for sale. When we began standing up, Brooks’ chair slipped off the back edge of the platform and he tumbled off the third level backward and then once more as he tumbled off the dais onto the main level in the auditorium which unfortunately had a hard surface. When we realized someone had tumbled off thru the curtains behind us and onto the hard surface below, pandemonium broke loose with players jumping off the stage trying to get to Brooks, half yelling for someone to get a doctor. He was badly hurt. Since it was a fundraiser for a hospital, the audience was full of doctors who just took seconds to get to him. It was sickening, but even worse when we found out it was Brooks, the nicest but most frail player among us that night.

During the panic that ensued, I was looking at Brooks, that sweet, wonderful man lying on the floor all sprawled out with his grey hair all disheveled. I just wanted first to throw up and then, more importantly just to go down and hug him and fix him. I wish I could have taken the fall for him. I have more “meat,” on me, and as of last week I found out that the cancer cells I had had for years were now “undetectable,” the day before Brooks’ fall.

Seeing my buddy on the floor made me cry.

While we were in the signing room I was also updated about Gary Carter, another beautiful man who is being eaten up by brain cancer, similar to other friends in baseball, Bobby Murcer and Dick Howser. That brought me to thoughts of two other baseball friends who died of heart attacks over the past few years, Johnny Blanchard and Tom Tresh.

It saddens me to no end about these guys, and there will be others, but I feel blessed to have known them and because as of this moment, I have a new lease on life. I intend on paying more attention to my friends and thanking God for every moment, especially for the little things.

I love you Brooksie! (He calls me Fritzie). What a beautiful man!

Brooks Robinson is a Hall of Fame 3rd Baseman. Fritz Peterson ended up with the lowest career E.R.A. of any pitcher in the history of Old Yankee Stadium 1923-2008.

- Fritz Peterson

Saturday, February 4, 2012

New York well represented at 2012 Joe DiMaggio Legends Game

With over a dozen former New York Mets and Yankees represented at the 24th annual Joe DiMaggio Legends Game in Fort Lauderdale last Saturday, the retired heroes of Gotham baseball did their best to honor the memory of the famed Yankee Clipper while supporting the children’s hospital which bears his name.

1969 Mets Jim McAndrew and Ron Swoboda at the Joe DiMaggio Legends game
The game was the culmination of a two-day event, which included a fabulous auction and player reception at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood the evening prior, where sadly Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson suffered a broken clavicle after a fall off stage.

Doing their best to push forward after the injury to Robinson, the players radiated as much as the 80-degree sun, donning their uniforms for the enthusiastic crowd. Among the participants were the 85-year-old Minnie Minoso, Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Orlando Cepeda, as well as the ever colorful characters of Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd.

The alumni were split in two teams representing the American and National Leagues. After seven innings, the National League emerged victorious, 12-5; however, for the players, the score was irrelevant. The weekend was an opportunity to raise money for the hospital while being able to return another year to connect with their fellow teammates and cronies.

“Just to see the players that I haven’t seen for a year and the players that I played against that you were never able to sit down and talk to is great," said 1969 New York Met World Series hero Al Weis. "It’s a wonderful bunch of guys they have coming down.”

Ron Blomberg, the famed Yankee designated hitter, has multiple connections to this game, including his son Adam who is a doctor at the hospital.

“This is my seventh year coming here," Blomberg said. "Older players took care of me when I played and if I can give back to the kids, do anything for the charity, I’m involved. My son is the head anesthesiologist at Memorial, so it’s a father-son thing.”

The site of the game, Fort Lauderdale Stadium, was the spring training home of the Yankees for many years until they moved to Tampa. For players like Fritz Peterson, returning to South Florida brought back memories of a burgeoning baseball career.

“I’ve been coming out about five years … it’s a tremendous thing," Peterson said. "This is where I really started in 1966 and played all through my career until I was out of there. This is my spring training home. When the Yankees moved to Tampa, it just didn’t seem right; this seemed like the place to be.”

Event organizers are already planning next year’s event, which will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the game, and is surely expected to be a star studded affair. For more information on the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, please visit http://www.jdchf.org/.