Monday, December 30, 2013

Members of the Minnesota Twins share their thoughts on the closing of the Metrodome

The Minnesota Vikings narrow 14-13 victory over the Detroit Lions on December 29, 2013 signaled the final game in the 31-year history of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minnesota. My lasting memory of the Metrodome was Kirby Puckett circling the bases in the 11th inning of Game Six of the 1991 World Series, while Jack Buck screamed, "We'll see you tomorrow night!"

Metrodome / Wikimedia Commons
Selected former Minnesota Twins alumni shared their thoughts on the closing of the Metrodome on Twitter this week. Feel free to add your own, or share those of other Twins alums.







Sunday, December 29, 2013

'Tough Guy, Gentle Heart' by Felix Millan - Book Review

Tough Guy, Gentle Heart
Felix Millan’s choked-up batting stance and dazzling glovework at second base are deeply entrenched in the minds of baseball fans that saw him play in the 1960s and 1970s. Now well removed from his final play on the field, Millan has partnered with author Jane Allen Quevedo to pen his memoirs in “Tough Guy, Gentle Heart.” (Infinity Publishing, 2013).

The book weighs in at a lithe 129 pages, similar to the stature of Millan; and like the play of the All-Star second baseman, is as much about perseverance as it is about baseball. The young Puerto Rican infielder came from extremely humble beginnings in his hometown of Yabucoa, where he attended school barefoot, dreaming of his daily dismissal so he could go and play baseball. Using a glove made from canvas stuffed with newspaper, Millan devoted countless hours to developing the soft hands that made him a Gold Glove infielder.

As he grew in skill and size, Millan became widely known for his prowess on the diamond, enough that his high school English teacher let him sleep in class. She saw potential in Millan that would someday allow him to leave his town of Yabucoa.

Upon graduating from high school, Millan joined the United States Army, where he tried to navigate his way through his commands armed with only a little English. Luckily for Millan, after a transfer to Fort Gordon, he made his way on to the baseball team and rode out the rest of his time in the Special Services. Waiting back for him in Puerto Rico was a young girl named Mercy, someone he only knew through trading letters in the mail.

With Mercy by his side, Millan signed with the Kansas City Athletics in 1964 and blissfully entered the career he had envisioned ever since his elementary school days. His dream didn’t quite match up with the realities of the South in the early 1960’s. Being a man of color who wasn’t fluent in English did not bode well for Millan during his rookie campaign in Daytona Beach. The harsh treatment he endured both on and off the field was enough for Millan to want to turn his back on the game he loved so dearly; that is until Mercy stepped in. With the encouragement of his wife, Millan chose to follow his faith and continue to pursue his career in baseball.

His strong faith, whether it came from baseball, his family, or his religion, is a consistent theme throughout the book. His perseverance in many situations reveals his strong character, one that further qualifies the title, “Tough Guy, Gentile Heart.

Millan shares choice details about his baseball career from start to finish, starting in Puerto Rico, progressing to the major leagues with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, to his travels in Japan and Mexico at the end of his playing days. It is told in a way that does not turn his story into one of self-aggrandizement. Particularly touching is the story of how Hall of Famer Hank Aaron took the rookie under his wing when he was first called up to the Braves.

Diehard baseball fans may find “Tough Guy, Gentle Heart,” a bit short on winding tales inside the lines; however, those gaps are neatly filled with the rich life experiences that helped to shape one of the sport’s finest gentleman.


Friday, December 27, 2013

How the New York Mets let Paul Blair fall from their grasp

The passing of Paul Blair on Thursday evoked a terrible oversight by the New York Mets organization at the earliest stage of their franchise. The Mets once envisioned a time when Blair would roam the outfield, hauling down long drives to the depths of what would be their new home in Flushing. So how did this budding franchise let one of the best center fielders of his era slip right through their fingertips?

Paul Blair at the 2012 Joe DiMaggio Legends Game / N. Diunte
Blair was signed by scout Babe Herman in 1961 from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles as an infielder for the princely sum of $2,000. His hometown Dodgers had passed on him, citing his small stature after a tryout at the Coliseum.

“I was depressed about being rejected by the Dodgers,” Blair said to Robert Lipsyte in 1969, “and I would have signed with anyone; I just wanted to play major league ball.”

The Mets assigned Blair to their Class-C affiliate in Santa Barbara, under the watchful eye of Gene Lillard. Author Mike Huber relayed in his SABR bio of Blair how Blair seized an opportunity on the first day of practice that started him on the road to becoming a Gold Glove caliber center fielder.

"The first day the coach told us to run out to our positions," Blair once told a reporter. "Well, seven players went to shortstop and six went to second but only one went to right. And I knew I could throw better than him and run better than him. So I ran out to right and played there. Then the center fielder got hurt and I moved to center."

While Blair’s .228 average and 147 strikeouts in 122 games didn’t set the world on fire, his 17 home runs and 20 outfield assists were enough for the Mets to give him a deeper look at their instructional winter league in Florida.

Given the time to further show off his tools, Blair started to turn heads with his skilled play.

“Everybody on the team said that he was going to be in the big leagues one year,” said fellow Mets farmhand and instructional league teammate Larry Boerschig via telephone shortly after Blair’s passing. “He was one of the few of the bunch down there that you could see who had something a little extra.”

The Mets, who left him unprotected in the winter draft, realized they had a commodity on their hands more valuable than they initially thought. They tried to hide Blair by having him sit in the stands with a faux ankle injury.

“I didn’t play for two weeks. I was supposed to have a sprained ankle,” Blair said to the Associated Press. “The day of the draft I was supposed to have started playing.”

His teammates caught wind of what was going on when all of a sudden Blair stopped dressing for games.

"He was healthy; he wasn’t hurt," said Roger Wattler via telephone on Friday, who played the outfield with Blair on the Mets instructional league team. "You knew something was up when they didn’t even take him to the games."

Despite the Mets last-minute efforts to stash away Blair’s talents, the Orioles swooped down upon on the young outfielder. Just as he was to have resumed playing, he entered the clubhouse to find out he no longer belonged to the team.

“I went to my locker and everything was packed up,” he said.

Just the idea that the Mets didn't protect Blair from the draft bewildered at least one teammate. The Mets had just let one of their best defensive prospects fall from their grasp at the earliest stage of their franchise.

“It was a shock when he went to Baltimore because we couldn’t believe they would not protect him," Wattler said. "You could see the potential in him; he was just a class center fielder, no doubt. He would almost look like he wasn’t even trying and he would run them down. As a defensive outfielder, there weren’t too many better at that time."

There was much speculation on the executive who didn’t see fit to protect Blair from being drafted. One source reported that Blair didn’t make the grade with Mets scout Eddie Stanky. The exact person in the organization remained a mystery to Blair; one that he had no desire to unravel.

“All I know,” Blair said to Bill Christine of the Pittsburgh Press in 1969, “is that somebody over there [New York] didn’t like me. Somebody thought I wasn’t good enough.”

It was tough at first for the 18-year-old to face the news that the Mets had given up on him so quickly, but he found solace knowing he was wanted by Baltimore.

“Sure, I was jolted,” he said to the Associated Press in 1969. “But I realized that somebody in the Baltimore organization had seen something they liked about me or they wouldn’t have been willing to invest their money in me.”

Blair made his major league debut with the Orioles on September 9, 1964, and the following season, he cemented himself as their center fielder for years to come. In all, Blair played in 17 major league seasons from 1964-1980, winning eight Gold Gloves, and four World Series titles, two as a member of the Orioles, and two as a member of the New York Yankees.

Blair had no qualms about how his career progressed from his start in the Mets system when queried by the Associated Press prior to squaring off with his former parent club in the 1969 World Series.

“I’ve never regretted the way things worked out,” he said. “Maybe I could’ve made more money playing in New York but then again, maybe they would have rushed me to the majors and I might not have had time to develop properly."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An unlikely baseball sojourn for the Christmas born Neal Watlington

Christmas is universally known as a holiday where families get together to exchange gifts and celebrate each other’s presence. For Neal Watlington, the date of December 25th holds an extra special meaning, as it marks the 91st birthday for the son of Julius and Laura Watlington.

Watlington, who was a catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953, is one of 67 major league players born on December 25th, which includes Hall of Famers Nellie Fox, Pud Galvin, and Rickey Henderson. At 91, he is one of the oldest living alumni of Philadelphia’s American League team.

Speaking via telephone from his home in Yanceyville, N.C. earlier this week, Watlington reflected on the auspicious start to his professional baseball career in 1941 with the Mayodan Millers of the Class D Bi-State League.

“I played with them for only about a week to ten days,” Watlington said.

Just as quickly as his professional career started, it abruptly ended when the team folded. It was the beginning of a long journey to an improbable major league career.

Watlington waited an additional six years before had the opportunity to play again professionally, a lay-off that would be unheard of in today’s era of baseball. World War II intervened, and as a member of the United States Army, he quickly found himself wearing a different set of protective gear.

“I served three years in the Army,” he said. “I put in six months on the front lines in France, Belgium and Germany.”

Watlington earned a Purple Heart for his service, and like many young ballplayers coming out of the military, he returned home looking for a place to play baseball. At 23, he was now considered old for a prospect and with the staggering amount of players suddenly available, Watlington quickly discovered teams were looking for younger talent.

“It’s quite a story,” he said. “I came home and I contacted George Ferrell who was a scout for the Detroit Tigers. I played against him [when] he was managing Martinsville. I asked him about the possibility of playing and he said he would send me to Winston Salem (St. Louis Cardinals affiliate) to talk to the general manager. They said they would take me to spring training. A week before spring training, they called me up and said, ‘You’re 23 years old and we’re not going to sign anyone over 21.’” 

He was deeply disappointed by the news. “It broke my heart,” he said.

Not one to be discouraged, Watlington kept on playing with the hope that he would create another opportunity for himself. It came at an unlikely time, after a single-game elimination in a state tournament.

“I was working in Yanceyville, and they had a pretty good baseball team,” he said. “We went to the state tournament in Asheboro, N.C. We played just one game and got beat 2-1. After the game, there were three scouts at my car. It was the Cardinals, Giants and the Cubs. It was a big surprise to me.”

This scout for the Cardinals was less concerned with Watlington’s age, and offered him a contract on the spot. He declined.

“He offered me a contract for $500 and [told me] that I would be playing the next night in Valdosta, Ga.,” Watlington said. “I told him I wasn’t going to sign for that amount of money.”

Most players would have jumped at the opportunity, but Watlington was confident that the other teams were going to make stronger offers.

“I probably would have signed later, but I didn’t want to sign for that kind of money,” he said. “I came on home and about three days after that, the Giants scout Bill Harris was there. He wanted to sign me for $1,500.”

Watlington once again held out, knowing deep down that he was worth more than the bonus that they were offering.

“I told him, ‘No, I would like more than that,’” Watlington said. “He suggested that I go to Danville, try out over there, and talk to the manager. If they thought I was worth it, they probably would sign me. So I went.”

Danville manager Duke Brett only needed a half-hour to size up Watlington. They quickly made him an offer.

“I worked out about 30 minutes,” he said. “I hit about 4-5 balls over the fence, ran around the bases, and threw down to second. He told me to come back tomorrow and that he would call the Giants that night. I told him what I wanted, $3,000. The next day, they gave me the $3,000. That’s how I got started.”

He impressed right away, batting .328 in 111 games in 1947. The Giants organization moved him to Knoxville in 1948, where he followed up with a .302 average in 134 games. After two seasons in the minor leagues, the Giants decided he was ready to be a lot closer to the major leagues, elevating him to Triple-A with the Jersey City Giants in 1949. Watlington didn’t find much difficulty with the extreme jump within their minor league system.

“It wasn’t too bad, I hit pretty good in the lineup,” he said.

Watlington responded by hitting .270 while splitting his duties between catching and the outfield. While patrolling the outfield, he was flanked by a future Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin. Irvin was biding his time until the Giants were ready to call him up, which Watlington said was merely a formality.

“Monte was quite a ballplayer,” he said. “He could throw the ball from deep right field to home plate and he didn’t even bounce it in.”

While Watlington was in Triple-A proving that he could handle high level pitching on both offense and defense, he was behind Giants mainstay Wes Westrum at the catching position, as well as Ray Noble and Sal Yvars.

Just like earlier in his career after returning from the war, Watlington waited patiently for another break. This one came when Watlington’s contract, along with three other players from the Giants organization was sold to Philadelphia in 1952. The Athletics brought Watlington to spring training in 1953, where he made it to the final cut down day.

“We got back to Philadelphia,” he said, “and the manager Jimmie Dykes told me, ‘You’ve had a good spring training, but I’m sorry we’ve got to let you go back, we can’t carry three catchers. I feel real surely we’ll call you back, and if you do, you’re going to be number one.’”

Dykes stayed true to his word, and after an injury to catcher Joe Astroth during the middle of the season, Watlington was a finally a major leaguer at the age of 30.

“It was great to be there; there’s nothing like the big leagues,” he said.

Watlington played the waiting game for almost a week before he had the chance enter a major league game. He made his debut on July 10, 1953 against the Boston Red Sox, getting a hit in his first time at bat off of Greensboro native, Hal ‘Skinny’ Brown. He started the next few games, but was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the season when Astroth returned. With three catchers on the club, there was little room for Watlington to get an opportunity.

“Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290’s that season,” he said. “Both of them had good years, and there wasn’t just any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”

He finished the season batting .159 (7-for-44), and didn’t get another opportunity to return to the major leagues, spending the next five seasons at the Triple-A level until he hung up his cleats in 1958.

After his playing days were over, he was a tobacco farmer in his hometown of Yanceyville and owned Watlington's Inc., a department store, and the Watlington farm store before retiring in 1999.

Despite his short stay in the majors sixty years ago, Watlington remains proud of his accomplishments.

“I played in every ballpark,” he said. “I hit in Yankee Stadium against Vic Raschi, I hit against Bob Feller. It was just quite an experience for me.”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The tremendous character of Don Lund

I made my first contact with Don Lund via telephone late in 2007, as I started my research into what it was like for the players that made it into the major leagues as the color line was slowly eroding.

He shared his stories of being signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers only a few weeks before Jackie Robinson, and how both of them were offered positions on the major league club on the same day in 1947. We talked about his travels through the various organizations he played for, and his long standing career at the University of Michigan as a three-sport athlete, coach, and later assistant athletic director.

Don Lund with the author in 2008
His bird's eye view at Michigan of the budding talents of Bill Freehan, Barry Larkin, and Jim Abbott all rolled off his tongue as he beamed with pride describing his favorite stories of each player. He glowingly spoke about his 1962 National Championship team, and the influence that Ray Fisher had on his career. He had energy to continue telling stories, not about himself, but the many people he met along the way. Our conversations would routinely last close to an hour.

Earlier this week, I sadly received the news that Lund passed away last week at the age of 90 at an assisted living facility in Ann Arbor. The mention of his death immediately brought back memories of our 2008 meeting in New Jersey.

Knowing that he would be coming to the local area, for what was most likely to be the final Brooklyn Dodger reunion, we made plans to meet at the show and spend some time together. My only picture of Lund was what was on his baseball cards, so it was difficult for me to imagine what I was going to encounter. Time works differently on our baseball heroes, and Lund was 55 years removed from the portrait on his 1953 Topps card.

I walked up to the room, and there was Lund, holding onto a walker, partially stooped forward, smiling as we finally made our acquaintance in person. It was hard for me to envision him as the square shouldered running back that garnered a first-round draft choice from the Chicago Bears, but his grip was still incredibly firm as he reached out to shake my hand.

Within minutes of our meeting, Don made me feel like we were old pals from yesteryear. He introduced me to all of his old teammates as his friend. I watched as he signed away at all of the items the promoters put in front of him, and then as he happily met with the many fans that traveled from far and near to spend some precious moments with the living members of New York's bygone team.

As the signing finished, I went with Don to pick up his check from the promoters, as he had a few hours left before his ride to the airport. He never once scoffed at the amount, even though the quantity of items he signed brought the total to maybe $1-$2 per signature. The money wasn't his motivation for being there; it was to see teammates that he hadn't seen in some fifty years—guys like Howie Schultz, Lee Pfund, Mike Sandlock, Ralph Branca, and Clyde King, all teammates when he made his debut in 1945.

We sat around with Schultz and a few others in the hotel lobby, talking baseball while sharing some refreshments. As I went to pay, he steadfastly refused to let me do so, insisting that I was his guest for the day. As I wished him a safe trip home, he extended a handshake and a hug, wishing me well in my endeavors.

The way Don treated me that was was the embodiment of his spirit; a classy gentleman who went out of his way to treat others well.

I kept in touch with him on the phone and in the mail, exchanging correspondence once or twice a year. He always was willing to talk baseball, and in between the lines, sprinkle a few guiding thoughts for life's travels. We last spoke shortly after he moved to an assisted living facility in Glacier Hills, and even as recently as a month prior to his passing, he still had hope that he would be up and walking again, able to hit fungoes to the Michigan baseball team.

His effect on Michigan athletics was profound, not only for their program, but for the many players he reached. Dave Campbell, who was the first baseman on Michigan's 1962 National Championship team, (who later played eight seasons in the majors, and spent two decades as a baseball analyst on ESPN) called Lund in the wake of his passing, a man of, "great leadership ... and great integrity," and was one who, "had a great influence on me while I was there."

I wish I had the opportunity to have met Lund earlier than I did, or even to have been one of his players, because in the short time we interacted, I could see how his tremendous character helped to shape the lives of so many young men.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Remember when the Yankees actually developed home grown talent?

Following the reports of the New York Yankees losing one of their homegrown talents, Robinson Cano, to the Seattle Mariners for the sum of $240 million over the course of ten years, the future looks slim in the ranks of the Yankees' current minor league system.

"While the Yankees' minor league system is not quite as bare as it once was, more of the talent currently sits at the lower levels," Jonathan Mayo MLB.com's prospect expert said in November, 2013. "As a result, it's difficult to see many impact players ready to contribute in 2014."

There was a time; however, when the Yankees had one of the richest farm systems in all of major league baseball. Starting in the late 1940's, through the early 1960's, the Yankees had 22 catchers that were behind Yogi Berra that found their way onto other teams in the major leagues, quite many of them All-Stars. The following is an except of Phil Rizzuto's "The October Twelve," that lists all of the catchers who left the New York Yankees' organization for greener pastures.

 


Will the Yankees' farm system ever be rich enough again to lather teams with future All-Stars and still be perennial World Series contenders?


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dodgers and Yankees upstarts Miller and Bella shared a taste of the big leagues in September 1957

Rod Miller
September call-ups in baseball often signal hope and excitement for the fan base, as they get to take a look at the future talents of the organization. Lost amidst the chaos of the 1957 baseball season in New York were the debuts of two rookies, Rod Miller of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and John "Zeke" Bella of the New York Yankees. One team was on the verge of moving 3,000 miles to the West, the other convincingly won the American League pennant.

Both of these youngsters shared not only their major league debuts within a few days of each other, but also sadly, their deaths. Miller passed away November 8, 2013 in Cascade, Idaho, and Bella passed away November 17, 2013 in Greenwich, Ct.

Miller was a 17-year-old outfielder from Lynwood High School in California. He was signed by scout Lefty Phillips for a $4,000 bonus, which meant he had to be kept on the MLB roster for the year and couldn't be sent below Class B. He played with Cedar Rapids after signing, batting .183, an unlikely total for someone who would receive a call to the major leagues at the end of the season. Despite his paltry batting average, the Dodgers brought him up in September, biding his time on the bench while in the presence of the legendary figures on the club.

"The biggest thrill of my career," Miller said to Richard Tellis in Once Around the Bases, "was going into the Dodger clubhouse the next day, seeing all these legends, and putting the major-league uniform on."

On September 28, 1957, the Dodgers were playing the Philadelphia Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium in front of barely 5,800 people. It was an otherwise unforgettable game, except for the young Miller. In the top of the 9th inning, manager Walter Alston summoned the 17-year-old from the bench to pinch hit for Randy Jackson.

"I didn't believe him at first. I thought he was kidding," he said.

Standing in the on-deck circle, Miller thought about the generosity of his manager, who also had only a singular at-bat in the major leagues.

"I thought about the compassion Walter Alston had for me, letting me get to bat. He was the classiest human being I've ever known," he said.

Miller faced Phillies right-hander Jack Meyer, and after working the count to 2-2, he struck out swinging. Alston replaced Miller with Pee Wee Reese to play third base in the bottom of the 9th; it would be the last time Miller's feet touched major league soil.

"You can't imagine the residual benefits I've had in my life from that one time at-bat. It's opened more doors than I ever have imagined," he said.

John "Zeke" Bella
On the other side of town, Bella was a 26-year-old Korean War veteran, hitting his stride after serving three years in the United States Army. He batted .317 with the Denver Bears of the American Association in Triple-A, his third consecutive .300 season in the Yankees farm system. During that September, with the Yankees having a comfortable lead over the Chicago White Sox in the American League standings, they recalled Bella for a look in the outfield alongside Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Bauer.

Speaking with the New York Daily News in October, 2013 after being inducted into the Greenwich High School Hall of Fame, Bella said one of his clearest memories of Mantle was the on the first day he reported to the team.

"I walked into the clubhouse," remembered Bella, "and Mickey yells across the room, 'Hey Yogi, Zeke’s here. You’re not the ugliest one here now!'"

Bella went 1-10 in his rookie campaign, earning his first major league hit off of Rudy Minarcin of the Boston Red Sox on September, 27, 1957. Despite another season of hitting over .300 at the Triple-A level, there was no room on the roster for him on their World Series Championship team in 1958. With the Yankees looking to bolster their pitching staff for the stretch run of the 1958 season, Bella was part of a late-season trade to the Kansas City Athletics for pitcher Murray Dickson.

His trade to Kansas City provided the opportunity for greater playing time, as he appeared in 47 games, batting .207 with one home run. His time in Kansas City was highlighted by a race with a teammate to the dugout from the outfield that had gone awry, resulting with Bella knocking himself unconscious on the dugout roof.

Bella played one more season in the minor leagues in 1960, before returning to Connecticut where he embarked on a long career with the United States Postal Service. He continued to stay involved in youth sports, serving as an umpire and referee at many levels. One of the local youths he inspired was future Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young.

"I remember Zeke Bella and how he umpired," Young said to the Greenwich Time in October, 2013. "He's a tough guy, and I learned about fairness from him."