Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hector Maestri, Cuban pitcher for both Washington Senators teams, dies at 78

Hector Maestri, one of only nine major leaguers to ever play for both versions of the Washington Senators, passed away Friday February 21, 2014 in Miami according to his former teammate Jose Padilla. He was 78.

Born April 19, 1935 in La Habana, Cuba, Maestri was originally signed as a shortstop to the Senators organization in 1956 by the legendary scout Joe Cambria. Excited with the opportunity to follow in the Senators pipeline of rich Cuban talent, Maestri’s world was turned upside down only a few weeks into his professional baseball career.

“I played three [sic] games in Fort Walton Beach and they released me,” said Maestri in a 2012 interview with the author.
Hector Maestri Card / N. Diunte

Even though Maestri was deeply disappointed by the lack of a time the Senators gave him, he did not want to return to Cuba. Instead, he went to Houston to live with his uncle and work. It was there that he had a second chance at his baseball career.

“My uncle introduced me to a Mexican-American who had a baseball team out there,” he said. “The guy wanted me to play with him, so they gave me a job and I played baseball.”

While he was playing on the semi-pro circuit in Houston, he was approached by Senators scout Joe Pastor who offered him another shot with Washington. Maestri had his reservations about re-signing with the organization.

“I told him I was very angry because they didn’t give me a chance,” he said. “Fifteen days wasn’t enough.”

After Pastor reassured him that he would get a longer look, Cambria signed Maestri during the off-season in Cuba. Blessed with an exceptional arm, Maestri still fancied himself as a shortstop, but the Senators had other plans. Maestri split time between pitching and the infield in 1957 with Class D Elmira, N.Y., but when he was asked to pitch an impromptu bullpen session for Senators Vice President Joe Haynes during spring training in 1958, management made it very clear what his permanent role would be.

“The bullpen was near the clubhouse,” he recalled. “Anytime you threw the ball, there was a big echo. When I threw the ball, I looked [over] at him and he was smiling.

“The people in the clubhouse came out and said, ‘Dammit, who was throwing that ball?’ I was throwing very, very hard. We didn’t have radar guns, but they told me I was around 95. Mr. Joe Haynes came to me and said, ‘If I see you in the infield, I will throw you out. You are a pitcher.’”

Maestri spent another season at Elmira honing his craft on the mound, and it paid off. He finished with a 16-11 record, broke the league record for strikeouts and earned MVP honors for the team.

“I broke the strikeout record of Sal Maglie,” Maestri said. “He had 198 and I put [up] 210 in 156 innings.”

In 1959, he inched his way closer to the majors, playing at Class B Fox Cities where he was pared up with player-manager Jack McKeon. His 11-7 record earned him a AAA contract with Washington’s affiliate in Charleston.

He went home that winter and pitched for Cienfuegos in the Cuban Winter League, leading them to not only the league championships, but a sweep of the 1960 Caribbean Series.

It was the beginning of a year filled with highlights for the hard-throwing Cuban pitcher; however, it wasn't a straight rise to the top. Coming off of his championships in winter ball, he hit a bump in the road at the end of spring training in 1960. Just as the season was about to start, Charleston sent him down to Charlotte in the Class A Sally League. He wasn’t pleased with the decision and set out to prove to management that they made a mistake demoting him.

“I go to Charlotte, and on the first day our manager Gene Verble, told me I was going to be in short relief,” he recalled.

Verble summoned Maestri to close the game, and he delivered the goods.

“I threw nine pitches and struck out all three guys,” he said.

Nineteen-sixty was a banner year for Maestri. He was cited in the August 28, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated for pitching a perfect game in relief during the course of the season.

“Hector Maestri, Charlotte (N.C.) South Atlantic League relief pitcher, did not give up a walk, a hit or a run in hurling nine consecutive innings of perfect baseball over a five-game span, went 16 consecutive innings before yielding his first hit.”

Cut from the organization only a few years earlier, Maestri made good on his second calling, earning a promotion to the major league club when rosters expanded in September. Biding his time in the bullpen, he finally was put into action on September 24, 1960 in relief against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I pitched two innings and didn’t allow any runs,” he said.

Maestri carried that momentum into winter ball, winning another championship with Cienfuegos. Along with his second championship came another career altering event, the 1961 Expansion Draft.

The original Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins and Washington created a new team to represent the nation’s capital. The new Senators paid Clark Griffith $75,000 for the rights to Maestri. He saw this as an opportunity to negotiate for a higher salary.

“At that time the big league contract was $6,000,” he said. “I was so fresh, I said, ‘If you don’t give me $15,000, I don’t go.’”

To further complicate matters, relations between Fidel Castro and the United States went sour, leaving the future of all of the Cuban players, including Maestri in doubt. Luckily for Maestri, tensions eased up and he was able to negotiate a raise to $11,000.

Unfortunately, all of his negotiation didn’t account to much because Maestri couldn’t curry enough favor with manager Mickey Vernon to make his way up north with the team to start the season. Vernon thought Maestri needed more seasoning and sent him back to the minors for most of 1961.

Once again, determined to show he belonged, he burned up the Sally League with a 10-1 record for Columbia. This impressive performance forced the Senators and manager Vernon to take another look at the Cuban fireballer.

“I was a relief pitcher all my baseball career,” he said. “Mickey Vernon came to me and said, ‘You are pitching tomorrow, starting against Kansas City.”

Not used to starting, Maestri soldiered on anyways. He took the ball and went six strong innings against the Athletics.

“I lost 2-1 and that was it,” he said.

He wouldn’t get back to the major leagues for the remainder of his baseball career, and almost didn’t get back to the United States. After the 1962 season, he returned to Cuba to see his newborn son. At the time, Castro wasn’t letting anymore players freely leave the country.

“When I got in Cuba, they didn’t let me get out," he said. "That ruined my career.”

Maestri was done at 27, or so he thought. A call from a Mexican League team gave him a new lease on his baseball career.

“I had taken a few years off when I got a call from the Mexican League to play ball,” Maestri said. “Veracruz called me. They asked what I wanted. I told them I wanted a visa for my wife and my two sons. They told me, no problem. That’s how I got out of Cuba, [through] Mexico, in 1965.

“When I finished the league in Mexico, I went to the United States embassy in Veracruz and I asked for asylum. They didn’t give it to me, but they gave me a chance to talk to a wonderful guy, Phil Howser. (The general manager of the Charlotte minor league team.) I told him that I didn’t want to go back to Cuba anymore. He said, ‘Stay right there in the embassy, let me talk to the ambassador.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. The guy came to me and told me to go back to my apartment and come back tomorrow morning. I got my visa and jumped.”

Charlotte signed him for the 1965 season. He played one more year in the United States for the Wilson Tobs in 1966. Citing the lack of pay and burdensome travel schedule, he moved on from professional baseball.

“If you have a family, you have to do something because you can’t travel with your family,” he said. “My two sons had to go to school, so I said to my wife let’s go. I bought a car up there and came to Miami.”

Maestri had his own business career in Miami and his wife worked for the telephone company. Both of his sons grew up to be engineers, something he was very proud of.

“I owned my house and my kids got their education. It was wonderful.”
 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Drew Denson, former Atlanta Braves first-round pick, dies at 48

Drew Denson, the first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in the 1984 draft, passed away February 13, 2014 in Cincinnati due to complications from a rare blood condition called amyloidosis. He was 48.

Standing 6-foot-5, he was an ominous figure, earning all-city honors in basketball and baseball, at Cincinnati's Purcell Marian High School. As a switch-hitting first baseman, he gained notoriety for his monstrous home runs, including one that was estimated at over 500 feet.

Braves scout Hep Cronin told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the forecast was exceptionally bright for the young slugger.

“I not only thought he would be playing in the big leagues, I thought he would be a Hall of Famer,” Cronin said . “He had Frank Thomas power. He was big and strong and the ball just jumped off his bat.”

In his first two seasons in the minor leagues, Denson was right on track, batting over .300 in both campaigns. He hit a wall in 1986, experiencing a sharp decline, posting a lowly .234 average in Durham while fighting injuries all season.

Entering the 1988 season sensing a need for a change, he returned to switch-hitting. During his previous four seasons in the minors, he hit exclusively from the right side, abandoning his switch-hitting duties in his junior year in high school due to the urgings of his high school coach.  After a conversation with teammate and childhood friend David Justice, Denson started to take batting practice left-handed. After getting confirmation from Hank Aaron, he returned as a switch-hitter to All-Star form with Greenville.

The Braves gave Denson a chance in 1989 as a September call-up, and he batted .250 with no home runs in 36 at-bats. He returned to their Triple A team in Richmond in 1990, but his path was blocked by his friend Justice, who was his teammate on a Cincinnati little league team in 1976.

"It makes me happy knowing he's up there, doing what he can do," said Denson to the Free-Lance Star in 1990. "It's made me resolve to do that too."

Drew Denson at Orioles Spring Training 1997 / N. Diunte
Denson lived up to his word by returning to the majors in 1993, but with a different club, the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox were fighting for the American League West championship, and manager Gene Lamont waited until they had clinched the pennant before using Denson. He spelled Frank Thomas for a few games, batting 1-for-5, singling against Jerry DiPoto in what was his last major league at-bat.

He played in the minor leagues and Mexico through 1997. After his playing days, he returned to Cincinnati where he was a police officer and youth baseball coach until his blood disorder forced him to stop working.

How Jim Fregosi resurrected Dave Gallagher's major league career

Dave Gallagher defined the blue-collar, lunch pail toting types that populate spring training every year. He did not have the one dominant skill that made heads turn during batting or fielding practice, but quietly got the job done with his steady play across the board. In 1988, Gallagher entered the Chicago White Sox camp with one last chance to make it in professional baseball; he just needed a believer. He found one in manager Jim Fregosi, but his conversion did not come easily.

“He believed in me in the time that I needed it,” Gallagher said via telephone from his home in New Jersey about Fregosi who passed away Friday morning in Miami due to complications from a stroke he suffered earlier in the week.

Dave Gallagher with the White Sox
By the time Gallagher reached the White Sox, his baseball career was on life support. He had the type of résumé that scouts had long written off. He was a career minor leaguer of eight seasons, who hit a paltry .111 in a 15 game trial with the Cleveland Indians in 1987. Scouts weren’t the only ones to turn away Gallagher’s prospects, he passed on himself too, quitting before the end of the 1987 AAA season after a trade to the Seattle Mariners organization. Only after a chance encounter with White Sox scout Ed Ford while working at a baseball camp, was Gallagher convinced to put his energies back into the game.

Gallagher flew to Florida to meet with the White Sox brass, who offered him a non-roster invite to their 1988 spring training. Teams often hand out these invites to see if they can find a buried treasure or bolster the reserves in their minor league system. After being told by general manager Larry Himes on the first day of spring training that he, along with the rest of the non-roster invitees, were in the latter category, Gallagher felt he had to do something drastic to ensure he was noticed. He headed straight to Fregosi’s door.

“I told him, ‘You don’t know me from anybody, but I’d really appreciate it if you could take me to every possible game,” he said. “I’m towards the end of my run and if I don’t make it, I’m done. I don’t care if you take me and I don’t play; I just want you to see me.’”

Gallagher did everything but beg Fregosi for an opportunity, but he could not get a commitment from his new boss.

“He said, ‘I can’t promise you that. Everybody would want that.’ My reply was, ‘Not everybody asked.’ So I closed the door and walked out.”

While Fregosi’s response lacked the affirmation he sought, Gallagher felt that he had at least separated himself from the rest of the unknowns.

“I thought, man, he may love me or hate me, but at least he knows who I am.”

After a strong showing in spring training, Gallagher finally had the full attention of his manager. He was called into Fregosi’s office three days prior to breaking camp to be told that the team was trying to trade outfielder Gary Redus and that his fortunes with the club hinged on that deal.

“He wasn’t traded, so I went down to Triple-A for one month,” he said.

Gallagher responded by hitting .336 with Vancouver and was recalled in the middle of May. Immediately his call-up paid dividends. On his second day with the White Sox, he hit a home run in the 11th inning to beat the Toronto Blue Jays. His quick witted manager remarked, “He’s been here two days, it’s about time he hit one.”

It was this type of humor that Gallagher felt Fregosi used to take some of the pressure off of his players.

“There was a game in Texas and I’m about to lead off,” he said. “I walk past him to get to the on-deck circle and he’s got his arms crossed and he said, ‘C’mon Gallagher, do something, will ya?’ That was his humor … his way of relaxing you. I said, ‘I will carry us today on our shoulders.’ That was my relationship with him; he threw a sarcastic comment at me and I threw it back.”

Not known for his power, Gallagher deposited an early offering flying into the stands for a home run. He now had more ammunition to continue their exchange.

“When I circled the bases and came back in, he was staring at me. I said to him, ‘Why wouldn’t you ask me to do that more often?’”

For that entire 1988 season, it seemed whatever Fregosi asked of Gallagher, he delivered. He batted .303 in 101 games, committed zero errors in the outfield, and finished 5th in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Still, Gallagher had his doubters within the organization.

“I hit every day with our batting coach Cal Emery,” Gallagher said. “He told me, ‘David, they don’t think you can do it.’ He was trying to tell me not to let up. They didn’t think I could sustain it, that I didn’t have the skill set to continue doing what I was doing. It crushed me.”

Deep down Gallagher knew that Fregosi, while pleased with his play, was also skeptical of his ability to maintain his performance over his entire rookie campaign. The way Fregosi kept whatever questions he had about Gallagher’s abilities in house, spoke volumes about him as a professional.

“He never said it publicly,” Gallagher said. “He never made a statement in the press that would have really hurt my career. He kept it under his hat; he kept it in the meetings. What a professional he was, he could have killed me right there and knocked me out if he went public with that kind of statement.”

Fregosi never did knock out Gallagher; in fact, he became one of his biggest advocates. Fregosi was fired as the White Sox’s manager after the 1988 season, but knew if he had the chance to manage again, that he had the perfect role for Gallagher. Seven years later, while Fregosi was managing the Philadelphia Phillies, that opportunity arrived. At 34, Gallagher was no longer a minor leaguer trying to make it, but now an established veteran who was valued for his versatility on the field and leadership in the clubhouse. His old manager gave him another year under the sun.

“I think he saw me years later with the Phillies in 1995 as an excellent complementary type player,” he said.
Gallagher played that 1995 season as a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter. He rewarded Fregosi by batting .318, and played flawless defense in the outfield. Grateful for another year in the big leagues, this reunion cemented their kinship.

“The relationship with Jim," he said, "I don’t know if I ever had that kind of a relationship with anybody. I admired a man who didn’t think I could do it, but didn’t say anything publicly. He gave me a shot to empty my pockets to try and play and see if I could do this, and I did it.”

Monday, February 10, 2014

Rare footage of Ralph Kiner interviewing Roger Craig during Mets 1962 spring training

A predecesor to Kiner's Korner, this is rare footage of the late Ralph Kiner interviewing newly minted New York Mets pitcher Roger Craig in 1962 during the team's first spring training. Craig entered the majors in 1955 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kiner's last year in the majors. They never faced off in a major league game, as Kiner was in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ralph Kiner's early embrace of weight lifting fueled his prodigious drives

If more baseball players knew in the 1940’s how lifting weights would enhance their careers, Cadillacs would have been in short supply. What is now a common practice in all of professional sports, was often discouraged during the Golden Era of baseball.

Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame outfielder and legendary New York Mets broadcaster who passed away Thursday at the age of 91, was one of the early major league players to experience tangible results from weight training when it was unfashionable to do so.

Click here to read how Kiner started on his weight lifting regime and the unlikely major leaguer that he turned to for help.