Showing posts with label Joe Torre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joe Torre. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Brian Giles 21-year baseball career sparked from grandfather's NegroLeague 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 immediate family members became his most effective teachers 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.”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Danny Ozark, 85, Phillies Manager, WWII vet and Dodgers farmhand

Death is never a timely thing, especially when there are questions that are left unanswered. I was left with many when the news broke of Danny Ozark's passing on May 7, 2009. A few months earlier, I had interviewed a spry Ozark on his cell phone for almost an hour about his baseball career and his attempts to ascend through the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ozark, like many others of his era, was whisked away from professional baseball to serve in World War II, only to return to a crowded minor league system that was about to experience the effects of integration.

Danny Ozark / Topps
Ozark entered professional baseball in 1942, starting out as a second baseman for Brooklyn's Class D team in Olean. It was there where he was teammates with a future Brooklyn Dodger, Cal Abrams. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army.

"I was in the Army, and we landed in Europe on D-Day," Ozark said in 2008. "I received the Purple Heart in St. Laurent, France and got out in 1945. I spent three years in WWII, all of them in Europe. I never saw a baseball during WWII. I wasn't even sure I was going to go back [to baseball]."

Ozark described just what it was like to be there on D-Day.

"Well, it was I guess, the way alot of people ask me, and the best thing I probably said was, 'My underwear was very dirty and I didn't have a chance to change it for two weeks.' We were scared like everyone else, but we were young kids and alot of that stuff didn't bother us. Once you've seen death and people dying slowly, things like that stay in your memory. I can still visualize guys drowning after getting out of LCT's (landing craft tanks), because the water was deeper than they anticipated. Some of the guys that went down with the 60 lb. tanks drowned and we never saw them again." 

He was wounded in combat and later received a Purple Heart for his bravery.

"I received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds off of an artillery shell," he said. "The other battle we were in was the Battle of the Bulge. I spent time in Antwerp while the bulge was coming towards us because of the shipping they had in the docks where all of our equipment came in."

Returning from WWII in the winter gave Ozark very little time to prepare himself for spring training.

"When I got home in December 1945, my brother didn't go into the service and I played basketball with him until spring training," he said. "I got my legs in better shape than I had them before, but I never got to throw or anything like living in Buffalo [in the winter]."

Ozark, as well as many others returning from the war found themselves behind the curve entering Florida in February of 1946. They were also walking into history unfolding before their eyes.

"I didn't even pick up a baseball you know. Brooklyn sent me a contract to report to Spring Training in February. They brought us down to Sanford, Florida. That's where Jackie [Robinson] came in, right near Daytona Beach. It was the first time I got to meet him too. We were in spring training together in '46. Heck, the first week we started playing exhibition games. I got a sore arm like everyone else. We couldn't throw the ball, yet they kept pushing us. It took time to get our arms in shape, our bats to hit the ball, and for us catch the ball because we never played baseball [during the war]."

There was immediate competition from the players that lived on the West Coast and those that spent their military service playing baseball.

"Guys in the service, especially in the Navy, some of them played with teams in exhibition games where the war was going on, guys like [Bob] Feller, Virgil Trucks, etc. We had so many guys coming from California where they can play year round. They were so far ahead of us in spring training, fielding, hitting, throwing, as far as baseball was concerned. It took us a whole month to catch up, sometimes longer because so many players in the service came out and reported. Pitchers hurt their arms because they threw too soon. [Branch] Rickey wanted to see how hard you could throw. We didn't have the doctors like they have today where you could mend in a short time and bring it back like it used to be."

At one point during that 1946 spring training, there were over 600 players in camp. Ozark marveled at the talent that was there.

"There were so many guys that could have surely made it," he said. "It wasn't that there was a shortage of talented players, there was a shortage of roster spots for them in the majors."

The problem with having so many players in camp was due to the reserve clause; you weren't free to leave for another team that could use your services.

"We were in there like a bunch of slaves," he recalled. "That was for every major league team. We had farm system, and you couldn't leave them unless they released or traded you. [Brooklyn] wouldn't listen to you. They said, 'Hang on and you'll get your opportunity'."

For Ozark, that opportunity never came. After returning from WWII, the Dodgers converted him from a second baseman to a first baseman. Not only was he behind Robinson at first base [in 1947], when Robinson moved over to second base, he was stuck behind another Dodger mainstay, Gil Hodges. He looked back at what was a hopeless situation.

"Every year, I was stuck behind Gil Hodges. Where could I go?"

He felt like he had at least one supporter in the long time Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson.

"Fresco Thompson did the most for me," he said. "He helped me along quite a bit. He gave me a rule book. He said, 'You read this thing, and as your career goes on this thing will come in as handy as you can imagine.' He admired my family. He liked me and kept visiting me wherever I managed. I felt like I was going to get a shot to going up there [to Brooklyn]."

He did the best he could playing out the string in the Dodgers farm system, experiencing a few brushes when he thought he was going to get called up.

"The closest I thought I was going to get was in 1953. I always played against the big club in exhibitions, but they never took me though if they had an A or B game. Brooklyn needed a third baseman at that time, as they had [Don] Hoak and [Don] Zimmer [in Montreal]. I think finally they picked up Billy Cox and he was struggling too that year. I was hitting really well and Fresco came to the ballpark to watch me. I asked Tommy Holmes, 'Why did you put me at third base? I had no time there.' He said, 'Just to give you a change, we had Clint Weaver at first base, he was left-handed'. I wondered after all of these years if Fresco Thompson was looking at me to play third base." 

A few years later, Ozark thought that opportunity was once again knocking on his door.

"In '55, the same thing happened," he said. "I was sure I was going to go in '55. Hodges was having a tough year and they needed a third baseman and a first baseman. Thompson came again [to see me], but Frank Kellert took my place in '55. I'm almost 100% sure that is what happened."

Ozark batted over .300 in both AA and AAA. He was also among the league leaders in home runs every season. At times he felt like he was getting used to shore up the farm teams of the Dodgers instead of getting a shot at the big league club.

"You take the Kansas City team of the Yankees," he said. "[Lew] Burdette was there. I used to wear those guys out. They had [Moose] Skowron and [Bob] Cerv on their way up. These guys looked at me like, 'What is this guy doing down here?' You could have said, 'I guess I'll never make it,' but I never gave up. I just played to win."

He seemingly played for every farm club in the Dodgers organization, moving around so much that he almost hung it up in 1950.

"They sent me from AAA to Class B [Newport News] and then I went to Elmira [Class A]. It seemed like every time they sent me somewhere, it was a losing proposition. They sent me there to build up the team. We won the pennant in Neport News, I was the most valuable and popular player. In Elmira in 1950, I went back to St Paul, made two-to-three trips out of St. Paul [to Ft. Worth]. We really liked it there [St. Paul]. Our first child was born there in 1949. In 1950, they sent me to Elmira. That was when I was close to saying goodbye. They called me back to St. Paul though, and I kept going."

As we returned to discuss Jackie Robinson and the topic of baseball's integration, Ozark brought up two pioneers in their own rights, Hall of Famer Willard Brown and Clinton "Butch" McCord. Both were alumni of the Negro Leagues, and Brown holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hit a homerun in the American League. While Brown sputtered in his short trial with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Ozark saw flashes of greatness from the 40 year-old player in the Texas League that Puerto Ricans labeled "Ese Hombre".

"I was in a home run contest with Willard Brown," Ozark recalled. "They gave us 10 swings, he beat me 9-8. He was kind of a hot dog. He could run, but never energized himself. He had a good arm and good power."

He explained how McCord's inspired play in heavily segregated Macon, Georgia mesmerized the fans.

"I had Butch McCord in Macon," he said. "He was a super guy. A good contact hitter, he didn't strike out much. He hit over .300. He became the most popular player on the team and the MVP. He was pretty close to 30 years old when I had him, and wasn't the one the organization was watching to replace Hodges at first base."

Towards the end of our discussion Ozark reflected on his coaching and managerial days in baseball.

"I retired in 1984 from managing after getting 20 years in the pension for being a major league coach and manager. I still worked for the Giants as a scout, reporting to Tom Haller who was the GM at the time. I worked for the Dodgers all my life until '72. I went back with them from '80-'82, coaching in the World Series versus the Yankees which we won in 1981. I was in three World Series with them. As I look back, five of us from the 1955 Fort Worth team, Sparky [Anderson], Dick Williams, Norm Sherry, Maury Wills, and myself all went into managing. Talk about a lineup!"

Ozark, as many others from his generation shook his head about how modern pitchers rarely throw a complete game.

"Alot of guys that are pitchers now can't finish games because the pitching coaches are counting clickers all games. The only person that knows when it is time to come out is the man upstairs. How can you apply the same rule [100 pitches] to each pitcher? We have two different bodies, you live differently, you have different eating habits, take different vitamins, etc. How can you tell whose arm can last longer?"

He cited changes in the height of the pitching mound, as well as increases in strength training as reasons for pitchers being injured more frequently.
 
"Today, guys like Clemens lift 300 lbs. In my day, you couldn't lift a feather. You had to have loose limbs. They can throw harder, yet they are tearing muscles more, due to the extra strength training. The big factor in pitching came when they changed the dimensions of the mound, when they flattened it out. They're using more of their arm instead of their legs and back, going downhill. Who would have thought that someone like Spahn would pitch the way he did for that many years? Now these relievers can't go more than one inning and get hurt. The mound has an effect and the baseball itself. They'll never raise the mound again because people want to see action."

Living in Vero Beach in 2008 gave him the opportunity to visit Dodgertown for the last time before the Dodgers moved to Arizona. The thought of the Dodgers moving signaled an end of an era to Ozark.

"It was sad to see the Dodgers leave Dodgertown, as I spent alot of time there with the organization," he said. "I went to Dodgertown the last year to watch a few games, and to visit Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda, and Larry Bowa."

Ozark spent over 40 years in baseball as a player, coach, manager and scout. A baseball lifer and World War II veteran, he was a true hero and gentleman in every sense of the word. Some reporters had commented that Ozark was "too nice," when he managed the Phillies in the 1970s, but after speaking with him I couldn't imagine Ozark any other way. We could have kept on going that afternoon, but I felt that I had already occupied enough of his time. Upon ending the interview, Ozark left me with these final words.

"Anytime you need me, you give me a buzz,"  he said.

I wrote him three days before his death to see how he was doing. I can only wonder if he received my letter before he passed.

Rest in peace Danny Ozark. The man upstairs might need some good counsel on when that pitcher needs to come out.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran Honored at 29th Annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner

Tuesday evening at the Grand Hyatt New York City brought us the 29th Annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner, benefiting the AHRC. Among the honorees for their charity work were New York Yankee Outfielder, Johnny Damon and New York Met Outfielder, Carlos Beltran.

Johnny Damon, Ron Swoboda, Carlos Beltran / N. Diunte

Damon received the Thurman Munson Award as a result of his involvement with the Wounded Warrior Project. Damon was glowing in his praise of Munson, describing him as a "gamer, great family guy, great competitor and a champion."

As much as he tried during the press conference, he could not escape the repeated questions about Joe Torre's new book which had been released the same day. Damon took a little jab at the reporters.

"I'm not sure I am going to need to read the book as I am going to hear every little bit about it every single day."

Beltran was honored for his charitable donations to create sports education programs in his native Puerto Rico. He was proud to be recognized for his efforts.

"It's about doing things right off of the field, being able to give back to the people who really need it the most," Beltran said. "When I give, I don't expect to receive awards, but when you do, it lets you know you are doing the right thing."

Beltran also tried to sidestep the Torre questions, after a reporter found the two sentences where Beltran was mentioned in the book.

"When I met with the Yankees, he wasn't there, he didn't know what we talked about," Beltran said. "He said what he said, and that's his opinion. I don't have a comment on it. I am happy where I am."

Also honored were: 1969 Mets players Ron Swoboda, Bud Harrelson, Art Shamsky, Ed Kranepool, NY Giants Wide Receiver David Tyree, former NY Knick Allan Houston and Olympic Gold Medalist Dara Torres. On hand at the event to present awards were former Yankee Bernie Williams, and 1986 Mets pitcher and SNY analyst Ron Darling.

Johnny Damon










David Tyree, Diana Munson, Allan Houston, Dara Torres, Bernie Williams