Showing posts with label New York Mets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York Mets. Show all posts

Friday, June 12, 2020

Baseball Happenings Podcast | 'Big Sexy: Bartolo Colon In His Own Words' Author Michael Stahl

Bartolo Colón still has hopes of returning to the majors leagues. At 47, and with labor negotiations at a stand still, his chances are as good as Vegas bookmakers trying to set the odds to win the World Series

According to SBD, "The second-tier favorites have generally gotten longer with the MLB planning to play a shortened, 80-game season with an expanded playoff field. Fewer games means greater likelihood for unexpected outcomes."


Despite the uncertainty surrounding Colón's return to the field or if the season will take place, fans will rejoice reading Colón's journey in his new autobiography, "Big Sexy: Bartolo Colón In His Own Words". The 21-year MLB veteran partnered with Stahl through a series of interviews at his New Jersey home to tell how he achieved major league stardom from his humble Dominican Republic beginnings.

In the latest Baseball Happenings Podcast episode, Stahl discussed how the rookie author was able to link up with Colón for his "big league" publishing debut. During the 18-minute interview, he tells some of his favorite stories from the book, while also explaining how this venture has validated his transition from a New York City high school English teacher to author during an unprecedented pandemic.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Bobby Valentine Interview

Bobby Valentine joints the Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss playing for Bobby Winkles with the California Angels. Winkles, who also managed the Oakland Athletics and won three College World Series championships at Arizona State University, died April 17, 2020 at age 90.

Winkles managed the Angels in 1973, when Valentine suffered his career-altering injury while playing the outfield. Valentine explains how the injury changed both of their career trajectories.





Saturday, April 4, 2020

Forever Linked With Rusty Staub, Mike Jorgensen Recalls Their Tremendous Bond As Teammates

When Rusty Staub died March 29, 2018, the New York Mets lost a franchise icon. The Mets traded a trio of young prospects to the Montreal Expos in exchange for the six-time All-Star just before starting the 1972 season. Mike Jorgensen, a 23-year-old homegrown talent from Bayside, Queens, was one of the traded players who had to replace Montreal's most beloved superstar.

“He was a hero,” Jorgensen said in a phone interview. “He was the Montreal Expo at the time, and it wasn't a very popular trade in Montreal.”


Going to Montreal with Ken Singleton and Tim Foli, Jorgensen found strength bonding with his new teammates. They turned their collective energy towards the field rather than worrying about living up to Staub's lofty expectations.

“That trade gave me a chance to be a regular player,” he said. “That was the foremost [thing] on my mind. I played up there for five years, so after a little while, [the fan reaction to the trade] wore down a little bit. At first, it was unpopular because he was an All-Star; he was, 'Le Grande Orange,' and he was a big deal.”

The baseball tradewinds reunited the duo in New York at the twilight of their careers. Jorgensen returned to the Mets in 1980 via a trade with the Texas Rangers. Staub joined him from Texas the following year through free agency. Now both seasoned veterans, they became friends by sharing a similar role on the team.

"We would go out to dinner a number of times; it was kind of unusual because we were both kind of winding [down] out careers at the time," he said. "We were both left-handed pinch hitters, [which] I guess you could do it in those days when you had seven guys on the bench; you wouldn't have room for that kind of a thing in today's game."

He recalled one candid bench conversation early in their Mets tenure that exemplified how attentive and competitive Staub was in his reserve role.

“The one thing I'll remember is that he studied the game,” he said. “He was one of the best pinch-hitters in the game, if not the best. He would study those pitchers, sit in the dugout, and look for something if they were tipping pitches or something like that. After a while, he'd say, 'I got him, I got it.' I'd always sit by him and try to pick up the tip myself. The first time he did that, I said, 'Yeah okay, what is it?' He looked at me and he said, 'You know, we're both kind of fighting for the same job.' It wasn't in a bad way, that was just the way he was.”

The 69-year-old Jorgensen, who currently works for the St. Louis Cardinals as their Senior Special Assistant to the General Manager, acknowledged how his former teammate's passing is a tremendous loss to the entire baseball community.

“He was great,” he said. “Obviously, everybody knows the stories about the restaurants and how he was a gourmet cook. … He was a wonderful man [with] everything he did there in New York, especially [with] the police department. It was enjoyable to play with him; it really was. I enjoyed my time with him. Baseball's going to miss him; we'll all miss him.”



* - Ed. Note - This story was originally published for the now-defunct Sports Post on April 11, 2018.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

John Strohmayer | Pitcher For 1973 New York Mets NLCS Championship Team, Dies at 73

John Strohmayer, a pitcher for the 1973 New York Mets National League pennant-winning team, died November 28, 2019, in Redding, California. He was 73.

John Strohmayer "Missing 1974 Topps Card" / Giovanni Balistreri
The South Dakota native made his major league debut in 1970 with the Montreal Expos. He pitched parts of four seasons with the Canadian club, compiling an 11-9 record before the Mets signed him off waivers midway through the 1973 season. It was a move that delighted the entire household.

“We are both so happy,” his wife Connie said to the Montreal Gazette in 1973. “He pitched so well against New York earlier this year and he had two good starts against them in ’71. I guess they remember.”

Unfortunately, Strohmayer could not recapture his Flushing magic in a Mets uniform. He pitched in only seven games with an 8.10 ERA and was left off the postseason roster. He spent most of the 1974 season in the minor leagues, making one final appearance as a September call-up with New York. Citing a sore shoulder, Strohmayer hung up his cleats and embarked on a 34-year career in education.

He returned to his alma mater, Central Valley High School, where he was once a standout multi-sport athlete. Working as a teacher and a coach, he led Central Valley’s boys’ basketball team to the CIF championship in 1989. The district dedicated the current basketball court in his honor.

“His attention to detail and getting kids to believe in themselves was the difference,” his son Kevin said to Shasta County Sports.

Strohmayer eventually moved up the administration ladder, working as an assistant principal and principal before becoming the district’s superintendent in 2005. Current Central Valley principal Kyle Turner found Strohmayer’s athletic and coaching experience enhanced his ability to relate to students and staff.

"I firmly believe that some of the best coaches can make fantastic administrators, and I know that a lot of the things that he's learned in his athletic past obviously helped him relate to students and keep the connections with students,” Turner said to ABC-affiliate KRCR. “And that's something that is an integral part of any educator, and he was able to do that very, very well, from everything that I've experienced with John."

In 2009 luck found Strohmayer, when he was one of 15 Gateway Unified School District employees who shared a $76 million lottery jackpot. He retired at the end of the 2009 school year after 32 years in education.


Saturday, September 7, 2019

Jose Moreno | Former New York Mets Infielder Dies At 61

Jose Moreno, former utility player for the New York Mets, San Diego Padres, and California Angels, died September 6, 2019 in Santo Domingo due to pulmonary complications. He was 61.


Moreno broke in with the Mets in 1980. His shining moment in Queens came on August 26, 1980, against the San Diego Padres. Pinch-hitting for pitcher Mark Bomback in the 5th inning, Moreno hit a two-run homer that was part of an epic 18-inning marathon. He was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the remainder of the season, and in December, he was traded ironically to the Padres for former Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones.

He is the only player in the history of the Dominican Winter League to achieve a 30-30-30 season (RBIs, runs scored, and stolen bases). He played 14 seasons in the Dominican from 1974-75 through 1989-90 that included three championships with Escogido.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Cookie Rojas explains Rey Ordoñez's incredible 1999 New York Mets season

Cookie Rojas should know a thing or two about judging infielders. A five-time All-Star who led his league in fielding on three separate occasions, Rojas made a strong case for Rey Ordoñez’s 1999 season as one of the best ever for a major league shortstop.

Cookie Rojas (r.) makes a powerful statement about Rey Ordoñez / N. Diunte
Rojas was in New York City last weekend as part of the Cuban Cultural Center of New York’s “History of Cuban Baseball” program at Fordham University. Speaking as part of a player panel which included Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Minnie Miñoso, Luis Tiant, Julio Becquer, and José Cardenal, Rojas was asked about Ordoñez’s place amongst the all-time defensive shortstops. He put on his manager hat and responded swiftly and succinctly.

Rojas joined the Mets as a coach in 1997, one year after Ordoñez debuted at Shea. Coming off a season where he [Ordonez] committed 27 errors, Rojas knew things had to change.

“So, after joining the Mets I looked at his record and I called him over to talk," Rojas said during the panel. "I said, 'Rey, there is something wrong for you to make 38 (sic) errors. A guy with your ability, that's impossible. There is no way I will accept that. We have work to do, in many areas. You will see that little by little you will improve and get a positive outlook.'”

Ordoñez improved quickly, committing only nine errors the season Rojas arrived. Nineteen-ninety-seven was the first of three consecutive Gold Glove campaigns for the Cuban shortstop. Rojas explained how he helped Ordoñez to improve by getting him to forget his struggles at the plate while he was in the field.

“The cause of most errors committed by major league infielders is that they do not know how to separate the offensive aspect of the game from the defensive,” Rojas said. “They go out to the field still thinking about their last at-bat, the slider that fooled them, the fast ball blown by them. They do this instead of thinking ahead to the fielding part, to think if the next batter is a fast runner or not, or what to do according to the speed of the hit ball.”



Involved in professional baseball for over 50 years as a player, coach, manager, and his current position as the Spanish Language broadcaster for the Florida Marlins, Rojas had many opportunities to analyze the top defensive shortstops in both leagues.

After a careful pause, Rojas offered the following about how Ordoñez’s magical 1999 season where he made only four errors ranks among the cream of the crop.

“Let me say I knew a great defensive shortstop who played for Almendares [in Cuba], his name was Willy Miranda, a defensive all-time great. But what I saw Ordoñez do that year, I have never seen a shortstop do in my whole life, anywhere, not even one of the all-time greats [Ozzie] Smith, a Hall of Famer,” he said. “How Ordoñez played that year was incredible. It was ... to see a defensive shortstop do what he did, one of the best that I have seen in my whole career."

A special thank you to fellow SABR member Tito Rondón for his translation of Rojas’ interview from the player panel.

* This was originally published for Examiner.com August 27, 2011.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Why Gil Hodges' Hall of Fame case is a no-brainer for one Washington Senators player

The annual Baseball Hall of Fame elections are popular topics for hot stove discussions across the country. Currently, the Eras Committee (formerly the Veterans Committee) is debating the merits of those whose careers peaked after the late 1980s. While Gil Hodges is not eligible for this current vote, the mere mention of any Hall of Fame committee meeting is still a hot button issue for many baseball fans.
Gil Hodges 1967 Topps / Topps

Fred Valentine should know a thing or two about Hodges’ Hall of Fame worthiness. He played under Hodges for four seasons (1964-67) with the Washington Senators and recently sat down with Baseball Happenings at the Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner in Long Island to express support for his fallen manager.

“He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” the 83-year-old Valentine said. “The biggest thing I remember from Gil was that when I came [to] spring training, the only thing he asked was for 100 percent. Regardless of how the game turned out, he just wanted a hundred percent from his players, and I always felt I didn't have any problems with that. He was going to give me an opportunity to play, and I told him that I was going to give him a 110 percent, and I think I did.”

While Valentine’s hustling spirit resonated with Hodges, he suggested that his leader’s stoicism might have contributed to his early demise. He said too often, Hodges would bottle up his emotions when players made boneheaded plays, and on those 1960s Senators teams, they were aplenty.

“He was a great manager,” he said. “The only problem I could see he had was that he wasn't another Earl Weaver. He kept so much in [when] players would make all kinds of dumb mistakes. Instead of throwing them out or cursing them out, he held it in, and I think that was his downfall from holding stuff in like that.”

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Jose Reyes releases new music video Vivimo Caro

Jose Reyes hit a whopping .189 for the New York Mets in 2018, so naturally, his next move is to make a music video, right? Reyes has actually been making reggaeton music since 2011 through his El 7 imprint.


Reyes can be seen flaunting some of the $140 million in riches that he's accumulated during his MLB career in the visuals for his new song, "Vivimo Caro."



Friday, October 5, 2018

Ron Locke shares wild tales of Casey Stengel during the Mets first year at Shea Stadium

Ron Locke was a 22-year-old rookie with the 1964 New York Mets, looking to make a name for himself as the Mets moved from the Polo Grounds to their new digs at Shea Stadium. Before he could break through from minor league anonymity with the fans, he first had to do so with his manager, Casey Stengel. It was a tougher task than he anticipated.

“To me, [Stengel] was a wacko,” Locke said during a phone interview from his Florida home in 2013. “I don’t know if he didn’t like me or didn’t know my name. I never knew what he was going to do. He’d send left-handers up against left-handed pitchers.”

Ron Locke / Author's Collection
While Locke was never sure if Stengel could identify him in a police lineup, he did have the attention of their Hall of Fame coach, Yogi Berra. Watching Locke closely with his keen catcher’s eye, Berra saw similarities with a former MVP teammate who was also a tough little left-handed pitcher.

“Yogi Berra thought I was like Bobby Shantz,” he said. “He would come over and say, ‘Ronnie, if I was managing here, you’d be pitching every four days until you prove you couldn’t pitch.’ That’s what I wanted to hear, but that’s not the way it worked out.”

Locke grew up in Rhode Island playing fast pitch softball as a left-handed third baseman and became an All-State baseball player in South Kingston. It was there where he caught the attention of Len Zanke, a Cincinnati Reds scout. At his urging, he auditioned in 1961 for their club in Jersey City.

“He said, ‘Go to Jersey City, Dave Stenhouse (another Rhode Island native) is down there. Just go and try it,’” Locke shared. “I pitched to their catcher on the side and he said, ‘You’ve got a good fastball; that thing really moves.’ So I go up in the stands and I’m talking to the head guy there and he asks, ‘How big are you?’ I said, ‘Maybe 5’9”-5’10”, 158 lbs.’ Well he said, ‘We don’t sign anybody here under six feet.’ So I left.”

Most amateurs would have tucked their gloves away after hearing that kind of a rejection from a top scout and moved on with their careers. Luckily for Locke, he had an angel in Zanke who urged him to give professional baseball another shot when the expansion Mets hired him the next year as a scout. After throwing in front of the Mets brass, he impressed enough that they asked him to pitch against their minor league team in Auburn.

“The Auburn team was going for the championship,” Locke recalled. “They said, ‘Go out and throw against those guys, see how you do.’ Man, they could not even touch me. The more I threw, the more confidence I got. They signed me that year. This was 1962.”

Locke joined Auburn in 1963 and set the league on fire. His 18-8 record with 249 strikeouts in 217 innings earned him a New York-Penn League first-team selection, alongside future major leaguers such as Tony Conigliaro, George “Boomer” Scott, and Paul Casanova. Little did he know that with only one year in the minors under his belt that his next season would be in the major leagues.

“I was always a small guy, I was never a big guy you know,” he said. “I just got there, looked at the field and said, ‘What am I doing here?’ I am looking at all these tall pitchers and saying, ‘My god.’ In this day and age, they probably would not have looked at me.”

Locke appeared primarily as a reliever in 1964, posting a 1-2 record with a 3.48 ERA, with his only win coming in one of his three starts. The adjustment going from pitching consistently as a starter the previous year, to not knowing if he had Stengel’s trust, increased the difficulty of his jump to the major leagues.

“They just didn’t pitch me enough,” he said. “When you go from Class A to the major leagues, that was a huge difference. You could not get your confidence. I thought I had my confidence, but he [Stengel] didn’t [have it].”

One incident that shook Locke’s confidence came when Stengel pulled him from a game in the middle of an at-bat. While box scores online do not show that he was removed mid at-bat, one account from the New York Times indicates that during the Mets first night game at Shea Stadium, Locke pitched to two batters, but only recorded a plate appearance for one of them.

“We were playing against Cincinnati … we’re losing four, or five-nothing, and he gets me up,” Locke said. “Deron Johnson was the next guy up; I threw two fastballs right by him on the outside corner. I looked over [to the dugout], and here comes Casey. I said, ‘I hope he’s not taking me out of the game. … He is walking across waving his hand to bring the pitcher in. He taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Good job boy. We’re going to bring in a right hander.’ I wanted to bury him right there. I had two strikes on him and he took me out in the middle of the at-bat. I just left the game, but I was some ticked off!”

Locke made an impressive bid during 1965 spring training to return up north with the big league club, but a late decision by Warren Spahn to hyphenate his coach title to player-coach, forced Stengel to make a move.

“I was there for most of 1965 [spring training],” he said. “Then Warren Spahn came over and was going to be our pitching coach. That was fine with me; it was going to be Tug McGraw and me in the bullpen. All of a sudden, Spahn decides he wants to be pitcher and pitching coach, so one of us had to take a hike, so I unfortunately got the call.”

Locke persisted in the minors through 1970, but could not break through the Mets developing rotation that eventually built their 1969 World Series championship team. His dampened second chance at a return to the majors never lessened his love for the game. Now, in his 70s, Locke continues to play both competitive baseball and softball.

“I play for a good team, the Florida Legends,” he said. “We have 98 national championships. We play in Las Vegas, Reno, all over the place, anywhere there is a national tournament. I started in the 60s [age bracket], now we are in the 70s. For a 70-and-over team, we have a very good team. We played on 330-foot fences and one of the guys hit the ball out of the ballpark. He is 72 years old! We have four or five guys that can hit them out 300 foot. I play the outfield. I hit and run like heck! … It was hard for me at first because I was used to that 90 MPH fastball down around my knees. All of a sudden it was unlimited arc; what a difference that was! You have to get used to hitting that.”

He feeds his baseball appetite by working for the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers and pitching annually in Roy Hobbs baseball tournaments. He even tried to audition as their batting practice pitcher.

“I work for the Red Sox at Jet Blue Park,” he said. “I’m a ticket taker, but I wanted to be an usher. I asked them to be a batting practice pitcher, but they have guys to take that job. I still throw pretty decent. I do not throw 90 MPH, but I throw decent. I play in the Roy Hobbs baseball tournament every year. They have different age groups. It’s fun.”

Despite his lone season in the big leagues, Locke continues to receive fan mail from all over the world. Some fans try to send him money to sign their items, but he feels an old school sense of responsibility to sign their items while returning their attempts at compensation.

“I get them all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it is 4-5 per day. It makes me feel good [to get the mail]. For somebody that has been out of baseball for a long time, I am glad at least the fans remember my name. Some people send me money, but I write them a note back saying that I don’t take money for autographs; I am an old timer.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Rare footage of David Cone pitching in the 1986 Puerto Rican Winter League All-Star Game

Fresh off of his rookie season with the Kansas City Royals, David Cone went to the Puerto Rican Winter League (Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente) to further hone his skills. By the end of the winter season, Cone was a champion, saving Game 6 of the Caribbean Series for Caguas en route to their title.

David Cone in the 1986 LBPPR All-Star Game / Joe Towers
Joe Towers (@joetowerscards) recently posted footage of Cone pitching in the LBPPR All-Star game, flashing the eventual brilliance that led him to five World Series championships and the 1994 American League Cy Young Award. Only a few short months after this appearance, the Royals traded Cone to the New York Mets, which put him right in the middle of the baseball spotlight for the incumbent World Series champs.


Click here to read more about David Cone and his later brush with baseball immortality.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Rusty Staub championed many with his tireless charity work

Rusty Staub, one of the most beloved players in New York Mets history, passed away on Opening Day, March 29, 2018 in Palm Beach, Florida. He was 73.

While Staub gained accolades for amassing 500 hits for four different Major League clubs, his greatest legacy was his tireless charity work, both on behalf of the Mets, and for the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund. He helped to raise millions of dollars to support families of fallen police officers and firefighters during their times of greatest need.

Rusty Staub (r.) with 1973 Mets teammate Felix Millan (l) / N. Diunte
In this video below from 2012, Staub discussed how proud he was to be a representative for the Mets long after his playing days were over.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How Ed Charles experienced a social awakening playing in Canada

Ed Charles had his start in professional baseball in 1952 when the Boston Braves sent him to their minor league affiliate in Quebec, Canada. Charles, who passed away March 15th, 2018, shared in this interview how going north of the border was a social awakening for him after growing up under the laws of Jim Crow era segregation.

Ed Charles / N. Diunte


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Baseball Happenings Podcast - Breaking down Mets spring training with Bill Whitehead

Bill Whitehead, AP and MLB writer covering the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, checked in with the Baseball Happenings Podcast to break down the hectic first week of 2018 Mets spring training.

Tim Tebow / Bill Whitehead
Whitehead gave us the inside scoop on Dominic Smith, and why his late arrival to practice was out of character for their young first base prospect. He covered Smith extensively during his 2015 season with the St. Lucie Mets.

During the 30-minute interview, Whitehead also provided updates on the myriad of injuries during the first week of camp, his thoughts on the Mets new manager Mickey Calloway, where Tim Tebow fits in the Mets plans, and why Peter Alonso and P.J. Conlon are two upstarts to keep your eyes on during the spring. 



Saturday, January 6, 2018

What did Wally Backman enjoy the most during his New York Mets career?

Wally Backman, the New York Mets second baseman during their 1986 World Series championship, explains in this video what he enjoyed the most about playing in New York City, including his memories of the spirit of his late teammate, Gary Carter.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Tracy Stallard, surrendered record setting home run to Roger Maris, dies at 80

Tracy Stallard, a seven-year major league pitcher who was best remembered for surrendering Roger Maris' record-setting 61st home run in 1961, has passed away at the age of 80 according to an announcement by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

During the 50th anniversary of his fateful meeting with Maris in 2011, I sat down with Stallard at a charity event in Pennsylvania for MetroBASEBALL magazine to discuss his place in New York baseball lore, both for his role in the famous home run, as well as his tenure with the New York Mets. Below is a modified version of the article that originally appeared in the magazine.

Tracy Stallard (l.) with Mets teammate Jack Fisher (r.) / N. Diunte
Fifty years after he faced off with Roger Maris, Tracy Stallard was just glad to be remembered. On the last day of the 1961 season, the strapping 24-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox stared down Maris behind in the count 2-0. Stallard reared back for his fastball and with one swing of the bat, Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s mark for home runs in a season. Forever linked due to the events of October 1st, 1961, Stallard doesn’t shy away from his connection with the Yankee slugger.

“Well it seems to be now that it’s bigger now than when it happened,” Stallard said in 2011. “I’m glad it happened. I did my best and he was doing his best and he came out on top. That’s about all you can make out of it.”

Stallard had little time to get caught up with Maris’ chase as he was informed close to the start of the game that he would be taking the mound. The short notice gave him little chance to ponder the complexities of the Yankees powerful lineup.

“I went to the ballpark and we didn’t know who was pitching," he said. "We got there about 45 minutes before the game and [while] we were getting dressed Sal Maglie threw me the ball. That’s when I knew I was pitching. I didn’t think that much about it. They had a great team. He got a lot of good pitches to hit simply because of the guys hitting behind him. Mickey Mantle didn’t play that day; however, they had some good players [in the lineup], Skowron, Howard, Blanchard, and Berra.”

Lost in the celebration of Maris’ record-breaking home run was a strong pitching performance by Stallard. He gave up only one run in seven innings while striking out five batters, including Maris the next time he came to the plate. In fact, Stallard would face Maris seven times in his career and yield only that home run.

Ironically, Stallard found himself wearing a New York uniform shortly thereafter; however, it was on the other side of town. The New York Mets acquired Stallard in a trade prior to the 1963 season. For the next two years, Stallard was a mainstay in the Mets starting rotation, leading the team in complete games and strikeouts in 1964. Despite shouldering many of the losses, Stallard had fun playing in Queens.

“I was received very well,” he said. “The fans in New York are like no other. I pitched some pretty good baseball then. I enjoyed every minute of New York. The people were great and they treated us good. It’s hard to put up with a losing ballclub, but they did pretty well.”

Over his seven-year career, Stallard pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals in addition to the Mets and Red Sox. He pitched in the minor leagues until retiring from professional baseball after the 1969 season. He returned to Virginia and ran a successful coal stripping business for many years.

In retirement, Stallard shunned the spotlight, but in recent years he became more accepting of his place in baseball history.

“I don’t know that much about whether it’s changed my life or not," he said. “I played in a lot of golf tournaments because of it. I’m sure if I hadn’t been the pitcher at the time, I wouldn’t be invited. I’m certainly not that naive.”

Monday, June 5, 2017

Teammates tout Jimmy Piersall's transcendental outfield abilities

“The catches Piersall makes simply defy description. They have to be seen to be believed and he keeps making them,” Lou Boudreau.
Those who watched Jimmy Piersall patrol the outfield for the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s, placed his name above lauded fly chasers such Tris Speaker, Terry Moore, Joe DiMaggio, and yes, Willie Mays. The daring depths at which he played allowed for Piersall to make miraculous catches that were deemed impossible by everyone in the ballpark, except himself.

While his legendary defensive efforts were overshadowed by his struggles with his mental health and unpredictable on field behavior, there was no denying that Piersall’s glove was where many sure hits in the expansive ballparks of his era went to rest. Sadly, on Sunday June 3rd, 2017, Piersall too met his final resting place in Wheaton, Illinois. He was 87.

Piersall was signed by the Red Sox in 1948, and immediately made an impact for their Class A team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Usually most rookies fresh out of high school were sent to lower classifications, but one Scranton teammate saw why Boston put him on the fast track to the major leagues.

“Jim joined us about 30 days late in 1948,” teammate Harley Hisner recalled in 2008. “He was in high school and his team was in the high school finals. They signed him and sent him to Scranton. He was only 18 years old, but he was the best curve ball hitter I’d ever seen that young.”

The oddly shaped outfields of minor league parks gave Piersall the room he needed to show off his spectacular defensive abilities. After spending three seasons with Piersall in Scranton and Louisville, Hisner held him in higher esteem than his famous New York contemporaries.

“As far as I am concerned there was nobody that can go get a ball better than him, including Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," Hisner said. "He had a sense of where that ball was going; as soon as it was hit, he was off and running. I’d take him any day.”

When the Red Sox finally brought Piersall up for good in 1952 after a quick look in 1950, manager Lou Boudreau envisioned Piersall’s athleticism serving him best at short stop. The toll that the demands of learning a new position wore heavily on Piersall, which led in part to his well publicized nervous breakdown.

Ted Lepcio was one of Boston’s fresh faced infielders in 1952 and was quickly paired with Piersall as their double play combination of the future. He found Piersall conflicted by playing a position that he had little familiarity with in order to meet management’s demands.

“He was supposed to help me out,” the 87-year-old Lepcio said via telephone from his home in Needham, Massachusetts shortly after Piersall’s passing. “Imagine that, a center fielder going to help me out! That was a joke. He told me personally that he didn’t want to do it, but what are you going to do when you are a young kid and the guy says you’re going to play a position. He knew he wasn’t in the right position.”

Piersall, Lepcio, Boudreau and Dick Brodowski / Boston Public Library
Piersall's recovery was well documented in his autobiography, "Fear Strikes Out," which later became a Hollywood movie with Anthony Perkins. Lepcio was Piersall’s roommate and the two developed a close relationship throughout Piersall’s struggles. When Piersall finally returned to the team from being hospitalized, Lepcio’s locker was the first reporters ran to.

“He didn’t go in there for a joke, he was wound tight and finally had to have some help at the time he went in,” Lepcio said. “When he came out, the first thing was the reporters came to me. I said, ‘He was the same Jimmy to me.’ It was kind of meant as a joke, but he improved. We roomed together for almost two years until we had enough of each other.”

Ike DeLock also broke in with Piersall and Lepcio in 1952, serving as a reliever on a veteran pitching staff. He said that Piersall had a fascination with besting Tris Speaker’s record for unassisted double plays by a center fielder. As a young pitcher, he was always worried that Piersall was going to get beat behind him by a fly ball.

“He always wanted to have a double play unassisted,” the 88-year-old Delock said Sunday from his home in Naples, Florida. “I told him, ‘Jimmy, when I’m pitching, you play deep in center field because I don’t want anybody to hit the ball over your head.’”

I had the opportunity to speak with Piersall in 2008 over the phone from his home in Wheaton. He explained how he learned to play such a shallow center field, one that is rarely seen anymore in the major leagues.

“It was 500 feet to centerfield in Louisville, the biggest centerfield in the world,” he said. “Most of the time, I cut it in half. Most balls are hit in front of you, not over your head. Watch how many broken bats go out into left field.”

Piersall’s made his presence known in baseball after he was moved permanently to the outfield in 1953. His knack for the spectacular led author Jason Aronoff in his book, “Going, Going … Caught,” to rate Piersall as the best defensive major league outfielder that year.

“In 1953 Jimmy Piersall had a fielding year which was brilliant from start to finish,” Aronoff said. “He had a number of catches which veteran observers called the greatest they had ever seen.”

While Piersall continued to make plays throughout his career on balls that were foregone as home runs or extra base hits, none came close to his series of thefts in 1953. Fast forward a decade later, Piersall found his way to the New York Mets via the Washington Senators in a trade for Gil Hodges.

While the lowly Mets thought that Piersall could recapture some of his Boston magic, he made noise not for his outstanding play on the field, but his outlandish response after he hit his 100th career home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the Polo Grounds.

Tim Harkness had just arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers and had reveled in the presence of his veteran teammates, including the newly arrived Piersall. He noted a conversation in the clubhouse between Piersall and Duke Snider that occurred shortly after Snider hit his 400th career home run.

“Duke hit his 400th home run that summer and Piersall said to him, ‘You know, I’ve got 99, when I hit my 100th, the whole world is gonna hear about it,’” the 79-year-old Harkness recalled from his Ontario home on Sunday.
Piersall goes backwards for 100th home run / Author's Collection
As luck would have it, Harkness was hitting behind Piersall when he hit his infamous home run where he rounded the bases backwards. Harkness was immortalized in the photo, waiting on deck in his number three jersey as Piersall approached the plate. He recounted the event as it unfolded in front of him in the on-deck circle.

“He hit one of those Chinese home runs in the old Polo Grounds,” he said. “He hit it about 285 feet. When he got to first base, he turned around and started running backwards. When he rounded third, I said to myself, ‘Should I kick him in the ass?’ When he came to the plate, I just stood there with the bat just like a statue and just watched him do it. As soon as he touched home plate, the umpire said, “Home run and you’re gone!” He threw him out of the ballgame for making a travesty of the game so to speak.”

Piersall was shortly thereafter released by the New York Mets. He didn’t hold back about his feelings for the organization when asked about the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium in 2008.

“I don't give a s—t,” he replied.

He finished his 17-year major league career with the Los Angeles and California Angels in 1967. He later was in the spotlight for his controversial comments as a White Sox broadcaster that led to his firing and spawned his book, “The Truth Hurts.”

During our conversation in 2008, Piersall displayed his candor when discussing the prevalent ticket prices at major league stadiums. As both New York teams were moving towards new stadium, he felt that the outrageous prices were driven by the owners.

“Two-hundred-fifty dollar a seat in Yankee Stadium ... the only problem we have are politicians,” he said. “The message never seems to get to those guys. It was $2.50 for the bleachers and $6 for a good seat. Everyone is saying that the players are making too much money, but the owners aren't going bankrupt. ... They could get rid of those 40 guys in the offices that send out postcards. They could cut down on their expense accounts, but it won't happen.”

As we came to the close of our interview, Piersall left me with this gem that was reminiscent of the old school mentality that is long gone from today’s game, as the league has become more conscious of the protecting their on-field product.

“I got drilled one day and I said to the pitcher, ‘If you don't get that guy, I'll drop the ball with the bases loaded.’ I asked the umpires why they're so tough and the owners said they don't want their players getting hurt. Bob Watson said the owners are afraid the good players are going to get hurt. There aren't that many good players; they're decent players.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Kevin Elster tells how his departure from the Yankees opened the door for Derek Jeter

A few years ago while Kevin Elster was in New York for a 1986 New York Mets reunion, we discussed about his short tenure with the New York Yankees in 1995 that was hastened by Derek Jeter's arrival. On the day that the Yankees will retire Jeter's number 2, I am sharing a story that I wrote for metroBASEBALL magazine, where Elster recalls how he received a very clear message from the Yankees that Jeter was his replacement and that his services were no longer needed by their organization.





Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bearing witness to Jackie Robinson Day in 1997

On April 15, 1997, the New York Mets hosted Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium, where Major League Baseball forever retired Jackie Robinson's jersey number 42. Exactly fifty years prior, Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves in 1947, serving to shatter the line of segregation in the sport.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the game, as the Mets distributed tickets to local high schools to boost attendance. I remember an announcement being made that tickets were available and as soon as the bell rang for the next period, I went to the office to claim one. Excited to have my ticket in hand, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to bear witness to this historic event.

Media Gathering Around The Field at Batting Practice for Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte
Entering Shea Stadium for the game, there was a tremendous amount of security as President Clinton was in attendance. Seemingly at every turn in the stadium there was a Secret Service agent, constantly on the lookout for any potential sign of danger. On the field during batting practice, hordes of media gathered by the newly unveiled logo commemorating the event.


Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 Shea Stadium / N. Diunte
During the fifth inning of the contest, Major League Baseball stopped the game for an unprecedented on-field ceremony that included a hobbled President Bill Clinton who was recovering from knee surgery, Rachel Robinson, commissioner Bud Selig, and a few of Robinson's former Brooklyn Dodger teammates. The President explained the significance of Robinson's legacy and why it was important that his number 42 was going to be permanently retired across Major League Baseball.

President Bill Clinton speaking during Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Taking in the game from the upper deck with hordes of other New York City high school students, there was a bond that evening that transcended team affiliations. We knew we were all spectators to a historical baseball event, one worthy of the President's time and attention. Twenty years later, the annual on-going tributes to Robinson and the doors that he opened, serve to remind us just how powerful his impact was on  the game.

Special Commemorative Program From Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Former Met Anthony Young says brain tumor has shrunk

Former New York Mets pitcher Anthony Young, who gained notoriety in the early 1990s by setting a major league record with 27 consecutive losses, announced in late January 2017 that he had an inoperable brain tumor. Speaking with radio host Bill Donohue on New York’s WGBB 1240 AM, Young gave listeners an update on his condition.

“I was having blurred vision and my wife took me to the emergency room,” Young said. “They found out that I had a brain tumor in my brain stem, which is too dangerous to try to get a biopsy, so we treated it like it was cancer.”
Anthony Young / Mets

After two months of receiving chemotherapy and radiation, Young is now following a plan to recovery that includes a five day regimen of chemo 23 days apart. Determined not to let his diagnosis affect his life, Young continued to work the entire time since starting his treatment.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “I never got sick, I drove myself every day to chemo. I never missed a day of work. I go to work every day. … Everything is going fine. I had a MRI the other day and the tumor actually shrunk some.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016

New York Mets alumni stir memories of the final Polo Grounds game

One-thousand-seven-hundred-fifty-two people attending a baseball game would be something one can expect from the low minors; however, on September 18, 1963, that is how many people watched the Mets play host to the Philadelphia Phillies at the final major league game at the Polo Grounds.

While the Coogan family was battling that day in court over payments from the city taking over the Polo Grounds, Craig Anderson was on the hill making his first start of the season for the Mets. After leading the Mets in appearances during their inaugural season, Anderson found himself at Triple-A Buffalo until rosters expanded in September. Prior to the game, Anderson was in the dark regarding the circumstances surrounding its significance.

“Nobody said anything to me,” the 73-year-old Anderson said from his home in Dunnellon, Florida. “It’s funny, but I don’t remember any fanfare of it being the last game at the Polo Grounds.”

1963 Mets at the Polo Grounds / Yashicad - Flickr
When the Giants left in 1957, most New York fans had their moment to wax poetic; however, the Mets left the Polo Grounds to little fanfare. In this age of continuous sports media coverage, it is mind-boggling how the Polo Grounds closed to such a whisper.

Brooklyn born Ted Schreiber made his way into the record books by making the final two outs at the Polo Grounds when he pinch-hit for fellow native New Yorker, Larry Bearnarth. The James Madison high school alum stepped to the plate against Chris Short with one out in the ninth inning.

“Sure I remember the game because I made the last two outs,” the 73-year-old Schreiber said via telephone. “I thought I had a hit because I hit it up the middle, but Cookie Rojas made a great play on it. … That’s why I’m in the Hall of Fame; they put the ball there because the stadium was closed after that.”

Schreiber did not give much thought to the historical consequences of his at-bat. It wasn't until well after the game that he realized that he was indeed the final batter at the Polo Grounds.

“I knew that was the last game; [but] I didn’t realize I made the last out until later,” he said.

1963 Mets Yearbook / Author's Collection
Talk of the final game established a different connection for one of the team's earlier stars. Frank Thomas, who was the left fielder that day, belted 49 home runs during the Mets first two seasons. When queried earlier today about that final home game, he chose to discuss his part in history there with another team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“The only one I can tell you about was when the Giants played in the Polo Grounds the last game, I was the first baseman," the 82-year-old Thomas said from his home in Pittsburgh. "A ground ball [was] hit to [Dick] Groat; I made the last putout and gave the ball to Tommy Henrich. From what I understand, somebody stole it from him and it was sold for about $15,000.”

Revisiting the Polo Grounds brought up the nuances of playing in the oddly shaped ballpark for the veterans. The dimensions often turned short pop-ups into home runs and crushed fly balls into the pockets of outfield gloves.

“I didn’t try to think of the short fences because we had to play the game," Anderson said. "There were several home runs that I gave up that I thought should have been pop-ups or routine fly balls. Occasionally, I’d make a bad pitch and the ball goes to center field 400 feet and we’d catch it. Sometimes, it balanced out because of the deep center field, some of the balls were caught out there that should have been home runs in other ballparks."

As a pull hitter, Thomas feasted on the 279-foot fence in left field. Sometimes his eyes grew too big and drew the ire of manager Casey Stengel.

“When I went to bat, they had a big sign in left field and right field on the wall and whoever hit the sign got points," Thomas remembered. "Whoever hit the most balls against that wall would get a boat at the end of the year as a gift. I remember I was hitting one time and I pulled one foul and I heard Casey stand up and yell, ‘You want to be a sailor, join the Navy!’”

- Note - This article was originally published for now-defunct Examiner.com on September 18, 2011.