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

Monday, February 17, 2014

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: however, 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 outfield defense. Grateful for another year in the big leagues, Gallagher felt 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.”

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.

Ralph Kiner signed card / Author's Collection
Kiner paced the National League with 23 home runs during his 1946 rookie season, yet returned to his home in Alhambra, Calif., unsatisfied by his performance as he also led the league with 109 strikeouts. He sought the advice of Clint Conatser, who lived nearby and served in the Navy at the same time as him.

Conatser played a few years in the low minors before going off to World War II. He had given up on baseball prior to enlisting, but during his time in the military, he took up body building and thirty pounds of muscle later, he resurrected his baseball career in the Texas League. (Conatser later made the major leagues with the Boston Braves in 1948, helping to lead them to a World Series appearance that season against the Cleveland Indians.)

“I was in the service and my friend was a bodybuilder,” said Conatser from his home in California during a 2008 interview with the author. “We’d go work out in a gym and we started teaching it. I wasn’t worried about getting muscle-bound because I figured I wouldn’t play again. It made me a better ballplayer. My arm was better, everything was better.”

At the time, lifting heavy weights was frowned upon in baseball circles, as popular opinion was that the excess muscle would impede the flexibility necessary to swing a bat and throw a baseball. Kiner saw the positive effect that Conatser’s training had in reshaping his career, and despite it being discouraged by many in the game, he wanted in. In the winter of the 1946-47 off-season, he paid Conatser a visit at his home.

“Ralph Kiner came over because he heard that I had a lot of power for my size and wanted to know if it would help him,” Conatser said. “I wasn’t sure, but I told him that he should work on his arms and maybe his calves and legs.”

Conatser’s uncertainty that Kiner would see the same results he experienced with his body-building routine didn’t phase the young slugger. Conatser told Brent Kelley in “The Pastime in Turbulence,” how Kiner viewed the physical training as an opportunity to truly place himself among the great power hitters of all-time.

“I studied the great home run hitters and they’re all strong,” Kiner said to Conatser. “I’m not strong. If they throw me high or change up on me, I can’t jerk it out of the ballpark. Jimmie Foxx, they used to fool him and he’d still hit it out. I realized I needed to get strong in my hands and arms to be a great home run hitter.”

He immediately went out and purchased a weight set, built a gym in his garage, and spent the entire winter working out. The dividends were immediate. He hit 51 home runs in 1947 and cut his strikeout total to 81. No longer could pitchers get away with fooling Kiner, as he made them pay repeatedly for the same pitches he was vulnerable to the season prior.

Eddie Basinski came to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the same off-season that Kiner dedicated himself to building his physique. Basinski, speaking in a 2009 interview with the author from his Portland home, recalled the prodigious nature of Kiner’s newfound strength.

“Kiner put on a show at the Polo Grounds in batting practice that was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “There were some sportswriters that compared him to Babe Ruth and he didn’t like it one bit. They said, ‘See that third flag over in left center field, Ruth hit a ball over the roof right at that flag, over the whole roof!’ On about the third pitch right after that, he hit one exactly in the same place. They shut up after that. He hit the ball so hard with a backspin that the ball was actually climbing and wouldn’t go down. It was a fantastic home run!”

Monday, January 27, 2014

An unlikely reunion for Wil Cordero and his first major league home run

My ticket from 9/18/1992
On the night of September 18, 1992, the New York Mets played the Montreal Expos, and I was excited to get to the park because my favorite Met Gary Carter was now playing for the Expos. I hoped to have one more chance to see him play up close. When my mom told me that we had tickets to the picnic area, my eyes grew wide with passion.

Attending a Mets game in the picnic area was a tradition for our family, as my mom was able to secure tickets through an event her job held there annually. For a young kid, it made going to a baseball game an even more enjoyable affair; there was free food and an opportunity to be up close and personal with the opposing team’s bullpen. This usually meant that some of the players would make themselves available to sign a few autographs, something I looked forward to as much as watching the game.

We usually made sure to arrive early when the gates opened, but this year we were delayed in getting to the park. By the time we got to the picnic area, the Expos bullpen were fully focused in getting prepared for the game. There would be no chance to get some signatures, so I sat closer to the bullpen, hoping in my naiveté that by sitting near the pitchers, I could somehow reverse my fortunes. Little did I know that later in the game, my sulking behavior a few rows away from my family would pay greater dividends than I expected.

Dwight Gooden was pitching for the Mets, and I remember him hitting the skids late in the game, necessitating Mets manager Jeff Torborg to quickly go to the bullpen. After making a pitching change, Wil Cordero, a young prospect at shortstop was preparing to take the plate. I was familiar with him largely due to his rookie baseball card that I owned, so I paid closer attention to the at-bat. A pitch or two later, a fly ball comes skyrocketing in my direction. I stand up in anticipation, noting that the ball is coming increasingly closer towards me. Steadying my hands for the catch I reach out for the ball and at the last minute someone in front of me attempts to snatch at it. It ricochets off of their hands right under my feet. Immediately, I dove on it and secured it in my possession. I was now the proud owner of a Cordero home run ball.

I stand up with the ball and get some pats on the back from fans nearby. Almost as soon as I turn around to look for my family, a Shea Stadium security guard calls for my attention. Being a good young citizen, I followed the man. He informed me that the ball in my hands was Cordero’s first major league home run, and that the Expos would like to offer me a baseball autographed by their bullpen. My earlier dejection now turned to joy, as I would be going home with some signatures after all. I quickly made the exchange, returning Cordero’s first round-tripper to his possession.

Immediately fans came up to me, wanting to know what I traded the ball for. Some said I should have asked for a bat, his jersey, cash, or even autographs of the whole team. Everything happened so fast that I had little time to process the transaction. I was just thrilled that I was being offered something for returning the ball; never did the thought pass my mind of how I could capitalize on the situation.

A few weeks later I wrote Cordero at the Montreal Expos ballpark, explaining to him the events and how I would appreciate it if he was willing to offer his signature, as the ball contained only a few members of the bullpen and not his own penmanship. I didn’t include a baseball card, or a SASE, both no-no’s in the world of writing to baseball players. Heck, I wasn’t sure if he was going to even read the letter, but I thought it was worth sending.

The card sent by Cordero himself
About a month later, an envelope comes from Canada, with the return address written in script, “Wilfredo Cordero, Montreal Expos.” I quickly open the letter, to find a beautiful baseball card, with Cordero’s signature neatly across the front. Both the envelope and card are something I’ve kept until this day.

Imagine my surprise when I read last week that Cordero would be appearing at the 2014 BBWAA Awards Dinner in New York, as part of a tribute to the 1994 Montreal Expos. Right away, I was transported to that game some 22 years ago in Flushing. I thought that if I had the chance to meet him at the event that I would relay the story to see if he remembered. There was one problem though, I didn’t have a ticket.

My friend Nick D’Arienzo of metroBASEBALL magazine must have been reading my mind, because the next day, he sent me an e-mail offering a ticket to attend. I gladly accepted and excitedly awaited my trip to the New York Hilton.

When I arrived, D’Arienzo gave me my ticket and program. Immediately, I looked for Cordero’s name in the program and found that he was not on the dais, but on the main floor with the rest of the patrons. Once we found our table, I put down my belongings and went for Cordero’s table. Sporting a mustache and a goatee, I passed his table once, not sure if it was him. I doubled back, and after a gentleman at his table confirmed that the man I was looking for was indeed Cordero, I introduced myself.

I told him the story and Cordero, as well as the rest of the members at his table, all perked up to hear the tale of his first home run. He thanked me for returning the ball, and when one of the people at the table asked what he remembered about the at-bat, he quickly replied, “You can’t sneak a fastball by me!”

Wil Cordero and the author after the dinner
He gladly signed a few baseball cards that I brought, and agreed to talk more after the dinner was over. We met in the hotel lobby and spoke for a few minutes about being a part of that 1994 Expos team that was halted by the strike, and how being honored at the dinner brought it full circle.

For a young kid that evening who caught his first and only home run ball at a big league game back in 1992, this meeting completed my small connection with Cordero’s memorable first time around the bases.

Friday, January 24, 2014

LaTroy Hawkins remains outspoken on the declining number blacks in baseball

LaTroy Hawkins, the 41-year-old veteran who will start his 20th major league season next month, appeared Tuesday, January 20th on the MLB Network Radio to discuss his views behind the decline of African-American players in the majors.

“I think the numbers are down every year simply because inner city African-American kids, they know going to college on a baseball scholarship is almost extinct for them,” said Hawkins, who pitched most recently for the New York Mets in 2013.

LaTroy Hawkins 2004 Fleer Tradition - Paul Hadsall

Tim Keown, a senior writer for ESPN Magazine, pinned the impact of declining African-American participation in an April 2013 article for ESPN.com, not on the lack of recognizable black stars, but the rising industry surrounding youth travel baseball. The proliferation of expensive summer teams and the increasing commitment to year-round training have priced most African-American youths out of the game.

“The game of baseball for the amateurs, for the young kids, has gotten so expensive,” Hawkins said. “Travel ball teams are $1,500 to travel for the summer. If would have went to my mom and would have asked her, ‘Mom, I need $1,500 to play on this travel team with the best players in the state, she would have looked at me [and said] – Hey, little league is $35 … and its $50 for you and your brother. I think I know where you’ll be playing at.’”

Often, those exorbitant fees are just for the costs associated with running the programs – umpire fees, league fees, tournament fees, baseballs, field rentals, and in some cases, the salaries of the coaches. Families are still responsible for equipping their kids with increasingly expensive gear.

“In baseball, you need all of the equipment – glove, bat, spikes,” Hawkins said. “[Basketball] all you need is a pair of tennis shoes. You don’t take that for granted, but a majority of kids have a pair of tennis shoes that they wear to school.”

According to a study by Mark Armour and Dan Levitt of the Society for American Baseball Research, African-Americans only comprised 7.2% of all major league baseball players in 2012. Rates of African-American participation in the major leagues once were stabilized between 16% and 19% for a 25-year period from 1972-1996, but have now fallen to less than half that number.

One of the conclusions from the SABR study was that the steep decline was due in part to the expansion of roster spots in pitching and catching, two positions where African-American players have been grossly underrepresented.

Ironically, Hawkins, who is a member of the small fraternity of African-American pitchers in MLB, is one of the most vocal when it comes to this complicated subject. He has used his position to urge more teams to take a flyer on the raw talents that exist in the urban areas.

“I think teams need to take more chances on African-American kids from the inner city who hasn’t played as much baseball as the kid in the suburbs,” he said. “Get them in the system. Let them get on a minor league schedule where they’re playing baseball every day, all day long, [where] they’re learning, and getting professional instruction from your coaches in the minor leagues. That would mean the world in the percentage of African-American baseball players in the big leagues.”

Audio of the entire interview is below.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 27, 2013

Paul Blair | How The New York Mets Let Him Fall From Their Grasp

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Blair given the time to further show off his tools, he turned heads with his skilled play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wattler was bewildered the Mets didn't protect Blair from the draft. The Mets had just let one of their best defensive prospects fall right from their grasp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lee Mazzilli and LJ Mazzilli bring lung cancer awareness to Brooklyn

Lee Mazzilli and his son, LJ, stood up to cancer in a very personal way this Saturday at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. Bearing their emotions in front of a group of family and patients, the Mazzilli family told of the struggle that the elder Mazzilli’s brother, Fred, faced in his battle with lung cancer.

Lee Mazzilli and LJ Mazzilli - N. Diunte
Fred Mazzilli passed away last September, and since then the family has been hard at work in creating the Fred L. Mazzilli Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to raise overall awareness for the disease, as well as offer opportunities at New York Methodist Hospital for eligible patients to receive free lung cancer screenings using a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan.

In July 2013, while playing for the Brooklyn Cyclones, LJ was interviewed by the Hartford Courant about the impact his uncle had on his life.

"He was like my other father," LJ said. "I would talk to him about things I didn't want to talk to my dad about. Of course, he would tell my dad anyway, but he was a buffer. And he was the same way for my dad. Everyone has always turned to my dad for advice and help, for the answers to things. He was the one guy my dad could turn to."








Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book review: Dallas Green - 'The Mouth That Roared: My Six Outspoken Decades in Baseball'

Dallas Green has seen it all in his sixty year involvement with Major League Baseball, and with the release of his autobiography, “The Mouth That Roared: My Six Outspoken Decades in Baseball,” Green holds back very little when detailing his time in between the lines.

The Mouth That Roared / Triumph Books
While he is most famous for piloting the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980 to a World Series victory over the Kansas City Royals, Green built his foundation as a flame-throwing pitcher with the Phillies organization starting in 1955. He spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues with the Washington Senators and New York Mets in addition to his parent club of Philadelphia. Hindered by a lack of control, Green posted a journeyman-like record of 20-22. His fiery persona, akin to his fastball, was something that followed him as he transitioned from a player to a front office man.

No more was this evident than when Green took over the reins of the Phillies after Danny Ozark was ousted in 1979. At the time, Green was working as their minor league director when he was dragged into a late night session with general manager Paul “Pope” Owens on August 29, 1979. By 5:00 am the next morning, he agreed to take the job. The Dallas Green era in Philadelphia had official begun.

He wasted no time in making his vision clear. Play hard or look for a new job.

Right away he went after their veteran leaders, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, and Mike Schmidt, all who were feverish supporters of Ozark.

“I’m sure a few holdouts felt the team was winning not because of Dallas Green, but despite Dallas Green,” he said. “It would later be said that they may have been winning to spite Dallas Green.”

His charging ways helped the Phillies develop a resiliency that allowed them to come back from a 5-2 deficit during the deciding game of the 1980 National League Championship Series. The team rode that momentum into the World Series against the Royals, and won the series 4-2 in convincing fashion. The late Tug McGraw, the team’s ace closer, gave Green much of the credit for their championship run.

“He told us we had to be a team with character, that we had to look in the mirror,” McGraw said. "He was just an average player at best, and where he got his ‘Phillie baseball’ is beyond me. But he had confidence in his ideas, and he backed his people. It took us a few months to catch on, but then we did.”

A World Series ring for a manager brings attention and greater scrutiny, and Green was not immune. The 1981 season was plagued by the baseball strike, and the Chicago Cubs were looking to turn around their organization. After refusing their first two offers, Green left the only organization he knew to become the general manager of the Chicago Cubs.

Green wasted little time in making Chicago “Philadelphia West.” His first order of business was to hire his friend and third-base coach Lee Elia for their managerial position. He brought along John Vukovich, as well as a half-dozen scouts from their organization. He was ready to go to work.

Looking to add someone who would bring the emotional response he expected from his players, he traded with the Phillies to acquire Larry Bowa. He held up the deal until they threw in a young infielder named Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg went on to a Hall of Fame career and that trade was one of his defining moments of his time in Chicago.

Green’s wheeling and dealing did help the team get to the NLCS in 1984, but he might be better remembered for what Cubs fans called, “Bloody Monday.” At the end of the 1982 season, he cleaned house, firing most of the team’s support staff and related personnel. Even Hall of Famer Ernie Banks was not safe from Green’s wrath.

Green lasted until the end of the 1987 season with the Chicago Cubs, signing free agent Andre Dawson after Dawson presented them with a blank contract. After the 1986 fiasco where the owners colluded against signing free agents, Green offered Dawson a $500,000 contract with incentives, and to Green’s surprise, Dawson accepted. Dawson won the 1987 MVP, probably the only highlight for the last place club, and Green’s last hurrah.

That is until George called.

The Yankees were in search of a new manager after George Steinbrenner dumped Lou Piniella at the close of the 1988 season. Steinbrenner called upon Green, whose relationship dated back to 1960 when Green played in Buffalo and “The Boss,” used to pass through a Royal Arms tavern, a frequent hang out of the two at the time.

“It’s difficult to function in any job where your boss is seeking to control you. I guess we were doomed from the beginning by my big mouth and George’s lack of patience.”

Green lasted until August, doomed by a team full of aging veterans and non-descript arms. Leaving the Yankees by mutual disagreement, he took over the 1993 Mets and immediately was immersed in controversy. Doc Gooden continued to battle his drug problems, Bret Saberhagen injured himself in a jet-ski accident, Bobby Bonilla threatened to knock out the teeth of writer Bob Klapisch, Anthony Young mired his way to a record-setting 27 consecutive losses, and to top it all off, Vince Coleman set off a large firecracker at Dodger Stadium that left three people injured.

Green had a tough time steering the ship on the way to a 103-loss season. He hoped for better results in 1994, but that was dashed quickly when the players decided to go on strike. During the strike, Green earned a reputation of being one of the hardest driving managers of the replacement players.

Green stuck around long enough to usher in the “Generation K” era, but with the trio of pitchers being rushed to the majors, their unfolding led to Green’s firing in 1996. He was replaced by Bobby Valentine, whom he later held in disdain for remarks that he made after Green was rehired by the Phillies as a special assistant to the general manager in 1998.

“Bobby will always be the guy who dressed up in a Groucho Marx disguise and snuck back into the dugout after being ejected from a game in 1999,” he said. “This guy has always been a phony.”

One gets a sense that there is very little that could silence Dallas Green. And yet he chose to end his book with the heart-wrenching loss of his granddaughter.

On January 8, 2011, a deranged gunman opened fire at a public meet-and-greet with Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Christina-Taylor Green had been invited to the event by a neighbor, hoping to offer her a chance to experience how our government worked up close. She never got the chance, falling victim to the recklessness of the individual who orchestrated this horrific act. The news was painful for Green to swallow.

“And there are still no words to adequately describe my feelings about what happened. After losing my granddaughter, my heart will never fully heal, but I’ll go on.”

Through the book Green rambles, rants and raves through his rollercoaster managerial career. The strengths of the book are his readily offered, candid opinions, which give you a vivid picture of his strong personality and old-school, tough love style. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the fact that his presentation of events is decidedly one-sided. Green is clearly not someone who plays well with others, and it begs the question of whether his abrasive style created more problems than it cured.

In the end, though, it’s hard not to like such an abashedly colorful character in an era when athletes and front office staff speak in media coached, prepared sound bytes. For that reason, as well as the unvarnished look into the dynamics between front office and players, this is a book worth diving into for an entertaining weekend read.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

New York Mets pitcher Hefner doing all that he can for Moore, Oklahoma

Jeremy Hefner may not be considered a superstar in baseball circles, but to the residents of his hometown of Moore, Okla., he is a hero. The small town of 2,500 was devastated by a May 20, 2013 tornado that left 23 people dead and caused $2 billion in damages.

Jeremy Hefner Signing For Charity / @ExamineBaseball
Saturday evening, the New York Mets starting pitcher used his celebrity to raise money at Foley’s Pub and Restaurant in Manhattan for the victims of the tragedy.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Franco helping to raise funds for the Fisher House Foundation

Fisher House Foundation Director of Donations Andrew Kayton (far left), joined by Mets great John Franco alongside Wounded Warrior folks / Citi

New York Mets Hall of Fame closer John Franco appeared at Citi Field last Tuesday for a charity softball game that raised money for the Fisher House Foundation, an organization that builds houses at VA hospitals and military medical facilities that families can stay at when they have loved ones in the hospital.

Currently there are 61 Fisher Houses in operation at every major military medical facility. They support over 20,000 families every year saving them more than $30 million dollars in lodging costs, food, and transportation. No family ever pays to stay at a Fisher House because the foundation picks up the bill that the military would normally charge a family to stay at a Fisher House.

This year’s game raised over $20,000 to support military families, and will provide over 200 nights of lodging at a “home away from home,” for the brave men and women of the United States military and their families.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Joe McEwing receives nod for 2013 Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame class

"Super" Joe McEwing, the current Chicago White Sox third base coach, and former utility man who played primarily for the New York Mets, was inducted into the Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame last week in New York City.

McEwing joined a class that included former Met Rusty Staub; Peter O'Malley, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Bill Madden, writer for the New York Daily News; and Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Kevin McReynolds revisits the Mets NL East championship team twenty-five years later

Kevin McReynolds figured prominently in the New York Mets' quest for the National League pennant in 1988. The 28-year-old left fielder was in his second season with the Mets after a trade in December 1986 brought him to New York in exchange for Shawn Abner, Stan Jefferson, and Kevin Mitchell. Coming to the Mets fresh off of their World Series victory, he had lofty expectations for his time in Flushing.

Kevin McReynolds / N. Diunte
“You had high hopes with a team that strong,” said McReynolds during an appearance at a baseball card show at Hofstra University this Saturday. “[They] had great pitching at the time. You think it was going to be … almost like a dynasty in the making. You look back now; of course it didn’t turn out to be that. It was always an interesting team and [there was] a lot of good baseball too.”

McReynolds, who was known for his private nature off the field, came out in a major way in 1988, finishing third in the MVP voting behind teammate Darryl Strawberry and the Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He blasted 27 home runs, drove in 99 runs, and set the single-season record for the most stolen bases without a single caught stealing, going a perfect 21-21.

“They just saw a fat ol’ white boy over there, so they didn’t pay attention to me,” McReynolds joked. “As long as I didn’t run in situations where I could hurt us with an out … they gave me the green light.”

The Mets faced off with the Dodgers in an unforgettable National League Championship Series, with the Mets taking the first two of the three games. During Game 4, McReynolds launched a fourth inning home run to put the Mets up 3-2. Going in to the ninth inning leading 4-2 with Dwight Gooden on the mound, Mets fans felt confident that the potential for a series clinching Game 5 would take place at Shea Stadium; however, Dodgers’ catcher Mike Scioscia had plans otherwise.

After a leadoff walk in the top of the ninth inning, Scioscia blasted a home run to right field to tie the game, hushing the boisterous Shea Stadium crowd. The two teams battled in extra innings, until Gibson homered off of Roger McDowell in the top of the 12th to put the Dodgers in front 5-4. The Mets would not go quietly, as they put the first two batters on base with consecutive singles off of Dodgers reliever Tim Leary, forcing manager Tommy Lasorda to bring in ex-Met Jesse Orosco. The lefty specialist walked Keith Hernandez and recorded the second out of the inning when Strawberry popped up to second base.

Just as McReynolds approached the plate with the bases loaded, Lasorda summoned Orel Hershiser, who pitched seven innings in the Dodgers' loss the night before. He encountered a pitcher in Hershiser who refused to give in. He flew out to center field ending the four-and-a-half hour marathon.

“I ended up making the final out," he said. "We had beaten LA so many times during that year, but Hershiser was on that phenomenal streak at the time. You always hate to be the last guy to make the last out, but unfortunately someone has to win and someone has to lose.”

The Mets lost Game 5 at Shea Stadium, but forced the deciding game in Los Angeles when David Cone pitched a complete game 5-1 victory aided by a McReynolds home run. Hershiser was too much for the Mets to handle in Game 7 and the Dodgers advanced to the World Series, which they won in convincing fashion over the Oakland Athletics.

McReynolds played with the Mets through 1991 when he was traded to the Kansas City Royals as part of the Bret Saberhagen deal. He played two seasons in Kansas City until the Mets reacquired him in 1994 in exchange for Vince Coleman. He played half of the 1994 season before knee injuries ended his baseball career.

Spending the bulk of his major league career in New York, McReynolds said the fans captured his attention while playing in Queens.

“There were always a lot of fans, [but] they weren’t always fans for you at times," he said. "They were always very verbal and they [expected] a good product on the field. [The fans] were just one of the things to look forward to.”

The 53-year-old McReynolds lives in Little Rock Arkansas, and when he is not playing golf, he is pursuing a wide range of business interests.

“I play golf a lot, run a commercial duck hunting operation during the winter time, and a couple of friends and I own some pizza restaurants in Memphis.”


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Archbishop Molloy coach Curran helped prepare New York Yankee Mike Jerzembeck to pitch in the majors

For over 50 years, Jack Curran helped to shape thousands of young men into baseball players that walked through the doors of Archbishop Molloy. During those 50-plus years, he sent countless numbers of players into professional careers other than baseball, but only two made the major leagues. One is current New York Mets outfielder Mike Baxter, the other is former New York Yankees pitcher Mike Jerzembeck.

Mike Jerzembeck
Jerzembeck, a member of the Yankees 1998 World Series Championship team, spoke with me regarding the influence of his high school coach on his development on and off the field through his teenage years.

The article recently appeared in the April 6 edition of the Times-Ledger newspapers in Queens.

"Yankee pitcher praises Coach Curran" - Nicholas Diunte - Times-Ledger Newspapers

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ed Charles recalls Satchel Paige's trip with the Vancouver Mounties in the Pacific Coast League

Satchel Paige was an arm for hire. Pitching well into his 50s, Paige was widely coveted not only for his pitching, but his ability to put fans in the seats. Wherever Paige appeared, there was a crowd. Owners knew this and Paige capitalized. If the price was right, ol’ Satchel would put on the uniform.

In 1961, fresh off of his appearance in the Negro League East-West All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, the Portland Beavers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League signed Paige in late August with the hopes that the legendary hurler could fill their stadium. Paige felt he could still deliver the goods. 

“I’m sure I could still help some major league team as a relief pitcher,” he said in an August 30, 1961 Associated Press report.

Ed  Charles / Baseball-Almanac.com
Witnessing that delivery was Ed Charles, a 28-year-old third baseman for the Vancouver Mounties. (Ironically Charles ended up as Paige’s teammate on the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, when Paige made his final major league appearance against the Boston Red Sox.) During their final home stand in Vancouver, Charles recalled a humorous incident when one of his teammates tried to show up Paige on the mound.

“The last series of the '61 season, Satchel was with Portland and we were finishing up with Portland at home. ... Satchel [was] scheduled to pitch, which he did, the final game on a Sunday,” Charles said during a 2012 interview. “He really stuck that ball up our ‘you know what,’ until I think I got a hit off him in the 7th [sic]. ... The big thing about that, we had a second baseman Billy Consolo. ... He took it upon himself to try to bunt on Satchel Paige.”

Paige quickly let Consolo know that his attempt wasn’t appreciated.

“He laid down the bunt and Satch didn't attempt to go to the ball to field the ball," he said. "Satch just stood on the mound and stared at Billy as he was running to first base.”

Consolo’s home fans gave him an earful as well.

“Our fans. they took offense to Billy trying to drag [bunt] on Satch. They start booing him and saying, ‘You should be sent to the minor leagues having the guts to lay a bunt down on that old man, you bush league so and so!’”

Consolo was no stranger to the unspoken rules of baseball. He played 10 seasons in the major leagues, and later spent 13 years as a coach on Sparky Anderson’s staff with the Detroit Tigers. When Consolo returned to the dugout, Charles pressed Consolo about his motives.

“[I asked him], ‘Why would you try to bunt on that man like that?’ Billy said, ‘I'm trying to win a ballgame, I don't care who's out on the mound.’”

Over 50 years later, it was not Paige’s mastery on the mound, but his looming glare across the diamond that is etched in Charles’ memory.

“It was funny the reaction of our fans towards Billy for trying to lay down a drag bunt on Satchel Paige. ... Just to see Satch stand there and stare down Billy, that was funny.”


Sunday, January 27, 2013

New York Mets coach Ricky Bones optimistic about 2013 pitching staff

New York Mets bullpen coach Ricky Bones had an early start on spring training this year. Bones was part of a group of over 40 former major leaguers that played in the 25th and final Joe DiMaggio Legends Game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium this Saturday. The 43-year-old Bones pitched three innings for the National League team, displaying the form and poise that carried him through his 11-year big league career.

Mets fans will not have to worry; Bones wasn't auditioning for a comeback. His mound appearance was in support of the weekend’s fundraising festivities.

“I’ve been here for four years and it’s really something to give back to the fans,” he said. “For me, being one of the youngest [here] around the legends of baseball, it’s a pleasure for me to be a part of it.”

Bones will be returning to South Florida in a few weeks when the Mets begin spring training. Looking ahead to the start of camp, Bones was intrigued by the Mets recent acquisition of Pedro Feliciano, who led the Mets in appearances for three consecutive seasons from 2008-2010.

“We’re always trying to fill some holes that need to be filled. He was the only lefty when he played for the Mets and was used a lot. I still think he can help the club.”

Despite the departure of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Bones remained optimistic about the Mets mix of young pitching talent.

“The acquisitions that we made, with the old nucleus we had, we can make this season a better season. Spring training is in two weeks and I’m really looking forward to working the young guys, as well as the veterans we have put together, [in order] to have a successful 2013.”

Friday, December 28, 2012

A look back at the Mets 50th anniversary season

The 2012 season marked the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets franchise. While the Mets season commenced with the trade of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays in December, the past 12 months provided many opportunities to catch up with former Mets as they talked about their experiences in Flushing in celebration of the team's 50 years in baseball. Below are links to exclusive interviews with players, some more familiar than others that might have went under your radar in 2012.

For Choo Choo Coleman, It's a Homecoming Long Delayed - Jan 21, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Former Yankee Frank Tepedino leads off First Annual Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner

Part of the valor of being a firefighter is accepting the responsibility that one might perish in the course of saving others. That same unselfish spirit was on display Thursday evening at the Chateau Briand in Carle Place, New York, for the First Annual Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner. The foundation, which serves to assist victims of fires and disasters, brought some much needed support to a region that was greatly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

Frank Tepedino / N. Diunte
Over 200 dinner guests came together under the guidance of FFCF's president Frank Tepedino, a veteran of eight major league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees, and dinner chair Tom Sabellico, who has worked closely with Tepedino in past fundraising efforts.

Frank Tepedino and Tito Landrum / N. Diunte
Tepedino traded in his batting gloves for those of a firefighter after finishing his time in the major leagues, and was one of the first responders to the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Tepedino was not alone in his crusade on Thursday, as he was joined by many of his baseball brethren to champion the cause, including board member Fred Cambria, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Tito Landrum, Billy Sample, Ron Swoboda, Jose Valdivielso, Jon Warden, as well as the one of the evening’s honorees, Frank Catalanotto.

Catalanotto, the 14-year major league veteran and graduate of Smithtown East, was given the FFCF’s Humanitarian Award for his foundation’s efforts in raising funds and awareness for the Vascular Birthmark Foundation. The Frank Catalanotto Foundation has emerged as the leading fundraiser for the VBF, and has traveled internationally to help those afflicted with the condition.

Also honored was Leonard Genova of the National Football Foundation, who was presented with an award to commemorate the establishment a scholarship series in his name. Genova’s foundation serves youth football players in Nassau and Suffolk counties to help improve their athletic and academic achievements through the sport. Alana Petrocelli, executive director of the Nassau County Firefighters Museum, was given the President's Award for her efforts to educate and inform the public about fire safety and prevention.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Joe Ginsberg, original New York Met dies at 86

Joe Ginsberg - Baseball-Almanac.com

Myron “Joe” Ginsberg, a veteran catcher of 13 major league seasons and an original 1962 New York Met, passed away Friday November 2nd, at Sunrise Retirement Living in West Bloomfield, Mich. He was 86.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Joe Hicks' mighty swing toppled the Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1963

Joe Hicks never fancied himself as a home run hitter, yet for one magical day on July 17, 1963 as a member of the New York Mets, Hicks supplied the necessary power to slay the defending National League champs, the San Francisco Giants. The 80-year-old Hicks, speaking from his home in Virginia, vividly recalled a shining moment from his career that put the bat in his hands with a chance to win the game against one of the elite teams in baseball.

Joe Hicks

“We were playing the Giants in the Polo Grounds on a Wednesday afternoon," he said. "The Giants were in town and they were the defending National League champs. They had Gaylord Perry pitching against us. Gaylord was in the early stages of his career and we knocked him around pretty good. … We jump off to a 5-3 lead and they started to chip back, and at the end of the ninth [inning], it was 7-7. We’re batting in the bottom of the 11th inning and they bring on Don Larsen to pitch. Joe Christopher, he was the leadoff hitter, and he led off with a single.”

Hicks was waiting on deck. Everyone in the house including Hicks knew what was coming next, a sacrifice bunt.

“I knew I was going to be sacrificing," he said. "I look down at third [base] and sure enough Solly Hemus gives me the bunt sign.”

Hicks, an expert bunter, placed the ball in the perfect location, but the laws of physics intervened.

“I lay down a nice bunt and would have had a hit, but at the last minute it kicked foul," he said. "I’m walking back [to the plate] and I’m so glad it went foul because as I’m going back to the batter’s box, I’m looking back at Solly Hemus, and Old Casey had taken the bunt off."

Stengel knew as Larsen’s former manager, what his next pitch would be after the bunt rolled foul. He relayed that information to Hicks, which proved pivotal moments later.

“He had managed Larsen in New York and knew that if a guy sacrificed, on the next pitch he would throw him that high hard fastball," he said. "I was looking for that pitch and I pull it down the right-field line to hit a home run into the upper deck to win the game. We didn’t call them walk-offs back then, just a game-winning home run. That day against Larsen was my best in the major leagues.”

His heroics earned him a spot on Kiner’s Korner after the game along with Choo Choo Coleman. Hicks was an eyewitness to Coleman’s brief, but classic interview that is still told fondly today.

“At the end of the game, he sent for me and Choo Choo Coleman to be on his show," he said. "I’ll never forget the interview; we had to climb up in the TV booth. We get up there, and Ralph Kiner said, ‘Hey Choo Choo, I saw your wife at the game today. What’s her name?’ He said (in a southern drawl), ‘Mrs. Coleman.’ Choo Choo didn’t know anyone’s name. He would just say, ‘Hey Bub!’”

Hicks started in the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1959 and came to the Mets after the 1962 season when he was purchased from the Washington Senators. He debuted with the Mets halfway through the 1963 season after tearing up Triple-A Buffalo, batting .320 with 14 home runs in only 81 games. The Mets hoped that he would be a shot in the arm to their struggling offense, and for the first eight games, including the aforementioned one against the Giants, he was. He batted .419 with three home runs and nine RBIs during that span.

“I enjoyed my time with the Mets," he said. "I was with Buffalo and they brought me up for the last half of the season in 1963. I was playing regularly in Buffalo, but they [the Mets] would play me only every time a right-handed pitcher pitched. I had a great start with them, but then again I was on the bench a lot. I was not a good bench player, as I was so used to playing all the time.”

Even though his manager didn’t play him every day, Hicks found Casey Stengel to be an endearing figure due to his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport.

“I really liked him, even in spring training" he said. "He was a great guy. He had such knowledge of the game. Back in those days, they didn’t have computers for all this stuff; he had all that information in his head.”

Stengel was also known for his ability to spin yarns from his many years in the game, often lasting hours at a time. Hicks recalled one of those storytelling incidents with Stengel during spring training.

“One day we’re supposed to get there at nine o’clock to St. Petersburg," he said. "We get there and it’s raining. We’re in the dugout and Stengel starts talking to us. He talks for about an hour and asks the trainer to check if the rain stopped. When he found out it didn’t stop, he kept talking for another few hours. It was hard to concentrate on what he said because he jumped around so much. He would say, ‘A guy leads off with a double with nobody out, it’s so important to get that guy to third base with nobody out because if you get that guy to third base, there are 12 ways to score without getting a base hit. I will give $100 to anyone who figures that out.’ I figured that out overnight and I brought them in. He said, ‘Hicksy, how did you know that?’ I said, ‘Skip, I’ve followed this game since eight years old.’”

The early years of the Mets was a mix of young talent and aging veterans. One of Hicks’ partners in the outfield was an aging Duke Snider, who was a legend in New York from his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stengel was famous for platooning his players, and the future Hall of Famer wasn’t exempt from sitting on the bench. One game against the Dodgers, Hicks found himself on the bench alongside Snider while Sandy Koufax was pitching. Late in the game, Stengel peered down the dugout to look for a pinch hitter to bat against Koufax.

“Casey, who loved to platoon, had all of his right-handed hitters in the lineup and the left-handed hitters were on the bench," he said. "We get to the 9th inning and Casey has a problem ... he doesn’t have any right-handed pinch hitters to hit against Koufax. He turns around and says to Duke, ‘Do you want to hit?’ He said, ‘Not particularly.’ Casey just turns around says nothing. He’s headed my way and before he gets to me, I said, ‘Hey Skip, I’ll give him a try.’”

From afar, Koufax looked hittable. That apparition quickly changed as Hicks approached the plate.

“From the dugout, Koufax looked so easy because he was so smooth," he said. "I get to the on-deck circle, he looked faster. When I got to the batter’s box, he looked a lot faster. I worked the count to 3-2, I’d seen two of his fastballs, and I knew his fastball was coming. I had it timed perfectly and at the last minute, it had a little rise to it. I struck out; I’m walking back to the dugout, and Stengel says, ‘Hicksy, don’t let it fret you, don’t let it fret you. He struck out a lot of guys and he’s gonna strike out a lot more.’ I was glad to hit against him because Duke said no.”

Hicks played another three seasons in the minor leagues with Buffalo from 1964-66, but despite hitting .282 and .318 the next two years, the Mets never brought him up to experience Shea Stadium.

“They were beginning to make their youth movement and I was in my 30s at the time," he said. "They were beginning to bring up guys like Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, and Cleon Jones. I just never got a chance after that.”

After retiring from baseball, Hicks returned to Charlottesville, where he became the athletic director for the city. Going strong at 80 (a year older than his "baseball age", which was changed at the urging of the scout that signed him), he continues to umpire and play handball. I caught him on a Sunday evening in July after he spent the entire day on the field.

“I umpired three games today," he said. "I’m the commissioner for the high school baseball umpires. I recruit and assign them games and do some games myself. I also do girls fast pitch and [schedule] those umpires. I do all of that by myself without the computer. It gives me something to do when I’m not playing handball. I learned the game at the University of Virginia, fell in love with the game, and I’m still playing it.”



Saturday, October 20, 2012

Steve Springer preaches quality at-bats in his new journey

For Steve Springer, baseball has always been an issue of quality over quantity. Springer tried to make the most of his 17 major league at-bats with the Cleveland Indians and the New York Mets, and is now working with young players helping them to do the same.

“If you know my story, I didn’t start in high school, I got three at-bats as a freshman in high school, and three my freshman year in college. I go around the country inspiring kids not to quit,” Springer said via telephone from his home in California.

Steve Springer - Checkoutmycards.com

Springer has carried the message through his CD / DVD combo entitled, “Quality At-Bats,” where he breaks down the mental side of hitting into something easily digestible, all to develop confidence in players at all levels. The New York Times featured Springer earlier this year when New York Yankees top prospect Dante Bichette Jr., said that he listens to Springer’s CD every day on his way to practice and games. Major league superstars Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo are among the many who also praise Springer’s message.

“I made this CD about 12 years ago, and I almost feel God put me in AAA for 11 years to do what I’m doing now to try to help kids. Right now, I’m the mental coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, but I have big leaguers on other teams call me because they had the CD in high school or college.”

How exactly is Springer going about changing the game with his program? It’s a paradigm shift aimed at removing the emphasis from one’s batting average, something he claims has destroyed more players’ dreams than the first time they saw a good curveball.

“The batting average is the most evil thing in baseball; it destroys more young players than anything in the game. I did everything right but went 0-4. Why is that number so powerful?” Springer asked.

“I’m trying to change what these kids think success is so they can walk up to the plate with confidence. We all have two different players in us, confident guy and we have the non-confident guy. The confident guy is a good player, and the non-confident guy isn’t. How do we get the confident guy to come out? That’s how I’m having success with some of these guys, by setting daily attainable goals: I hit the ball hard, I win; team first, etc.”

Getting players to stay in the game mentally is tough, but it is something that he preaches to his students if they want to be able to put their best foot forward every time they step on the field.

“I know batting average will not go away. I’m trying to get them to be the best competitor by walking on the field with confidence,” he said. “They have the tools, and I ask them if they want to be the best player on the field today. I say to them, ‘Be the best competitor, and you’ll have a chance.’”

So how did Springer, who toiled in the minor leagues for 14 seasons, save for two cups of coffee in 1990 and 1992, keep his edge?

“I always felt that I was good enough if given the opportunity,” he said. “I knew the alternative of getting a real job and I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I got good when I got too old. I was the MVP of my AAA team the last 4-to-6 years [of my career], but I couldn’t get a call-up.”

Springer spent most of his career in the Mets organization, starting in 1982, the same year as Dwight Gooden.

“I signed with Dwight Gooden, he was a first rounder, and I was a 20th,” he said. “He was a great teammate and a great guy; I loved him, he was awesome. I was in Little Falls and he came up the last three weeks of the season, and I was in awe watching him pitch. He could have pitched in the big leagues right out of high school; he was that good. He was athletic; he had a big arm, good curveball, and command. I didn’t doubt in my mind that there were 300 pitchers in the big leagues better than him.”

The second baseman began to hit his stride right in between the Mets two playoff runs in 1986 and 1988. Looming behind mainstays Wally Backman and Tim Teufel, there was little room for Springer to break through.

“I thought I had more of a chance in 1987, I was in the top 10 in the league in hitting, but when Howard Johnson went down, they called up Keith Miller,” he said.

Springer plugged away despite being overlooked, to the tune of almost 1,600 minor league hits.

“The whole Met era in the 1980’s was awesome. If I was with another organization, I probably would’ve got up quicker. You couldn’t tell me I couldn’t spend five years in the big leagues.”

The Mets traded Springer away from the organization in 1988 but returned in 1992 after a brief call-up with the Indians in 1990. This time the Mets rewarded Springer for his perseverance.

“[It seemed like] twenty guys got hurt. Willie Randolph got hurt, and I get called up for 10 days, I go 2-for-3 with a double in ‘Frisco, and I’m thinking, ‘Sweet!’ I got sent down before I put my hat in my locker. They tell me they’re going to call me up in five days,” he recalled.

Somehow, fate was not too kind to Springer, who waited 11 seasons to get his shot in a Mets uniform. After a strong finish in AAA Tidewater, Springer hung around for the call. It never came.

“I hit .290, got the Doubleday award [for] MVP of the AAA team, and then two days later, they trade David Cone to Toronto for Ryan Thompson, and some stiff named Jeff Kent. So I’m out, [because] they needed my roster spot,” explained Springer.

He spent another three seasons in the minor leagues, retiring after the 1995 season. At least his brief journey with the team that drafted him ended on a high note.

“I feel blessed I got called to the big leagues. The last time I stepped in a major league batter’s box, I got a hit!”

Springer’s career turned to scouting at the urging a close friend who was working with the Diamondbacks when he was contemplating if he should play one more year.

“Luis Medina called me and said, ‘Your playing career is killing your scouting career. Then 30 minutes later, the Tigers called me up and offered me $5,000 per month and no big league camp. The previous year I was making $7,000, so I called Luis back up and he put my name in with the Diamondbacks and I went right in with them,” he said.

He scouted for five years before becoming an agent for the next seven. He returned to the Diamondbacks in 2008 as a scout before the Blue Jays called.

“The Blue Jays came and got me because of my CD really, and wanted me working with all of their kids.”

When he is not working for the Blue Jays, he travels the country giving what he calls, “The Mental Hitting Lesson.” The positive effects that he has seen from his CDs, talks, and seminars continue to drive him.

“This needs to be a confident, fun atmosphere at a young age, and I don’t think it is,” he said. “I get chilling e-mails from kids and parents thanking me for making this CD, telling me how it changed their life. It’s mind-blowing.”

For more information on Springer’s “Quality At-Bats,” CD’s and DVD’s, visit – www.qualityatbats.com