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

Monday, August 15, 2016

Choo Choo Coleman: Farewell to a good 'bub'

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman, one of the venerable members of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets team, passed away Monday August 15, 2016 at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina due to complications from cancer. He was 80.

Of all of the members of the 1962 New York Mets team, the details about the life and career of catcher “Choo Choo” Coleman remained mysterious, as he disappeared from the public spotlight after leaving baseball.
Choo Choo Coleman in 2012 / N. Diunte

Coleman, then 76-years-old, returned to New York in 2012 for the first time in 46 years for a series of appearances at various memorabilia shows and to attend the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner at the Marriott Marquis.

The usually reserved former catcher invited me to meet with him the Friday evening he arrived in New York, giving his first interview ever since his playing days. Greeting me with a, 'Hey bub, nice to meet you,' Coleman broke the ice with a term I quickly discovered he used to refer to almost everyone. Sitting in his hotel room, he explained the origins of his nickname “Choo Choo”. It was something he had long before professional baseball.

“Growing up in Orlando, I was small and fast, like a choo-choo train,” Coleman said.

He cut his teeth in professional baseball during the 1955 season, signing with the Washington Senators Class D affiliate in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

“A friend of mine played for them and told me about it" he said. "I talked to the people, tried out and made the team."

Playing professional baseball in the segregated South, Coleman encountered his share of obstacles while traveling.

“At that time it was hard," he said. "People were different [then]. I don’t know about now, it’s a whole lot different. We lived in different places [from the team]. We lived in private homes; we couldn’t live in the hotels back then."

After two stints with the Orlando team, Coleman was picked up by Syd Pollock’s Indianapolis Clowns halfway through the 1956 season. By that time Coleman asserts, the Clowns had moved on from their Negro League affiliation to that of a traveling ball club. His escapades with the Clowns took him to far reaching parts of the country such as North Dakota.

“We weren’t in the Negro Leagues, we played all over,” he said. “I played two years. We played almost every day. We went everywhere; it was a lot of fun.”

He reveled in discussing some of the antics that made the Clowns popular at that time.

“We’d have the Clowns run down on to the field, hitting people in the crowd in the head, stuff like that,” he said.

By 1958, Coleman returned to Orlando and spent two more seasons there, waiting for an opportunity to climb baseball’s proverbial ladder. This chance came in 1960 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I went to Vero Beach and made the A ball club in Macon,” he recalled. “I played there a month or two and then I went to Montreal (AAA).”
Choo Choo Coleman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Spring Training
The Phillies liked Coleman’s performance in Montreal enough to draft him from the Dodgers and place him on their opening day roster in 1961.

“I went to the Phillies first,” he said. “Then they sent me to Spokane, Washington. … I didn’t play too much.”

His hot bat in spring training was not enough to force manager Gene Mauch’s hand.

“I went to spring training and hit about .280, but they never played me,” he recalled. “They played Clay Dalrymple; he hit about .215 and played about every night. [Mauch] knew his baseball, but I don’t think he liked me.”

Coleman confirmed his suspicions about Mauch when he was put in to pinch-hit for Ruben Amaro with two strikes in what was only his second plate appearance in the majors.

“There was a man on first base,” Coleman recounted over 60 years later. “Ruben Amaro was supposed to lay the ball down, put him over. He never did. He did it two times and fouled the ball off. I’m on the bench all night and he called me to come take his place with two strikes. My first time in the major leagues [and I pinch-hit] with two strikes! I fouled four balls off and I hit in to the double play that night in Philly. I always remembered that. That’s tough man!” (Note - It was Coleman’s second career plate appearance and he grounded out to first to end the inning.)

The Phillies left Coleman unprotected in the expansion draft and he was signed by the New York Mets for the 1962 season.

“I never knew at that time that I’d be there on the first [team],” he said. “I made the team and I was happy to be there. I did my best. I hit over .250 my first year. I stayed hurt a lot. My shoulder was out of place, nose fractured, fractured my fingers (displaying multiple broken fingers on his right hand). It’s different now. They play now with one hand behind the back; I didn’t do that, I caught with two hands.”

Despite his small size, Coleman remained fearless behind the plate. He wasn’t going to let his stature be a factor in determining his playing time on the field.

“It didn’t make no difference,” he said. “I weighed 155; I was the smallest one. All of the fellas were over 200. I wasn’t afraid.”

When asked about the legendary Mets manager Casey Stengel, Coleman recalls very limited interactions between the two.

“I didn’t talk to him too much,” he recalled. “Most of the time, he’d be on the bench asleep.”

Coleman played for the Mets their first two seasons and made a return appearance in 1966 for six games. Taking time to reflect on his stay in New York, Coleman enjoyed his time there and its demanding fan base.

“It was nice to play here,” he said. “In order to play here in New York, you had to be good. You can’t be bad or slow; you always had to do your best.”

He had one last hurrah with the Mets organization in 1969 after leaving baseball behind for two years; however, he could not make it back to the majors to be a part of the World Series championship team.

“I took off two years and I stayed home to go fishing at the time,” he said. “I came back two years later after I wrote them a letter and told them I wanted to start back. They sent me to Tidewater. I been out two years, but I still made the team!”

While he was in New York, he looked forward to being able to see teammates such as Al Jackson and Frank Thomas, as well as Willie Mays, whom he regards as the best player he’s ever seen. He also was excited to Citi Field for the first time, a sight he would rather have experienced as a player than a spectator.

“If I was playing, I’d be more excited to see it … it would be a lot different,” he said.

After baseball, he returned to Florida and later owned a Chinese restaurant for 18 years. In retirement, the humble Coleman enjoyed the ample opportunity to go fishing whenever he wanted.

“It’s a lot of fun just to go and relax,” he said.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: 'Game of My Life: Memorable Stories of Mets Baseball' by Michael Garry

Author Michael Garry has gathered some of the best anecdotes of the New York Mets franchise told directly by the players themselves in his new book, “Game of My Life: Memorable Stories of Mets Baseball.” Garry dissects over 50 years of memorable moments in Flushing starting with Al Jackson recounting his 15-inning game during the team’s inaugural season in 1962, through the theatrics of Johan Santana pitching the first (and only) no-hitter in Mets history.

Game of My Life / Michael Garry

While Garry enlists the likes of Ron Swoboda and Mookie Wilson to share their roles in securing World Series victory, “Game of My Life,” really shines when less heralded players such as John Stearns, Eric Hillman, Anthony Young, and Benny Agbayani relay their magical moments as members of the Mets.

The tales of the 25 Mets interviewed for “Game of My Life,” from Jackson to Travis D’Arnaud, reveal the rich history of the Flushing franchise from its inception to the present, giving Mets fans another opportunity to relive the prominent memories of their beloved heroes.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: 'Ken Boyer: All-Star, MVP, Captain' by Kevin D. McCann

Ken Boyer holds a significant, yet often unheralded position in St. Louis Cardinals lore. Playing during the intersection of the careers of franchise cornerstones Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, Boyer’s stabilizing at the hot corner is understated in its importance in Cardinals history.

Boyer is finally given his proper due in Kevin D. McCann’s new biography, “Ken Boyer: All-Star, MVP, Captain.” Boyer’s rise starts rooted in the small town of Alba, Missouri, as one of 14 children to Vern and Mabel Boyer. He grew up in a household deeply rooted in athletics, as all seven boys in the Boyer clan became professional baseball players, including brothers Clete and Cloyd who also became major leaguers.


The man who went on to be regarded as the best third baseman of his era was originally signed as a pitcher by the Cardinals in 1949. He pitched two years in the minor leagues before the Cardinals shifted him to third base due to a combination of his hitting prowess and lack of control on the mound.

McCann explores the details of Boyer’s transition from a moundsman to a Gold Glove third baseman, a ride that had its fair share of bumps in the road. His development was initially hampered by two years of service in the Korean War. Upon his return, the Cardinals shifted Boyer among the third base, short stop, and center field positions, trying to best utilizing his superior athleticism.

Once the Cardinals settled on Boyer playing third base, a star was born. Starting with Boyer capturing the first National League Gold Glove at third base in 1958, he reigned over the next seven seasons as the premier player at the hot corner in the perhaps all of baseball, culminating his run with National League Most Valuable Player honors in 1964.

While Boyer was making his triumphant ascent in professional baseball, McCann chronicles Boyer’s ups and downs with the management and press, who thought at times the third baseman appeared to lack hustle and vigor on the field. McCann quickly quells those notions from interviews with his living teammates, as well as pointing to his iron man status on the field, missing only 18 games during the aforementioned seven seasons, including playing the full 162 games during his MVP campaign.

Almost as quickly as Boyer’s career ascended, his MVP season became the pinnacle of his career. Slowed by injuries to his knees Boyer was traded to the New York Mets after the 1965 season, when he posted totals that were nowhere near his 1964 MVP performance. Boyer spent parts of two seasons with the Mets before moving to the Chicago White Sox. He finished his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1969. While the latter stages of Boyer’s playing career are relatively a mere footnote in his career, McCann treats them with respect, giving them the same depth of coverage as his Cardinals days.

Clocking in at 463 pages, Boyer’s biography is incredibly well researched, although at times a bit too detailed. Each chapter of his playing career has details of almost seemingly every game he played in; crowding the lesser reported events of his playing days that are the true gems of this book. McCann manages to dig up rare details of his amateur career; including time spent playing against Mickey Mantle in amateur leagues before either signed a professional contract. Fans will also enjoy seeing photos from Boyer’s personal family collection, giving readers a deeper look into the details of his life.

His name continues to come up many times for the Hall of Fame, including the newly formed Golden Era Committee. McCann presents the entirety of his life, in what will be considered the definitive work on Boyer’s life and career, without waving the flag for Boyer’s induction into the Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Boyer passed away at the age of 51 in 1982 after suffering a bout with lung cancer. After reading “Ken Boyer: All-Star, MVP, Captain” one will get the feeling that they too were watching his life unfold from the homemade ball field on the farms in Alba to his bedside during his final days.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bartolo Colon joins unlikely group with first career home run

Bartolo Colon made history of sorts Saturday night when he hit his first major league home run off of James Shields of the San Diego Padres. The 42-year-old Mets pitcher joined a select group of major leaguers to homer in their age-43 season or later, a list that includes Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel, 2000 American League MVP Jason Giambi, and All-Stars Julio Franco and Andres Galarraga. Unlikely company for a pitcher with a lifetime .089 career batting average.

Bartolo Colon hitting his first major league home run


Friday, February 26, 2016

Watch Duke Snider as he hits a magical walk-off home run for the Mets

While Duke Snider will be forever associated with the Brooklyn Dodgers, "Boys of Summer," Snider returned to New York in a homecoming of sorts when he was purchased by the New York Mets in 1963 from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Well past the peak of his career, Snider batted .243 with 14 home runs in 129 games for the Mets who were only in their second year of existence.

http://amzn.to/1pggPI4
One of Snider's most memorable moments in his only season with the Mets came during a  June 7th, 1963 game against the St. Louis Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. Digging in with two men on in the bottom of the 9th inning against reliever Diomedes Olivo, Snider crushed his offering into the second deck for a three-run walk-off homer.

Snider's magical Mets moment was recently published from the Major League Baseball vaults for everyone to relive. Take a few seconds to watch the sweet swing that produced 407 major league home runs.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tony Phillips was viewed by teammates as a stabilizing force in the lineup

When the New York Mets acquired Tony Phillips in a string of perplexing moves at the trade deadline in 1998, many wondered if bringing Phillips to the Big Apple was the right move in Flushing. For Mets outfielder Brian McRae, Phillips’ arrival was just what the team needed to stabilize their lineup.

“I was excited when they said that trade went through because I was hitting down in the order by that time and we really didn’t have a leadoff [hitter],” said McRae speaking Friday evening from Marshall, Texas where he was coaching the Park University baseball team. “We had done all of the shuffling in the outfield with [Todd] Hundley playing a little bit in the outfield after [Mike] Piazza got traded [to the Mets], so it was good to have him on the ball club.”

Tony Phillips with the New York Mets / Fleer
The versatile Phillips passed away at the age of 56 on Wednesday February 17, 2016 in Arizona due to an apparent heart attack. The news hit close to home for McRae who still had the death of another mutual teammate on his mind.

“It was like a month and a half ago with Dave Henderson too,” he said, “so I lost two former teammates in a short time.”

Coming up with the Kansas City Royals in 1990, McRae was familiar with Phillips from playing in the American League. He remembered Phillips as a hitter that pitchers weren't fond of seeing at the plate.

“You didn’t like him because he was pesky,” he said. “Pitchers couldn’t bury him and get him out. He fouled off a lot of pitches and always seemed like he was in the middle of rallies for those good A’s teams. He just did a lot of things well to help his team win games."

The 39-year-old Phillips brought the same tenacious approach that McRae described to the Mets, quickly invigorating the clubhouse. There were a lot of intangible elements to Phillips’ game that didn’t show up in the box score, but enabled the entire team to elevate their play.

“He was a good on-base guy for all the guys hitting behind him,” he recalled. “I think our offense got better once he came along. It wasn’t so much him hitting his way on, but just working the count. He might have had a low average, but his on-base percentage was pretty high, and he did a good job running up pitch counts to let everybody else in the lineup see pitches that the pitcher had. He was really comfortable in that role as far as taking a lot of pitches, getting deep in the count, and doing those types of things.”

Spending time with Phillips away from the field gave McRae the opportunity to see how Phillips approached the game that could not be learned from the opposing dugout. He found Phillips to be a real student of the game who was willing to share the intricacies of the trade with him.

“I got to know him a lot better than I did in passing from playing against him,” he said. “We spent a lot of time talking about baseball, his approach mentally, and how he went about getting prepared for a game by checking scouting reports of other teams, pitchers, and things that he picked up.

“He was good with sharing a lot of that knowledge with me; I liked to sit at his locker [to] listen and learn as much as possible. [He] put a lot of his heart and soul into what he did on the ball field, and with him being on those championship teams, you gravitated to those guys because there’s something special about them. When you’re around guys who have been a part of something special, you listen to them and try to learn as much as possible.”

McRae shared an example of Phillips’ tenacity while playing for Mets by relaying an incident that occurred against the St. Louis Cardinals and his former manager Tony LaRussa. After a first-inning brushback by Cardinals starter Matt Morris, Phillips directed his angst at the Hall of Fame skipper.

“He brought a different aura to our ball club and he didn’t back down from anything,” he stated. “I remember we played against the Cardinals and Matt Morris threw up and in on him. He was jawing at Matt Morris, and then Tony LaRussa his former manager was yelling at him; he went right back at LaRussa. He brought a different edge that I think we needed.”

Tony Phillips, 18-year major league veteran dies of heart attack at 56

Tony Phillips, who enjoyed an 18-year career in the major leagues from 1982-1999 primarily with the Oakland Athletics, passed away Wednesday February 17, 2016 as the result of a heart attack according to Susan Slusser. He was 56.

An extremely versatile fielder, Phillips saw action at every position on the field except pitcher and catcher during his major league career. He amassed 2,023 hits with a .266 average over his 18 seasons with the Athletics, Detroit Tigers, California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and New York Mets.

Tony Phillips on his 1986 Topps card / Topps

Phillips played professionally as recently as the 2015 season, when at the age of 56, he played in eight games with the independent Pittsburgh Diamonds.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

2015 Topps Heritage High Number Baseball is a treat for the World Series

Topps’ 2015 Heritage High Number baseball card set is right on time for the World Series. As the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals square off to determine this year’s World Champion, collectors can add to their excitement with this year’s update to the classic Topps series that salutes the old and the new.
Styled in the design of the 1966 Topps set, the 2015 High Number set includes rookie cards for some of the top emerging talent in this year’s postseason.

2015 Topps Heritage High Number Baseball / Topps

Collectors will appreciate the RC designation for the likes of Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Steven Matz, and Noah Snydergaard in this year’s High Number edition. In addition to the aforementioned rookies, Topps covered many of the late season moves by major league clubs, giving fans the opportunity to get cards of the newest members of their favorite franchise in uniform.


Click here to read the full review of the 2015 Topps Heritage High Number Baseball Card series.

Friday, October 16, 2015

How Matt Reynolds might join Chet Trail for a dubious major league distinction

As Matt Reynolds sat on the New York Mets bench Thursday evening for Game 5 of the National League Championship series waiting to make his major league debut, one man that can relate to his angst is Chet Trail. Placed on the New York Yankees World Series roster in 1964, Trail is the only player ever on a postseason roster never to appear in a major league game.

Chet Trail / Baseball-Birthdays.com
Trail was signed by the Yankees in 1962 out of Libbey High School in Toledo, Ohio, where he was a standout multi-sport start. The Yankees gave Trail a $43,000 bonus, and in 1963 they assigned him to their Fort Lauderdale team in the Florida State League. A year later, in only his second professional season, the Yankees placed him on their World Series roster after Tony Kubek was injured; however, the acclaim wasn’t as glamorous as it seemed.

“The Yankees didn’t call me up,” the 71-year-old Trail said from his home in Toledo on Thursday evening. “It was a paper move protecting me by calling me up on the roster. They told me they were going to put me on the roster, but they didn’t go any further as to what their plans were as far as bringing me up.”

Barely 20 years old, Trail was excited to be named to the club, but he would have enjoyed it more if he would have been in uniform with the rest of the Yankee legends. Trail watched the World Series from his home in Ohio while attending college classes.

“I was just thrilled to be privileged enough to be on the roster, so I didn’t expect any more,” he said. “I was just happy to be on the roster, but I came back home and went back to college.”

The Yankees lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, but in true Yankee fashion, they cut Trail in on a share of the runner-ups earnings even though he never stepped foot in the dugout. It’s something that he appreciates over fifty years later.

“If I can remember, I did get a nominal sum being on that roster,” he said. “Back then I think the players voted for shares, but if I can remember, I did get something just for being on the roster.”

The culmination of the 1964 season left Trail with many unanswered questions. In spring training, he was promised that he would get a look at the major league level, but it never materialized.

“In 1964, Archie Moore and I were supposed to split half of a season in which I was to play in A-ball half a season and go up to the Yankees, and he was to come down and play, but they never did that,” he said. “I stayed the whole year in Greensboro, but they brought me up by name only. I never got an explanation as to why physically that never happened.”

Trail spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, reaching as high as Triple-A. He went to major league spring training five times, but for various reasons, he didn’t make the cut. Despite never reaching the major leagues, Trail had the fortune of spending time around the old guard of the Yankees dynasty.

“I was kind of awe struck with Mantle, Maris, Berra, Howard, Kubek, Richardson, and Pepitone,” he said. “I am 18-19 years old, and to be on the field in spring training with people like that who I grew up idolizing was a great experience.”

After finishing his baseball career in 1969, Trail worked in the insurance field, became a church pastor, and was one of the most successful high school basketball referees in Ohio. He is currently using his position as a respected Pastor in the community to revitalize the site of his old high school, by lobbying to build a sports complex where it once stood. After some meetings with local officials, Trail is proud with the progress he is making.

“Along with the chamber of commerce we’re putting together a business plan, so we’re making headway with that,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to bring that to fruition; I think we will. It’s been two years and it’s finally coming together. I’ve contacted Major League Baseball’s RBI program for a grant and as soon as our leg work with the business part of it is done, we’ll be reaching out to actually getting money and making the complex come to pass.”

Trail hopes that Reynolds, the Mets young shortstop gets his opportunity to play in a major league game whether it is during this year’s playoffs or next year’s regular season. He doesn’t want Reynolds to experience a similar fate searching for answers for a half-century.

“In all my years, now I’m 71, I never quite understood what actually happened there,” he said. “I was never told and it wasn’t explained to me. I had to do well in the minor leagues just to be put on the roster, but I never quite got over that hump.”

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Jake Taylor's Major League advice for Matt Harvey

While Matt Harvey isn't out there tanking games for the New York Mets, there has been quite a buzz about the potential decision spurned on by his agent Scott Boras, and Dr. James Andrews to force the Mets shut him down for the rest of the season when he reaches his 180 inning limit. As the Mets are approaching the playoffs and a potential run at the World Series, you can only wonder if one of the veterans will be pulling him aside in the locker room and giving him a talk ala Jake Taylor did to Roger Dorn in Major League.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Jerry Blevins left with a dubious record after suffering season-ending injury

Jerry Blevins set a record this season that he would surely relinquish if he had the opportunity to do so. Blevins suffered a broken left-arm when he was struck by a line drive in an April 19 game against the Miami Marlins. At the time of his injury, he set a major league record by retiring all 15 batters he faced for the season.

The left-handed reliever, who was acquired in a trade with the Washington Nationals in exchange for outfielder Matt den Dekker, was the Mets most effective relief pitcher in April. In seven appearances, Blevins had a spotless 0.00 ERA with four strikeouts in five innings pitched, winning his only decision of the season in a 7-5 victory over the Marlins on April 16.

Blevins hoped that he would have a chance to improve upon his record by returning to the Mets late in the season to help them in their playoff run; however, those dreams were dashed earlier this week when the Mets announced on Thursday that he re-injured his left arm, breaking the same bone he initially injured after slipping on a curb Monday.

In an effort to replace Blevins in the bullpen, the Mets acquired left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty from the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday. An upset Blevins vented on Twitter about his injury preventing him from contributing to the Mets playoff run. He sounded like he would gladly trade giving up some base hits and the record he currently set in order to have the opportunity to pitch again with the Mets this season.

“Can't explain my disappointment & frustration about not putting on a Mets uniform again this year,” Blevins tweeted on Thursday. “I'll be back stronger. Let's Go Mets.”


The lowdown on Eric O'Flaherty, newest member of the New York Mets

The New York Mets bolstered their bullpen with the acquisition of left-handed relief pitcher Eric O’Flaherty and cash from the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday evening in exchange for a player to be named later. To make room for O’Flaherty on the roster, the Mets designated lefty reliever Alex Torres for assignment, who has been largely ineffective in neutralizing opponent’s left-handed hitters.

So who exactly is the 30-year-old pitcher that just followed his fellow Oakland teammate Tyler Clippard to New York?

Click here to read a complete background on the newest member of the New York Mets, who has played with the Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics, and the Seattle Mariners.

Michael Conforto hits his first major league home run against the Marlins

Michael Conforto further solidified his place in the New York Mets lineup last night when he hit his first major league home run in the second inning off of Miami Marlins starter Tom Koehler. The 433-foot blast to right-center field put the Mets ahead 3-0, putting them well on their way to a 12-1 victory.

“I was just trying to find a good pitch to hit something hard,” Conforto said. “I got into a good count 3-1, got a good fastball out over the plate [and] put a good swing on it.”
Michael Conforto at MCU Park in 2014 / N. Diunte

Conforto hit Koehler’s 3-1 offering into the depth of Marlins Park with two runners on base and the pitcher Bartolo Colon waiting on deck. Many in the ballpark were expecting Koehler to pitch around him to get to the weak-hitting Colon after falling behind in the count; however, Conforto showed tremendous poise in being prepared to hit in that situation.

“I wouldn’t say I [was] surprised,” he said. “It was what I was looking for. I wanted to make sure that I got a good pitch to hit … in a spot where I could put us ahead and help the team out.”

With the Mets recent acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, Conforto was slated to head to their Triple-A team in Las Vegas this weekend; however, when Kirk Nieuwenhuis suffered a neck injury, Mets manager Terry Collins kept him from boarding the plane. The move paid tremendous dividends against the Marlins.

“It was a good night for him to get him going,” Collins said. “He is going to be such a good hitter."

The 23-year-old outfielder has made meteoric rise to the majors since being selected in the first round of the 2014 draft. He spent the 2014 season with the Mets short season club in Brooklyn, and split time between two minor league teams this season, before being called to the majors last month from Double-A Binghamton with only 133 professional games under his belt.

With his major league career only a few weeks old, behind every turn of the corner is a new milestone for the future star of the Mets organization. As he floated around the bases after his first home run, Conforto not only put a foothold on his position with the team, but cemented an unforgettable moment in his promising journey.

“The whole trip around the bases was a flash in my mind,” he said. “So it's a moment I'll never forget. It's pretty cool."


Monday, July 6, 2015

Masanori Murakami revisits the site of his major league debut

Masanori Murakami was 6,000 miles away from his home while visiting New York City this week, but the famed Japanese pitcher was welcomed with open arms as he returned to the site where he made history over 50 years ago as the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball. What started with a book signing in Manhattan on Tuesday and finished with him throwing a strike from the mound at Citi Field on Thursday, left Murakami with a sense of adulation that has been absent since his playing days.

“[They have been] the best so far,” Murakami said during an interview on Wednesday. “Maybe half the people didn’t see me pitch, but [the people] are friendly, very kind, and nice. I’m having a good time.”

Masanori Murakami / N. Diunte
His mound appearance at Citi Field coincided with the release of his autobiography, “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.” The book is authored by Rob Fitts, who previously wrote two other works on Japanese baseball. Guiding “Mashi,” on his tour, Fitts has encountered tremendous excitement from fans eager to catch a pillar of baseball’s past.

“There has been so much enthusiasm from fans,” Fitts said in a Wednesday interview. “We’ve done three events so far and there were 100 people at each event. People are just coming up and saying, ‘I saw you pitch when I was 10 years old, or I was wondering about you for 30 years and I got the 1965 baseball card when I was eight.’ A lot of people knew he was in the major leagues, but didn’t know much about him. These events have been great having people meet him for the first time and hear his story for the first time.”

One of those excited fans was Chicago Cubs pitcher, Tsuyoshi Wada. The 34-year-old Japanese pitcher is in his second season with the Cubs. After being alerted to Murakami’s presence in the ballpark, Wada dashed from the clubhouse to greet his countryman with a ceremonial bow and handshake. Speaking with the help of a translator, Wada showed reverence for his predecessor.

“I have respect for him as he is the first pitcher who came here,” Wada said at Citi Field on Thursday. “He’s also left-handed, so I [also] relate to him that way. I had no idea that I was going to meet him today, but it has been a real lovely experience. … I would love it if more people knew of Mashi.”

Murakami presents Wada a signed copy of his book / N. Diunte
Murakami was equally delighted to see a familiar face on the field. The two exchanged pleasantries and even autographs during their meeting.

“Wada played on the Hawks, same team [as I did] before,” he said. “He’s a good guy. I was very happy to see him. I got some autographs to bring back to Japan after the season for my charity golf tournament to auction to make money to help the Special Olympics.”

Murakami was introduced to the greater American baseball public on September 1, 1964 at Shea Stadium as a member of the San Francisco Giants. Down 4-0 to the New York Mets, Giants manager Alvin Dark thought that this low pressure situation was the perfect time for the 20-year-old to make his debut. A half-century later, Murakami recalled the details of his entry.

“I [was] very relaxed, not tight,” he said. “We finished the 7th inning [and] Alvin Dark called to the bullpen, ‘If [in the] 8th inning [there are] no runs, Mashi goes in.’ Then the 8th inning, nothing [no runs]. We were behind four runs. The umps called me and I was walking to the mound to the Sukiyaki song. They [the fans] were all watching me, but I didn’t notice. I talked to the catcher and [went over] the signs. First pitch, outside corner, nice strike, and then Charley Smith I struck out.”

He finished his debut with a clean slate, surrendering only a single while striking out two batters. Even though his performance that day could be categorized as magical, the events leading up to his arrival on the mound were chaotic, starting with his flight from Fresno.

“From Fresno to here, [it was] very tough because nobody was taking me to the hotel,” he said. “I did it by myself. I was only here for six months, I didn’t know much English. I remember, the first night, I ate roast beef with Juan Marichal in the hotel.”

It didn’t get any better for Murakami when he got to the ballpark. Although he signed his release from Fresno, he never formally signed a major league contract with the Giants. Confused by being asked to sign what he thought was a duplicate contract, Murakami had to iron out the formalities of his major league contract only minutes prior to the first pitch.

“Before the game Chub Feeney the general manager called to me to sign the contract,” he recalled. “There was a little bit of trouble because I didn’t know that. I can’t read it, contracts are very tough. [He told me] to sign over here. I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t understand.’ He sent to the stands to get a Japanese guy [who helped translate] and then I said, ‘Oh, I understand.’ Then I signed.”

Murakami finished the 1965 season with a 4-1 record for the Giants, but decided to honor a commitment he made to the Nankai Hawks to return to Japan. He continued to pitch in Japan until 1982 with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Returning to the United States in 1983, Mashi tried to finish an unfulfilled dream by vying for a spot on the Giants roster.

“I thought I could play against the left-handed hitters,” he said. “I never played in major league spring training, only the minor league. … [I told the Giants] I would like to try spring training and if my arm is good, I would like to sign the contract.”

Unfortunately, his comeback with the Giants in 1983 was short lived. He was released at the end of spring training, but stayed in San Francisco to be the team’s batting practice pitcher for the duration of the season.

In the 50 years since his debut Murakami has seen a lot of changes, especially with how pitchers are handled. When he started his career, Japanese managers were notorious for running their pitchers into the ground; now their staffs have a lot more depth.

“Pitchers rotation before over here was three days,” he said. “Over there [Japan], if you are a good pitcher, maybe [one day you are] starting, maybe next day, [if the team might] win, ‘Okay, you get the ball.’ The Lions number 24 [Kazuhisa Inao], he had 42 wins [in a season]. He threw every day. Over here it’s mostly rotation. Maybe number one pitcher goes to relief one or two times only [per season]. Next day is day off. Now the rotation is four or five days … in Japan it is six days; one week, one time.”

With a new system in place for Japanese players to sign with major league teams since Murakami broke ground with the Giants, many players, especially pitchers have enjoyed vast salaries and opportunities for their exploits. He is hopeful that their top prospects will have the chance to play on the stage he once occupied.

“[Kenta] Maeda from the Hiroshima Carp and [Shohei] Ohtani, the young boy who is about 6’5”, he’s 20; he does both the pitching and hitting. I hope he comes over here, but he will be a pitcher. I hope every pitcher can [come here] and pitch well.”




Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Brian Giles 21-year baseball career sparked from grandfather's NegroLeague legacy



Brian Giles didn’t have to go any farther than his own household in search of baseball lessons. His grandfather George Sr., was a legend in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, and his father George Jr., was a farmhand in the Cincinnati Reds organization in the 1950s. It was only natural that his immediate family members became his most effective teachers as he made his own path to the major leagues.
Brian Giles makes a leaping grab for the Mets

“When we’re talking about the best instructors I’ve had, I have to stay in the family,” Giles said during a 2015 phone interview from his home in Las Vegas. “My grandfather instilled that work ethic; making sure you’re practicing, doing it right, and staying in shape. My father instilled the fundamentals with ground balls, throwing, fielding, and hitting.”

To better understand Giles’ 21-year journey in the family trade, the lesson starts with his grandfather’s mark in the Negro Leagues. The elder Giles was known as one of the top first basemen in the history of the league while playing primarily with the Kansas City Monarchs and the St. Louis Stars.

“George Giles … could hit the ball to all fields and run like the wind,” Buck O’Neil said in a 1990 Seattle Times article. “No lie. He was as good a first baseman as you'd ever want to see.''

Standing 6’3”, his grandfather had a rare blend of size and speed, especially at first base, a position not known for the fleet of foot. His speed was comparable to his teammate Cool Papa Bell, one who many regarded as the fastest in the league. Giles made a more modern comparison of his grandfather to Dave Parker, in terms of a baseball player who gracefully blended such size and athleticism.

As Giles matured, he sought the counsel of his grandfather who was living in Manhattan, Kansas. Going through his teenage years, they shared many conversations on the phone, not only about the game, but the harsh realities that Negro League ballplayers encountered due to segregation.
George Giles Sr.  - Author's Collection

“Their traveling was chaotic and ongoing,” Giles said. “[They played] three games a day and [at night] they would travel. I don’t know how many different times they did that. He told me of all of the travel, the long days, sleeping on the bus, their problems finding hotels, and places to stay.”

Later in Giles’ major league career, playing in the American League provided him the opportunity to visit his grandfather in person, to tighten a bond that was formed mostly over the phone. Those face-to-face meetings focused more on what his grandfather told him he needed to do to be successful on the field, rather than his tales of traversing the country playing in the Negro Leagues.

Giles started his own journey in 1978, when was drafted by the New York Mets in the third round from Kearny High School in San Diego. After cups of coffee with the Mets in 1981 and 1982, he was finally handed the keys to the Mets second base position in 1983. Playing alongside 19-year-old Jose Oquendo, they formed one of the youngest double play combinations in the league.

The Mets had been mired for years in mediocrity, ten years removed from their 1973 World Series appearance. The aforementioned duo, alongside Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry, and a young right-hander from Yale, Ron Darling, represented a glimpse of hope for the stagnant franchise.

“We finished last that year, or just close to it,” he said. “We just didn’t hit. We played defense. … We had a nucleus of young talent that came from a winning type of feeling [in the minors].”

With a full year in the major leagues behind him, Giles was optimistic about his chances for the 1984 season; however, his hopes were quickly dashed when the Mets replaced manager Frank Howard with Davey Johnson, who was fresh off of a minor league championship with their AAA team in Tidewater. The new skipper had plans to bring in his guys from the minors, which didn’t include Giles in the infield.

“The Mets sent down [Wally] Backman and Ron Gardenhire, and kept Brian Giles and Jose Oquendo, and I thought they improved my ball club and hurt theirs,” Johnson said in a 1985 interview with the Star-News.

Giles felt that the Mets had too much turnover with their managers to have a clear vision for their franchise in the early 80s, starting with the firing of his first manager, Joe Torre. With the Hall of Famer's guidance, he envisioned Torre taking the Mets to World Series victory the same way he did with the Yankees in the 1990s.

“I just wish Torre wouldn’t have left because that team would have probably stayed together,” he said. “We had a passion to win. … We just need somebody, we needed Joe Torre! We could have been like the Yankees. He left way too soon. He was going to have the best team and he was going to have a nucleus of guys around that fit roles like he did with the Yankees. We had it. We had the veteran savvy guys and some young talented infielders and pitchers.

“I just wanted to be a part of it because I thought I belonged. We had Oquendo, [myself], Gardenhire; we could have all rotated, but they had different plans.”

As a member of the Brewers
With the emergence of Wally Backman, Kelvin Chapman, and Rafael Santana, the Mets had a logjam of middle infielders in their system. They left Giles unprotected in the 1984 Rule 5 Draft, and he was signed by his former manager George Bamberger, who was now piloting the Milwaukee Brewers. His new boss was ecstatic about his acquisition.

“I think it might be one of the best deals in baseball for just $25,000,” Bamberger said to the Milwaukee Journal in 1985. “I’ll tell you how I classified him with New York; an excellent second baseman, a good shortstop.”

Stuck in a crowded infield with mainstays Jim Gantner and Paul Molitor, Giles was relegated to filling in as a late-inning defensive replacement. He was unfamiliar with the intermittent role, and his performance suffered as a result of his lack of time on the field, hitting only .172 in 58 at-bats. The Brewers parted ways with Giles at the end of the season, leaving him to sign with the Chicago White Sox in the winter.

Playing with his third team in three years, Giles had difficulty establishing himself in Chicago. He spent most of 1986 in the minors, only playing nine games for the White Sox. Suddenly, he went from a courted prospect to a journeyman trying to prove his major league worthiness. Unfazed by his demotion, he continued to put his nose to the grindstone, batting .274 and .296 at AAA in 1988 and 1989 respectively; however, he couldn’t find an open door to return to the majors.

Kevin Mitchell (l.) w/ Giles (r.) as a member of the White Sox
“I went to spring training for a little time and then I was supposed to get called up or traded in ‘88,” he said. “In ‘89, I went to Cleveland and got a couple of spring training games in and had a good year in Colorado Springs. I thought I was going to get in because [Mike] Hargrove really liked me, but it didn’t happen.”

Giles found his angel in an old friend, Roger Jongewaard. The vice president of player development for the Seattle Mariners at the time, Jongewaard was responsible for scouting Giles when he was drafted by the Mets in the late 70s. A dozen years later, he was encouraged enough by Giles’ performance in 1989 with Colorado Springs to offer him an invite to spring training with the Mariners in 1990. Finally, Giles’ refusal to give up paid off.

“I made the big league team out of spring training,” he said. “That was the year Omar Vizquel broke his leg. I had a good spring and halfway through that spring training, [Jim] Lefebvre called me in and told me I made the team.”

After a four year hiatus, Giles relished the opportunity to once again wear a big league uniform; however, Lefebvre had him platoon with Mike Brumley in Vizquel’s absence. Giles struggled to find his swing during the first month of the season, going 0-16 in April. Getting a fresh start in May, Giles redeemed himself during a May 17, 1990 game against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he went 3-4 with two home runs and seven RBIs. Lefebrve rode Giles’ hot hand at the plate after his breakout game until Vizquel returned from his leg injury.

Needing room on the roster for their budding star at shortstop, the Mariners sent Giles down to their AAA club in Calgary. At season’s end, the Mariners granted the 30-year-old infielder free agency, effectively ending his big league career. Most ballplayers at this stage of their career are faced with the tough choice of moving on from their playing days; however, for Giles, it opened up an entire new world of possibilities.

“I went to Italy in 1991 for a year, and in 1992 I went to Mexico. After that year, I went to Taiwan. I was trying to get to Japan or Korea. I played [in Taiwan] there from ‘93-‘95. ... Going abroad, it’s a lot different for Americans. I got treated pretty well. It’s like you’re in the big leagues. You’ve got the Superman on your chest. You go 3-4, drive in four runs, but if you lined out or flied out, you didn’t do enough. I enjoyed it. It was quite an experience. I got to meet other American players that didn’t really make it and help them out. We all helped each other because of the culture difference.”

Giles returned to the United States in 1996, foregoing a few offers to break the line during the spring of 1995. He played independent ball with Minot in the Prairie League, winning a championship in 1996. Holding on to the faint hope that he would receive another offer to return overseas to play ball, he spent two more seasons playing in the Prairie League and the Atlantic League, finishing his career with the Newark Bears in 1998.

After 21 years in professional baseball, few thought that the length of Giles’ career would outlast all of the young talent he paralleled in the Mets organization, including Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. While his exploits were not as loud as the aforementioned duo, Giles felt that if he was given the opportunity to play a few consecutive seasons full-time after 1983, that he would have been well on his way to a notable major league career.

“If I got my time in, I just know in my heart I could have easily gotten 3,000 hits with my longevity,” he said. “I didn’t get hurt that much. When I got back to the big leagues, I played part-time. I wasn’t using my body. That’s what I had to do at the end. It was hard to get in the groove.”

Now the 55-year-old former big leaguer is passing on his experience to the fourth generation of Giles men exploring the family trade, his son Garrett. The youngest member of the Giles baseball clan is a freshman at Basic High School in Henderson, Nevada, and is already a starting member of their varsity team. When he isn’t working with his son, he runs his non-profit ICE Youth Program, where he helps to train youngsters on the finer points of the game. One of his prized pupils is Oakland A’s outfielder, Coco Crisp.

"One of my first players that I started training was Coco Crisp," he said. "I had him at 12 years old, taught him how to switch hit. The way he played, I embedded that in him. … When I was playing, I would come home and train him 3-4 days per week and then it would be every day. … He’s my prodigy.”

The hallmark of Giles’ training is to help the young players find a love for the game and a devotion to controlling their mental focus on the field at all times. It is this level of heightened awareness that he feels can push these aspiring athletes towards to reach their fullest potential.

“I use ‘ACCE’ — attitude, concentrate, confidence and effort,” he said. “I try to use that to have a guideline. … Have the right attitude to finish the play with effort.”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ed Charles honors the memory of Gil Hodges at the 2015 Queens Baseball Convention

Ed Charles received the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award at the 2015 Queens Baseball Convention.

The ceremony was led by Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing, who presented Charles with the award in honor of his former manager. Once Prince finished introducing "The Glider," Charles needed little help capturing the attention of the crowd. The 81-year-old Charles thrilled the listeners with stories of how Hodges' arrival in Flushing turned the tide for the New York Mets, running the club with a firm grasp that quickly shaped up a struggling franchise.

Ed Charles at the 2015 QBC / N. Diunte

At approximately 35 minutes into the interview, I posed a question to Charles about playing with Satchel Paige on the 1965 Kansas City Athletics. He told not one, but two different stories about playing both with Satchel in his last game in the majors, but also against him in 1961 in Portland (which he told to me during this 2013 interview).

It is always a treat not only to hear stories about the ageless Satchel Paige, but to hear Charles speak, as he holds a key to a lot of baseball's history as the elder statesman from the 1969 team.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Piazza, Bonds HOF worthy to former teammate

For Queens native Allen Watson, Tuesday’s Hall of Fame election should be a slam dunk for two of his former teammates, Barry Bonds and Mike Piazza.

“Two unbelievable players,” Watson said during an interview at a baseball clinic this past weekend in Glendale, New York. “Barry Bonds was the best player I’ve ever seen, and Piazza was a tremendous hitter. They both should be in the Hall of Fame.”

Allen Watson with the San Francisco Giants
Watson starred locally at Christ the King High School in Middle Village and earned All-American honors at New York Tech, which led to a first-round selection by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1991 MLB draft. He played for six different teams in his eight-year big league career, with two of those stops providing Watson the opportunity to watch Bonds (Giants, 1996) and Piazza (Mets, 1999) operate up close and personal.

While Bonds didn’t tag Watson for one of his 762 home runs, Piazza hit an epic blast off of Watson in St. Louis in 1995 that looked like it was shot out of a cannon. Watson marveled not only at the speed at which Piazza's home run traveled, but the fact that shortstop Ozzie Smith almost had a chance to catch the ball.

“One time Mike Piazza hit a line drive and then [Ozzie Smith] leaped to get it — it went out of the stadium", he said. "He [Smith] almost caught it and it went out; that’s how hard Mike hit the ball.”

Despite both candidates’ resumes being clouded with allegations of steroid use, and Watson's own alleged steroid use in an affidavit by former teammate Jason Grimsley (which he vehemently denied), Watson said that none of the players from the steroid era should be excluded from the Hall of Fame because of the drug’s ubiquity during that time.

“Steroids were around for everybody back then, so they should all be there, not just one guy,” he said. " If one person was doing it, all right, but everyone was doing it, so they should be in there.”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dwight Gooden comes clean about his addictions at Nassau County Health Fair

Dwight Gooden visited the Nassau County Health Fair and Expo on Saturday August 9, 2014 at Mitchell Field in Long Island to talk about his struggle with drug addiction during and after his baseball career and how he's kept himself clean for the past three years.

Below is video of Gooden's talk from the event.



Monday, August 4, 2014

Video: Eric Young Jr. of the New York Mets on the influence of his family on his baseball career

Eric Young Jr. interviewed by Ray "Digmi" Navarrete - N. Diunte
Eric Young Jr. of the New York Mets stopped by the Digmi Nation store in Port Washington, N.Y., on August 2, 2014, as part of the store's Digmi Discussions series.

Below, Young Jr. talks about how playing in New York allows him to be close to his family in New Jersey, as well as the close relationship between him and his father, Eric Sr., a veteran of 15 MLB seasons.

Monday, July 14, 2014

All Star Game in Minnesota brings back bittersweet memories for Ed Kranepool

The clamor over the 2014 All-Star game at Target Field in Minnesota roused up memories of New York Mets Hall of Famer Ed Kranepool’s selection to the 1965 All-Star Game at Metropolitan Stadium. Only 20 years old, Kranepool was the youngest member of a National League squad that featured Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax.

“That was a tremendous feat for myself, I was only 20 when I made the All-Star team,” Kranepool recalled.

Ed Kranepool
As excited that Kranepool was to be representing the Mets in Minnesota, he would have enjoyed it more if Philadelphia Phillies manager Gene Mauch would have called Kranepool’s number off of the bench.

“I didn’t play in the game. I was disappointed," he said. "It’s kind of frustrating because I never made it again. You want to play. … What’s the sense of sending a guy to the All-Star Game, if he’s not going to play? Not that you want the three days off, you’d rather be in the All-Star Game, but if you’re going there, I want to say I played in the game. Let the country see you play the game.”

Kranepool's ill-feelings towards Mauch lingered well past the All-Star Game. He tried to take it out on Mauch's teams every time they squared off.

"I held a grudge against Gene Mauch my whole career," he said. "Every time I played him, I wanted to beat him, because I didn't play and I wanted to play."

While he acknowledges that the managers of the All-Star teams have been more aware about getting everyone involved in the mid-summer classic; however, he still thinks the game can stand a few minor adjustments.

“They do a better job of managing the players today in the game," he said. "They get everybody in, but I think they should have free substitution with a couple of players. They ought to mark before the game, two-to-three guys who play a lot of positions and keep them around. If you put them in the game, you’re allowed to remove them, [to] get everybody in the game. … They should change certain rules. Baseball in certain ways is trying to make changes and other ways, they’re antiquated in their positioning.”

Kranepool explains in the video below how Casey Stengel notified him of being selected to the 1965 All-Star team, and his thoughts on the All-Star voting process.