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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Earl Weaver Teaches the Art of Umpire Arguing: The Baseball Historian’s Notes for the Week of March 1, 2015

Los Angeles Angels’ slugger Josh Hamilton has had a roller coaster career. The former first overall draft pick has fought through addiction to forge an abbreviated All-Star career in the majors. Unfortunately, word came down this past week that the 33-year-old had suffered a relapse with drugs and alcohol and is facing a lengthy ban.

Hamilton should be a cautionary tale for everyone, both young and old. No matter how talented or what amazing opportunities are available, nobody is immune from going down such dark paths. Addiction is a disease, and one that is able to dig its claws in like no other. He will hopefully be able to fight back like he has before but even if he does there is no way to reclaim the portions of his life and career that have already passed by.

And now, on to the notes for the week…

*Former outfielder Jim King has died at the age of 82. The left-handed hitter played in 11 major league seasons between 1955 and 1967 for six different teams, achieving his greatest success with the Washington Senators. He hit a combined .240 with 117 home runs in 1,125 games.

*Another passing to report in former journeyman pitcher Don Johnson at the age of 88. The right-hander had parts of seven seasons in the majors with five different teams, going a combined 27-38 with a 4.78 ERA in 198 games (70 starts). His best season came with the 1954 Chicago White Sox, as he was 8-7 with a 3.13 ERA and three shutouts.

*The Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, was one of the greatest hitters baseball has ever known, spending his entire 19-season career with the Boston Red Sox. His death in 2002 created sensational headlines, not just because of the passing of a legend but because of his participation in Cryogenics, which has kept his head frozen in the hopes of future revival. The 30-for-30 short film, An Immortal Man, is a tremendous look at the controversy and his enduring legacy.

*Few players were as beloved as St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial. This clip provides both video and audio of the sweet-swinging lefty’s final big league at-bat, which ended his legendary career with 3,630 base hits and a .331 batting average.

*Minor league baseball has been a presence in Pawtucket, Rhode Island for decades, including the last 42 years as the Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox. It was recently announced that connection is coming to an end, as the team has been bought by a group of investors who plan to relocate to nearby Providence in 2017. It will be a tough loss not only for the city and its economy but also because of the history it represents. Many future major leaguers and seminal baseball moments have graced McCoy Stadium over the years. The New York Times’ Dan Barry recently reviewed the team’s past and the change that is ahead.

*More than 100 years have passed since the occurrence of one of baseball’s greatest mysteries. During spring training in 1907, Red Sox (Then called the Americans) player-manager Chick Stahl committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid. He had accumulated a .305 batting average over 10 big league seasons and was about to begin his first full season as skipper before his untimely death at the age of 34. The Naples Herald’s Glenn Miller has more on this sad story.

*Babe Ruth wasn’t just the best-known ballplayer of his lifetime and a national hero. He was also a showman who was involved in many entertainment pursuits off the field. This photo shows his work in the 1927 movie Babe Comes Home. He played Babe Dugan, a star player with Los Angeles Angels—not exactly a far stretch from real life.

*Although right-handed hitter Joey Meyer was one of the best slugging prospects in the 1980s, he played just two seasons in the majors—both with the Milwaukee Brewers. He didn’t pan out the way many might have expected but he is still remembered well in minor league circles. In particular, he hit one ridiculously long home run in Denver in 1987 that still defies belief.

*Baseball is a game that can be conquered through the use of many discreet advantages. One of them is the art of pitch framing, which is delved into in some depth by Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh. In particular, former catcher Brad Ausmus and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley are cited as two masters of this precise art.

*In addition to hitting lots of home runs, former Baltimore Orioles slugger Boog Powell was a talented pitchman. This 1978 television ad for Miller Lite Beer displays those talents, as long as you don’t mind the mean-spirited humor directed at the umpire.

*It’s hard to believe but apparently Hall-of-Fame pitcher Addie Joss was discovered by “Professor Henry Lewis,” a performer whose profession was playing pool with his nose and other non-hand body parts. Baseball History Daily has the full story here. The professor was never paid the small bonus promised for his discovery but presumably went on to sniff out a living by virtue of his schnozz.

*Finally, during his Hall-of-Fame career with the Orioles, manager Earl Weaver was nearly as well known for his arguing with umpires as he was for helming annual contenders. It’s tough to teach such skills but this clip shows how he once tried to school Bob Uecker in the art of really giving it to the men in blue.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Now Up, Matt LaPorta: Talking His Career and Life After Baseball

Baseball players who are fortunate enough to play in the majors seemingly have it all. They are at the top of their profession, can make a salary that if lucky can veer into Jed Clampett money, and get to travel the world.  However, baseball careers are just a fraction in length of a typical vocation, and many players are at a loss of how to proceed once they are done with the game. Former player Matt LaPorta is trying to do something about that, and his post-baseball work could be a real game changer.

As a youngster, LaPorta was one of the top prospects in all of baseball. The right-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder was drafted in the 14th round of the 2003 draft by the Chicago Cubs but decided to attend the University of Florida. He was also selected in the 14th round by the Boston Red Sox in 2006 but chose to remain at school for the senior season of his stand-out career. It turned out to be a smart choice, as he hit .402 with 20 home runs as a senior, earning All-American honors and the distinction of being the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft when he was tapped by the Milwaukee Brewers.

The minors seemed to be little challenge for the slugger, as he mashed 62 home runs in his first three seasons, solidifying his status as a top prospect. That ultimately led to him being the centerpiece of a trade in July, 2008 that brought star pitcher C.C. Sabathia over from the Cleveland Indians.

LaPorta made his major league debut with the Indians in 2009, hitting his first home run in just his second game. In four seasons with Cleveland, he hit a combined .238 with 31 home runs and 120 RBIs. Unfortunately, he was derailed by a series of injuries that impeded his ability to find consistency. He spent 2013 in the minors and 2014 in the Mexican League before deciding to retire from the game at the age of 29.

Now that he is off the diamond, he has hit the ground running. He has launched the NowUp Foundation, designed to work with former players who need assistance to successfully transition to their new lives outside of baseball. It’s an ambitious project with goals to provide counseling and career mentoring to those who have known little outside of the game. With the turnover of players in the minors and majors each year, there should be a substantial client base who could find great benefit from this endeavor.

Much success is wished to LaPorta as he embarks on his next career. Check him out on Twitter, and keep posted for more information about NowUp. In the meantime, here is what he had to say to me when I sent him some questions about his playing days and his newest gig.

Matt LaPorta Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite team growing up was the Chicago Cubs. My Dad’s side of the family was from the south side of Chicago but that didn’t stop them from being huge Cubs fans. I remember every day coming home from school and sitting with my Papa and Gram and watching the Cubs play their day games. Growing up, my favorite players were Sammy Sosa because he was a Cubby, and then as he was phasing out it became Albert Pujols. I loved what he stood for as a Christian man, and how he played the game. I tried to emulate the way I hit to model him. 

What was your favorite moment from your playing career?: Wow, that’s a tough question. I feel like I have had some great moments. I’ll tell you a few and you can decide which one you like the best. 

Getting to play in the 2005 College World Series was a great experience. 

Being drafted in the first round after my senior year was amazing especially since everyone thought I was crazy for going back. I trusted and had faith that great things would happen. 

Representing my country USA in the 2008 Bejing Olympic Games and getting a bronze medal. 

Getting my first call up in 2009 was unbelievable. The best things to happen in the big leagues was that I had a couple of walk-off hits/homers 

Which coach or manager had the greatest influence on you, and why?: Another great question. I would have to say there a few of coaches that really had an influence on my career. One being Dave Tollett, who was my high school coach and now is the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University. He has done amazing things there. Two is Pat McMahon. He was my head coach at the University of Florida. He taught me a lot about the mental side of the game of baseball. He was very analytical and really taught me about the small things in the game. Three, the two coaches in professional baseball that had the greatest influence on me was Sandy Alomar because he just understood the game so much and taught how to think through the game. Last is Mike Hargrove. He would come into spring training and help me out at first base. He was always so inspiring and helped me believe in myself. 

If you could do anything from your playing career differently, what would that be and why?: The one thing that I would have done differently is not have two hip surgeries, (Haha) which I had no control over. The things that I did have control over would be not to rush back from the hip surgeries and take my time to make sure that I was as close to 100 percent healthy as I could be. I would really take interest in people outside of the game and realize that it’s not all about me. Lastly, I would have done a better job of eating healthier for my career. It is a very important part of the game that sometimes as players we over look the importance of. 

Now that you have retired from playing, you have have started a foundation called NowUP. Can you talk a little bit about that and the work you are doing?: NowUP will be working with retired and soon to be retired baseball players. Our goal is to help them with the transitional process of leaving the game. A lot of players feel lost once the game is over and nowhere to turn because there are a limited amount of people who actually played professional baseball. We want to let players know that they are not alone and that they can be a huge success outside of the game of baseball. Our goal is to help them get a job that is a good fit for them, and provide them with any counseling they may need because this is a huge change in our lives. 

How difficult was it for you to transition from playing to "civilian life?": For me I knew I was done because my hip was killing me. After two surgeries you just are not the same person. It was time for me. But I still deal with knowing that if I was healthy I could be a successful MLB player and make a lot of money. Ha. I miss the games; I don’t miss getting prepared for the games. I mostly have good days but every once in a while I get down about not being able to play baseball. Then I take a step back and realize how blessed I was to get to play baseball at the highest level. 

How prepared would you say most former players are to adjust to post-playing life?: I would say that only about 15-25 percent of players are prepared to leave the game of baseball. That might even be a high number. While you’re in baseball it’s hard to think of anything else or do anything else. You have a one track mind. Making it to the big leagues or staying in the big leagues. It is a huge adjustment for most guys getting out of the game. 

What are some of your major goals moving forward?: Some of my major goals moving forward are growing the NowUP Foundation to be a huge resource for players. I also want NowUP to be so good at what we do that companies from around the country are calling us about our players because they want them to come work for them. 

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Actor Bill Murray, the Professional Baseball Player: The Baseball Historian’s Notes for the Week of February 22, 2015

One of the biggest story lines during spring training has and will continue to be the reintroduction of Alex Rodriguez to major league baseball. After being suspended for over a year for PEDs, the 39-year-old New York Yankees’ third baseman is attempting to salvage the remaining years of his career from the scandal pages, but how much progress will he be able to make in that regard?

A-Rod has already issued a formal apology in the form of a hand-written letter. It’s an interesting touch for an athlete who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in player salaries over the years, but one that certainly comes across as more personal than a statement issued from a publicist or delivered from a dais during press day.

Although he is a statistical titan with his 20 years of super star production, he will never be able to regain the credibility he had before the suspension. All he can do now is make the most of the dwindling time he has left on the field and do his best to add another chapter or two to his story. Villains have a place in baseball too, and despite his recent troubles, Rodriguez is now in the driver’s seat when it comes to writing his final act.

Now, on to the note for the week…

*Sad news to report in the passing of former outfielder Gary Woods. A backup for nine major league seasons from 1976-1985 with four teams, most notably the Chicago Cubs, he hit a combined .243 with 13 home runs in 525 games. More recently, he acted as a scout for the Chicago White Sox, covering Southern California.

*Former coach Wendell Kim has died at the age of 64 due to complications from Alzheimers. The 5-foot-4 dynamo gained cult status during his stint as the third-base coach with the Boston Red Sox because of his aggressive style, which resulted in the nickname “Wave-‘Em-In Wendell.” A former minor league player, he was a career baseball man and had a reputation as one of the best and friendliest people in the game.

*Tom Gage of The Detroit News has the story of Ed Mierkowicz, the last surviving member of the World Series winning 1945 Detroit Tigers. The former outfielder appeared in just 10 games for the team that year but did have one appearance in the Series, and still remembers his time in the game with fondness. He hit just .175 in 35 major league games over four seasons but did enjoy a solid 13-year minor league career where he hit a combined .284.

*Beginner baseball historians can easily recite that the majors were formally integrated when Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Unfortunately, spreading equality throughout the game progressed slowly after that, especially when it came to spring training. Michael Bechloss of the New York Times has the story of how baseball struggled in the post-Jackie years to provide equal accommodations to black players training in areas that were unwelcoming of such social change.

*The sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live recently celebrated its 40th birthday. Over the years, a number of baseball figures have made appearances. Here’s a look at some of the best.

*The worst brawl the majors has ever seen occurred in 1965 when San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Juan Marichal struck Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with a bat during a heated exchange. The event was shocking fans and players alike. This piece from Sports Illustrated has an intriguing adaptation from the new book The Fight of their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption by John Rosengren. It was a seminal moment in baseball, and hopefully one that will never be repeated again.

*Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson spent 18 of his 27 seasons as a skipper with the Detroit Tigers. When he announced his retirement at the age of 61 following the 1995 season, he was the third-winningest manager of all time. Some thought it odd that he left the game at such an early age, including Detroit Athletic Co.’s Bill Dow believes it’s possible he was blackballed because of his refusal to coach replacement players during the 1995 strike.

*Beloved announcer Harry Caray became the face of the Chicago Cubs because of his distinct voice, his unique look and a variety of quirks. However, before that he called games for the St. Louis Cardinals. This article does a nice job describing how he came to switch jobs and became one of the legends of the booth. Holy Cow!

*Few players mean as much to a team as Brooks Robinson did to the Baltimore Orioles during his 23-year career. The third baseman’s fielding was slicker than the kitchen floor of a fast food restaurant, he could hit and was as fine an individual who ever stepped on a baseball diamond. One of his major accomplishments was his turn as the 1970 World Series MVP, helping his team beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games. This video recap of his heroics shows exactly how electrifying his performance was.

*Before he became well-known as a movie star, Bill Murray was a baseball fan; a passion he has carried with him to the present. In the summer of 1978, he actually had a brief stint as a professional player with the Grays Harbor Loggers in Aberdeen, Washington—even collecting a base hit. Rob Neyer of Fox Sports has a write-up of the actor’s career as a ballplayer.

*Speaking of people with second careers, many baseball players have fancied themselves to be singers. This includes a group from the 1964 Los Angeles Dodgers, who appeared on The Joey Bishop Show. Featuring Don Drysdale, Moose Skowron, Ron Perranoski, Frank Howard, Tommy Davis and Willie Davis, the group actually does a credible job of belting out their version of High Hopes.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

5 Burning Questions Facing the Boston Red Sox in Spring Training

Spring training will officially start for the Boston Red Sox  this year on February 20th with the reporting of pitchers and catchers to camp in Fort Myers, Florida. Coming off a 71-91 2014 season, the team made a series of offseason moves to complement their crop of up and coming youngsters in the hopes of finding more success in the new year. However, they are far from a polished product and there a number of prominent questions as a new season dawns.

Here are five of the most burning questions:

Does the team have an ace?: The Red Sox completely remade their starting rotation this offseason, bringing in Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson to join holdovers Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly. Besides none of them being an established ace, the thing the group of five most has in common is that none of them have completely tapped their full potential, which has resulted in wildly fluctuating results throughout all of their careers.

It’s unlikely that anyone in this group will be a serious Cy Young contender. However, they all have the ability to post above average numbers, and the best bets for the distinction of being the staff’s leader are Buchholz and Porcello.

Buchholz was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts as recently as 2013 but has yet to post consecutive above-average seasons in his eight years in the majors due to injuries and inconsistency.

Porcello, a 26-year-old right-hander, came over from the Detroit Tigers this offseason in the Yoenis Cespedes trade. He already has 76 wins in six seasons and has seen his numbers improve each year. On the downside, he doesn’t strike out a ton of batters, which could pose problems in cozy Fenway Park.

While there are certainly some nice pieces on this staff, it’s hard to imagine banking on any one of them being the type of number one type pitcher a playoff caliber team needs. Might this hold the Red Sox back, or are they simply not yet done forming this year’s roster?

Is Dustin Pedroia on the downside of his career?: The pint-sized second baseman has been a fan favorite throughout his career—earning a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP and multiple All-Star nods along the way. Unfortunately, his numbers have been in steady decline for several years, with his OPS in 2014 being 149 points below its 2011 level.

Pedroia will be 32 shortly after the All-Star break and plays with a reckless abandon that can be taxing on the body. He has also played through a series of nagging injuries in recent years and will be part of a much better balanced roster. There is no reason to believe he can’t bounce back with better numbers in 2015, that is unless the physical tolls have created an inevitable decline a little earlier than fans would have hoped.

Is it time to cut bait on Jackie Bradley, Jr.?: One of the more highly anticipated prospects to graduate to the majors in recent memory, the outfielder has simply not yet been able to live up to the hype. Although he already has one of the best gloves in the game, his bat has been one of the worst, producing a combined .196 batting average with four home runs, 40 RBIs and 152 strikeouts in 479 major league at-bats during the past two years.

Still just 24, and with his talent and pleasant hard-working demeanor, it’s hard to imagine Bradley won’t be able to eventually figure it out. That just may not happen in Boston. With a crowded outfield that already has Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts, Allen Craig and Daniel Nava, he will likely not only have to raise his game but actually beat out one or more of them to have a job in 2015. That being said, factors like injuries and trades can always come in to play, so nothing is written in stone yet.

Can Christian Vazquez handle the job of being the primary catcher?: There’s little doubt the rocket-armed 24-year-old is ready with the glove. He has already earned the praise of veteran pitchers for his work ethic and ability to call a game, and nabbed 52 percent of runners attempting to steal on him in 55 games with Boston last year. On the downside, he hit a harmless .240 with a single home run and 20 RBIs during that time. Fortunately, it seems that the Red Sox are putting him in a position to succeed. They brought veteran Ryan Hanigan on board to serve as his backup, while fellow prospect Blake Swihart is biding his time in the high minors waiting for his own chance.

Vazquez should be able to produce more than enough behind the plate to earn his keep. Any value he adds with his bat will be gravy. As he adapts to his new role, it’s hard to imagine the team not being as pleased as punch if he could chip in something along the lines of a .250 batting average and 6-8 home runs along with his anticipated glove work.

What does the team exactly have in Castillo?: After leaving Cuba, the 27-year-old outfielder signed a $72 million contract with Boston last year. He acquitted himself in a late-season call-up, hitting .333 with two homers and three stolen bases in 10 games—despite essentially not having played organized ball for about two years. He added to expectations with a very solid showing in the Puerto Rican Winter League. That being said, very few people seem to know exactly what kind of player he’ll be in the long run.

Projections have ranged from extra outfielder to All-Star potential, leaving a vast expanse of possibilities in between. Like Vazquez, he has the luxury of not having to be the savior right out of the gate. The crowded outfield might even prevent him from earning a starting role. Unlike the catcher, he will be expected to answer the bell earlier and with greater frequency because of his large contract.

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