Sunday, February 7, 2016

Buck Weaver's Bet on His Black Sox Future

The 1919 Chicago White Sox (aka Black Sox) are perhaps the most tragic of all teams in baseball history. A powerful squad, they lost that year’s World Series to the Cincinnati Reds despite being heavily favored, and were later had eight of their players banished from the sport for their involvement or knowledge of a plot to intentionally throw the Series. One of those eight was third baseman Buck Weaver, who maintained his innocence until his death, yet was never reinstated. Unfortunately, he was sometimes his own worst enemy when it came to pleading his case.

Gambling plagued baseball during the early part of the twentieth century. Ballparks were gathering places for willing bettors who couldn’t turn around without finding someone willing to take their money on some kind of wager. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising that it finally reached the level that it did with the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

Buck Weaver was a second tier star of the White Sox, always popular but never as statistically productive as teammates like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte. The switch hitting third baseman (He was primarily a shortstop for his first five seasons) was a flashy fielder who hit .272 over nine major league seasons. He was better known for his ability to play small ball (He is still 43rd all time in sacrifice hits) and putting everything he had on the field. Therefore, when news broke about the fix, the inclusion of the infielder was more surprising than most.

On the surface, one can’t say that Weaver ever laid down during the Series. He played all eight games, hitting .324 without committing and error in the field. Although he was never proven to have done anything other than play his best that postseason, it was determined that he was generally aware of the plot of some of his teammates, and that was enough to earn his lifetime ban when baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis thundered down his ruling in August, 1921.

In hindsight, Weaver didn’t exactly help his cause leading up to his permanent suspension. A January 20, 1921 newspaper account details how he was so confident he would be exonerated and able to continue his professional career that he publically offered a group of mostly journalists a $500 bet that he would be a member of the 1921 White Sox. “I will prove to everybody that I am innocent of the charges against me,” he told a group of people. “They can’t start that trial too soon to suit me. When it is over I’ll be cleared.”

He turned out to be partially correct, as he and his teammates were cleared in court. However, they could have never imagined they would feel the wrath of Landis the way they did after proving their “innocence.”

Although there’s no evidence that Weaver’s boastful (and and most certainly tongue in cheek) attempt to secure a bet against his innocence played any role in Landis’ decision, it certainly was not the smartest thing for someone facing severe charges related to gambling could do. At least as the newspaper noted, nobody took him up on his offer.

Weaver played semi-pro ball for years after his expulsion from the majors and exerted great effort in trying to have his case appealed. He was never successful, and even now, decades after his death in 1956, he remains on the outside looking in of professional baseball.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Examining the 2016 Boston Red Sox’s Most Intriguing Non-Roster Spring Training Invitees

With a 40-man roster that’s already garnering wide praise for its projected ability to win games in 2016, the Boston Red Sox are sitting pretty heading into the upcoming spring training. That being said, even though they roll deep there’s never a way to know how they might be impacted by injury or ineffectiveness. Non-roster invitees typically generate little fanfare, but in some cases can end up becoming major contributors. The Red Sox are no exception, and have some players worth watching on their own list this year.

Allen Craig, Outfielder/First Baseman: It’s unclear what is more surprising; that Craig is entering his third season with Boston, or that he has fallen so far since his days as an All Star with the St. Louis Cardinals (as recently as 2013).

A .291 hitter in parts of five seasons with the Cardinals, since joining the Red Sox via a trade mid-season in 2014, Craig has spent most of the past two years in the minors. When he has played for Boston, he has been strikingly bad—to the tune of a .139 batting average, two home runs and five RBIs in 65 games.

Presumably healthy and still just 31, it’s a complete mystery as to how the right-handed hitter, who batted .315 with 97 RBIs in 2013 for a team that reached the World Series (and lost) to the Red Sox could seen his production go off a cliff at such a precipitous angle. That unknown (and the $21 million he is still owed through 2017) have kept him on the periphery of Boston’s roster plans. There may not be a clear role for him now but having a veteran hitter of his pedigree is a nice luxury. If he shows any sign of life this spring, he could end up with the opportunity to make a significant impact at the big league level before the season is over.

Josh Rutledge, Infielder: At this point in his career, Rutledge likely is who he is- a guy who can be a valuable backup infielder due to his ability to play multiple positions and because he won’t embarrass himself at the plate. The Red Sox saw this first hand last season after he came over from the Los Angeles Angels in the Shane Victorino trade. Appearing in 39 games with Boston (85 plate appearances), he hit .284 with a homer and 10 RBIs.

With guys like Brock Holt and Deven Marrero above him on the depth chart for the role of utility infielder, some things would need to happen to carve out a spot on the big league roster for Rutledge. However, the 26 year-old is still under team control and could bide his time in Triple-A Pawtucket if he does impress the club during spring training.

Kyle Martin, Pitcher: A ninth-round draft pick of the Red Sox in 2013, the big right-hander (6’7” and 220 pounds) has made quick work of the minor leagues during his three professional seasons. In 84 games, all coming out of the bullpen, he has produced a 3.43 ERA and struck out 164 batters in 162.2 innings, while yielding 149 hits and just 42 walks.

Possessing a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a good changeup, Martin is primed to be a big league contributor out of the pen. Although it would be a surprise for him to break camp with the team, spring training is an excellent opportunity for him to leave some lasting impressions and be on the short list in the event relievers are needed during the season.

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Connie Mack: The Grand Old Man of Baseball- In His Final Years, 1932-1956: A Review

There have been more famous figures in baseball than Connie Mack over the years but few are still as recognizable as the tall thin man who spent over 60 years as a major league player, manager and team owner. A true pioneer of the game, the taciturn Hall-of-Famer had as much impact as anyone affiliated with America’s Pastime. With such a lengthy and noted career, he is a worthy subject for research and writing. You’ll find no better work on his life than Norman L. Macht’s Connie Mack: The Grand Old Man of Baseball- In His Final Years, 1932-1956 (University of Nebraska Press).

In His Final Years is actually the third volume in this exhaustive biography of Mack. With these final 25 years of the baseball legend’s life taking up 623 pages alone, it’s a safe bet that Macht has produced the seminal work on the subject.

For much of his life, Mack was Philadelphia baseball. As manager and owner of the Athletics, he experienced a variety of peaks and valleys during his lengthy tenure. In His Final Years covers the last quarter of his life, which unfortunately included the most challenging years of his career. Winning his last pennant in 1931, he spent the next 20 years helming a team that was usually in the second division and short on money and star power.

As Mack grew older, Macht details how he slipped as a manager, including his final years when he was little more than a figurehead kept on because of his executive power and the visibility he gave the otherwise moribund franchise. It got to the point where he sometimes couldn’t remember players’ names, and the team would ignore his suggestions because they didn’t fit the circumstance.

Family was something that strongly impacted Mack in his later life. His three sons were also involved with the team at various levels and were not always held in the highest regard by outsiders, which wasn’t helped by their frequent clashing over how to run things. There’s no better example of this than the meticulously detailed accounting of how the Athletics ultimately left Philadelphia for Kansas City.

This is not just a baseball book. The humanity of Mack is a prevalent theme that is explored in detail. Notorious for being tight with money, Macht dispels that notion with numerous examples of bonuses the skipper secretly paid out to high achieving players and the acts of charity he would do anonymously, and on a regular basis. His rocky relationship with his wife Katherine is also a sad reminder that this man, known for his leadership of others, did not always have the same success off the baseball diamond.

There is precious little one can criticize Macht for in this endeavor. He covers every imaginable aspect of Mack’s life. The research that must have gone into this project is staggering, and the results prove the work was worth the effort.

Connie Mack may not have been a swatter of home runs or a .300 hitter but he lasted in the game longer than just about anybody. He truly is a baseball legend and his entire story has just been written so thoroughly that it should be considered the final word on the subject.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

3 Questions Facing the 2016 Boston Red Sox

Mere weeks remain until players for the Boston Red Sox report to spring training in Florida as the kick off to the 2016 season. A flurry of high-profile offseason moves have the team presumably sitting in a much better space than last year, when they finished in the basement of the American League East. However, they are far from a finished product and still have some uncertainty facing them as they prepare for another season on the diamond. 

Here are three of the most looming questions:

Who will be the starting catcher?: Boston is blessed to have two highly regarded young receivers in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Vazquez is a classic backstop with a cannon arm and an adequate bat. He is also coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Swihart is the superior athlete and a switch hitter. He was an intermittent starter during 2015, and finished with a .274 batting average in 84 games, but caught only a pedestrian 28 percent of base runners attempting to steal. On the plus side, he hit .303 with a .805 OPS over his final 44 games. The former first round pick has the higher upside but is no guarantee to get the lion’s share of playing time over Vazquez (who has played in all of four Puerto Rican Winter League games since 2014).

The best guess here is that Vazquez will take a little extra time shaking off some rust. Beyond that, Boston may give both players regular starts but ride the hot hand when it comes to deciding a favorite. A starter and a backup should emerge from the pair (with veteran Ryan Hanigan also on the roster with one year remaining on his contract), and if needed one could be used as a valuable trade chip.

Will anyone lock up the first base position: Last year, the Red Sox trotted out a number of players who put in time at first, with rookie Travis Shaw emerging as a solid player over the final two months of the season. Shaw will likely see some time there again in 2016 but does not figure to be the regular. That role should be handled by Hanley Ramirez, who is coming off an injury-plagued and defensively embarrassing 2015 campaign.

Having played shortstop and third base in the majors for a decade, Ramirez may not be the best defensive first baseman but he should be perfectly adequate, as opposed to his adventures in the outfield. A career .296 hitter with power, the 32 year-old doesn’t need to turn into a Gold Glover in order to make this newest transition work. He just needs to make sure he isn’t negating his lumber with his leather.

Can anyone step forward as the heir apparent of lineup anchor in place of the retiring David Ortiz?: The slugging Big Papi has been an offensive stalwart in Beantown for the past 13 seasons. He announced this offseason that 2016 will be his last year, and naturally his departure will create a huge void. Although the team may go after a trade target or free agent to ultimately replace him, there are also candidates already sitting on the roster.

At 23, outfielder Mookie Betts has already proven he can excel in all facets of the game. While he will likely only get better as he continues to get experience, shortstop Xander Bogaerts may be the most plausible internal pick to be Boston’s new face of the offense when their beloved DH leaves.

Also 23, Bogaerts finished second in the American League with a .320 batting average last season. The right-handed hitter has hit a combined 19 home runs combined over the past two years but many think a lot more power is yet to come. As proof, he saw his OPS rise nearly every month in 2015, culminating with a season-best .876 in September/October. With his youth, prior results and the way the ball jumps off his bat, he could be the superstar in waiting the team is looking for.

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