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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pokey Reese Perseveres: The Baseball Historian's Notes for the Week of November 23, 2014

Baseball free agency kicked off in high gear with catcher Russell Martin inking a lucrative long-term deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. The signing not only indicates that the Jays are in it to win it in 2015, but that there should be plenty of cash flowing around over the next few months. It used to be that only a few select teams would be serious spenders, but these days there is much more parity when it comes to who dips into the available talent pool.

Now, let’s move on to the notes for the week.

*Unbelievably, former pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden recently turned 50. A teenaged phenom who came up with the New York Mets in the mid-1980s, the right-hander had an excellent career, but one that was stunted because of off-field issues. The Studious Metsimus Blog takes a look at how he was able to persevere despite his troubles.

At the age of 20, Gooden was an incredible 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA with the Mets in 1985, winning the Cy Young. While he had other strong seasons, he never approached that level of dominance again. His career spanned 16 years with five teams, and he accumulated a 194-112 record and 3.51 ERA. However, given his struggles with substance abuse, the way he finished out strongly (including winning the 2000 World Series with the New York Yankees in his final season) is a testament to his redemption.

*Sadly, it seems every week there is at least one death of a current or former ballplayer to report. Most recently, Ray Sadecki passed away at the age of 73. During an 18-year major league career that spanned 1960-1977 with six different teams, the left-handed pitcher was a combined 135-131 with a 3.78 ERA. His best season came in 1964, as he went 20-11 with a 3.68 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals. That culminated in him winning one of his two starts in that year’s World Series, as his team edged the New York Yankees four games to three.

Sadecki was perhaps best known for being traded in 1966 by the Cardinals to the San Francisco Giants straight up for slugging future Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda, who at the time was at the peak of his career.

*Moe Berg was a nondescript journeyman backup catcher for 15 major league seasons from 1923-1939. He hit just .243 with six home runs during that time in just a total of 1,813 at-bats. He was better known for his intellect, multiple Ivy League degrees and later his reputation as an international spy. That’s right; he was literally an international man of mystery in addition to his work on the baseball diamond. This podcast is an hour of all things Moe Berg for anyone wanting to know about this fascinating character from the game’s past.

*During an eight-year major league career, infielder Pokey Reese was best known for his cool name and super slick glove. He hit a combined .248 with 44 home runs, 271 RBIs, 144 stolen bases and two Gold Glove Awards for the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox. Interestingly, his last game as a big leaguer was the clinching Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, as the Red Sox took home their first championship in 86 years.

Despite his commendable career, nothing has come easy for Reese, who has experienced a good deal of tragedy. Now ten years removed from a major league roster, he is the subject of an excellent profile by The State’s Neil White.

*Hall-of-Famer Paul Molitor was recently hired as the newest manager of the Minnesota Twins. Prior to that, he was one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen—no thanks to the umpires. Following a disputed call in 1995, he was ejected by Al Clark, who filed the following mandatory report detailing the incident. It’s quite an interesting read, but if you really like it, you can actually buy it through an auction. It’s never too early to be on the lookout for holiday gift ideas!

*A hat tip to @RonJuckett for the following tidbit. A recent piece in Golf Digest by W.G. Ramirez details golfer Jeff Flagg winning the 2014 World Long Drive Championship at the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort. What brings this back to baseball is that prior to smashing drives down the fairways, he was crushing balls as a professional ballplayer.

Flagg was a 2008 27th-round draft choice of the New York Mets. He played a total of five seasons as a first baseman in the minors and with independent league teams, hitting a combined .247 with 58 home runs. His best season was his last, as he hit .248 with 20 homers and 83 RBIs in 96 games for the Traverse City Beach Bums of the Frontier League in 2012.

*Here’s a really classic black and white photo of Mickey Mantle at old Yankee Stadium.
*And here are some photos of old baseball stadiums back when they were in their glory. It is worth a watch, especially for anyone who reminisces about the “good old days.”

*The 125th anniversary of the formation of the Players League, an attempt at a player-run professional baseball league that folded after its lone season of 1890, just passed. Deadspin’s W.M. Akers nails a profile of the efforts of players, led by shortstop and lawyer John Montgomery Ward, to create something that would allow them to play the game professionally, but not under the thumb of penny-pinching owners.

Ward, who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, is one of the most interesting yet relatively unknown figures in baseball history. In addition to being an outstanding player, he was also an intellect and social figure (even marrying a Broadway actress). In 1885 he founded the Brotherhood of American Base Ball Players, in an attempt to unionize players. Although it eventually petered out, it was a genesis for the powerful MLB players’ union that operates today.

*Slugger Dick Allen was known for his prodigious power, cracking 351 home runs in a 15-year major league career. The right-handed hitter could park them no matter where he was playing. What made his feats all the more impressive was the tree trunk-esque bats he swung. This short video clip is of Allen describing the 42-ounce lumber he would bring to the plate. The kind of torque it takes to turn around a 90+ MPH fastball is one thing, but it is another thing entirely altogether when doing it with such a heavy cudgel.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tyler Hill: Catching Up With the Boston Red Sox's Toolsy Outfield Prospect

When you are young player in the Boston Red Sox’s organization, you are immediately under the microscope. So rabid is the fan base that the progress of the rosters of the various minor league teams are followed much more closely than you might expect. Not all prospects enter the system with great fanfare but can build that up as they proceed with their development. Outfielder Tyler Hill is in that boat, and having just begun his career, is about to have the spotlight shone on him more than your average minor leaguer.

The 18-year-old right-handed hitter attended Delaware Military Academy in Wilmington. As a senior, he hit an impressive .432 with six home runs and earned a place with nearby Wilmington University. However, an opportunity in professional baseball came knocking and he answered the bell.

The Red Sox made Hill their 19th-round selection in the 2014 draft, clearly enamored by the potential of the toolsy outfielder. At least one scouting report indicated the youngster checks all the boxes when it comes to his projectability as a hitter, power potential, speed, defense and throwing ability.

After signing, Hill was assigned to the Gulf Coast League. Raw players of his age are seldom rushed, and this was no exception. He got just seven hitless at-bats over four games but had his first taste of the professional game and will undoubtedly be ready to open things up in 2015.

I had the pleasure of recently catching up with Hill and asking him some questions about his career. Keep reading for more, and if you would like to follow him and see how he does in the coming years, you can also find him on Twitter.

Tyler Hill Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: Ironically, I have always been a fan of David Ortiz. The emotion he brings to the game and the impact of his leadership he displays is really how the game is supposed to be played in my opinion. My uncle was always a Yankees fan but I loved the way the Sox worked. From the beards, to the characters that have been through the organization, those things have just always caught my eye.

How did attending a military academic in high school prepare you for a career in professional sports?: Delaware Military Academy benefited myself not only in professional baseball but just life. Self-discipline, leadership, and respect were the core values we were taught, and although some people had trouble with going through with it for four years, I looked at it in a positive way because it really did make me a better person. I can also thank my parents for that because I thought it would be a struggle going to a military high school but it wasn't too bad. I'm thankful I have a great family that guides me day in and day out.

How difficult was it to choose between starting your baseball career and attending college at Wilmington University?: My decision between Wilmington and pro ball was very difficult. Although playing at home with Wilmington would have been great, I would tell myself there's no guarantee in three years that I would be sitting in the same position I was this past June. Coach August runs the best college program in Delaware in my opinion, so it was very tough turning him down. He is a great guy and understood the position I was in. Another factor that made it tough was that when watching WU play, it looked like a big brotherhood and it reminded me of football, and being a part of that would have been a great feeling. However, I just felt like I was ready to take that big risk and start my career.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you, and what was your draft experience like?: I met Chris Calciano at a workout at All Star Baseball Academy in the fall. I introduced myself and he was throwing some batting practice, and soon after I got an email from him with a questionnaire attached. I was very excited to see this, especially because the Sox were my favorite team. It was a dream come true getting picked up by the Red Sox.

The draft process was honestly stressful for me from hearing different numbers and rounds I was projected and things along those lines; I was sort of lost. The first two days of the draft were miserable, but when I heard my name called on that third day, it was like the days before never even happened. The pure joy on the faces of my family really captivated me on that day. I was so excited to get things started.

What is your favorite moment from your first professional season with the Gulf Coast League?: Without a doubt my favorite moment from my first year of professional ball was winning the GCL championship. Despite myself getting hurt and not being able to play much, I have never been a part of something like that, especially at this level. You could definitely tell that we were gonna finish the year out on a high note. Everyone had each others’ back and you could feel that brotherhood-like atmosphere all around the facility.

What is the one part of your game that you hope to improve on the most?: I will always look to improve my game in all aspects, but I just need more repetitions in the outfield so I can feel more comfortable since this was my first full year out there after being a catcher all my life.

Who is one pitcher from any time in baseball history that you would like to face, and how would you approach the at-bat?: I think I would like to face Mariano Rivera, one of the greatest of all time. I would probably just think middle and look for a single because there's most likely someone in scoring position and that run is probably huge, but I wouldn't try to do too much and would stay within myself.


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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Time Babe Ruth Fought a Wall and Lost: The Baseball Historian's Notes for the Week of November 16, 2014

Baseball has always stood strong when one of its own passes away. This was proven during the untimely death of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Tavarez during the World Series last month. Tavarez and his girlfriend were killed in a horrific car accident in his homeland of the Dominican Republic. However, the most recent update is that the former top prospect was severely intoxicated at the time of the crash.

While the loss of these two young people will rightfully be continued to be mourned for some time to come, perhaps it will not be in vain. The best possible outcome of this tragedy is using it as a springboard to educate both professional ballplayers and fans alike on the dangers of operating vehicles while impaired. It looks like the Cardinals are already on this path. If this can prevent even one person in the future from making the same mistake some good will come out of all this.

Now, on to the notes for the week…

*Graham Womack over at Baseball Past and Present has done it again. The talented writer and researcher published his list of the 25-most important figures in baseball history. Over 250 voters participated in the project and made their picks from among the titans of the game, both current and those from the past. Some selections and placements may surprise you, while others may not. One spoiler I will give you is that Ned Yost did not make the list; at least not this year.

*Boston Red Sox television announcers Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo have been a dynamic duo for a number of years. Their camaraderie not only provides for excellent game narrative but also the likelihood of hijinks in the booth. This clip from a 2014 game against the Chicago Cubs caught the unusual situation of Remy losing a tooth during the contest, and he and his partner’s ensuing conversation regarding what he should do about it. Hint; it involved a bit of do-it-yourself dentistry.

*Another baseball passing to report in former Oakland Athletics’ first baseman Kelvin Moore, according to the Idaho Statesman. The 57-year-old played parts of three seasons for Oakland from 1981-83, appearing in a total of 76 regular season games. He hit a combined .223 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs, and chipped in two singles in 16 at-bats during the 1981 playoffs. He was much more successful as a minor leaguer during his career, with a .288 batting average and 132 home runs in eight years. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

*Getting to sit next to an athlete during a flight is something many fans talk about but rarely experience. The Washington Times’ Todd Dybas had that rare opportunity when he had Los Angeles Dodgers legendary speedster Maury Wills as a seatmate on a trip to Phoenix. The chance encounter led to a broad discussion of his career and battle with alcoholism among other things.

Wills, who had 586 career stolen bases, including leading the National League in the category six consecutive seasons from 1960-65 is one of the more underappreciated stars from a bygone era. Now 82, reading some of his reflections is an interesting reminder about his place in the history of the game.

*Slugging Hall-of-Famer Babe Ruth was known for slamming balls over outfield walls. Unfortunately, there was also at least one time where he tried to go through a wall himself. This photograph shows an unconscious Bambino after a collision while chasing a fly ball against the Washington Senators in a game that occurred on July 5, 1924 while he was with the New York Yankees. In a nod to a different time, Ruth actually stayed in the game, going 3-for-3. He even played later that day in the second game of a double-header, and played in 153 of 154 regular season games on the year, leading the league with a .378 batting average and 46 homers.

*Major League Baseball was recently on tour in Japan, parading a team of decidedly average players abroad. This is far from a new practice, as squads have been playing exhibition games in the Land of the Rising Sun for the better part of a century. A major difference is that those teams used to be comprised of many All-Star and Hall-of-Fame caliber players. This collection of clips contains some of the home movies of Hall-of-Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx, who was part of the 1934 tour. An excellent book on that subject is Robert Fitts’ Banzai Babe Ruth, which goes into great detail about that year’s 18-game tilt and the experiences of the star-studded roster (including Foxx, Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Connie Mack among others).

*Former player and manager Alvin Dark has passed away at the age of 92. Primarily a shortstop, he had a 14-year playing career with five teams from 1946-1960, with his best years coming with the New York Giants. He compiled career marks of a .289 batting average, 126 home runs and 757 RBIs—star numbers for a player at his position at the time. He also made three All-Star teams and played in three World Series (his 1954 Giants squad winning his only ring as a player). After hitting .322 with the Boston Braves in 1948, he was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.

Following his playing days, Dark skippered for 13 seasons with five different teams. He had a career record of 994-954 and won the 1962 pennant with the San Francisco Giants and the 1974 World Series with the Oakland Athletics.

*Finally, yet another reminder of how much the game has changed over the years. This clip of Kansas City Royals’ Hal McRae taking out the Yankees’ Willie Randolph to break up a double play in Game 2 of the 1977 ALCS is something you would never see today. Calling McRae’s play a hard slide would be like categorizing a Bazooka as a water pistol. More reminiscent of something that might be seen in the WWE, this shows just how far baseball has come in the past generation when it comes to rough levels of play and decreasing aggressive play.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is Giancarlo Stanton’s Massive Contract with the Miami Marlins a Big Mistake?

Multiple outlets have reported that the Miami Marlins are on the verge of reaching a landmark contract extension with their young outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The 25-year-old slugger is about to ink a deal that could pay him a whopping $325 million over the next 13 years, which would be the largest pact in professional sports history. While he is a rising young star and one of the most personable players in the game, there are a number of reasons to believe that giving him this kind of contract is a big mistake.

The big right-handed hitter has batted .271 with 154 home runs and 399 RBIs in 634 games over five seasons. 2014 was his best year to date, as he hit .288 with a league-leading 37 homers and 105 RBIs in 145 games, while placing second in the National League MVP race. Unfortunately, his season was brutally ended on September 11th in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch that caused numerous fractures and other injuries requiring surgery.

Stanton is freakishly strong and athletic, is by all accounts a wonderful person and teammate, and has already shown he can produce at a high level in the majors. Thus, it would seem he is the perfect candidate to push the biggest contract envelope. However, there are no guarantees in sports that a player is ever going to live up to any contract, and in particular, the marriage of the young outfielder and the Marlins may make an even riskier proposition than usual.

Can the Marlins Compete with Stanton?

ESPN’s Buster Olney (subscription required) recently wrote that the Marlins view Stanton as “their Cal Ripken.” Having been drafted by the organization in the second round of the 2007 draft, he is already nearing a decade with the franchise. His popularity and production make him the most obvious candidate to be the face of the organization but it will obviously come at a large financial investment.

Although Miami was the recipient of a heavily publicly-funded stadium in 2012, they have often been thrifty when it comes to spending on the talent they put on the field. In 2014, their payroll of $46.4 million was just a notch above the Houston Astros and their $44.4 million, which represented the lowest in baseball. Only once in the past 15 years has the Marlins’ payroll been in the top-half of teams in the majors, with that one season being 2012—when making a positive show in the wake of the controversial new venue was a virtual necessity.

Stanton’s yearly average salary with his new deal would represent well over half of what the Marlins spent on players last year. The team certainly has more money to spend, but not the same as those in larger markets like New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Baseball is simply never going to draw that kind of attraction in Florida. Would there be enough meat left on the proverbial bone to surround him with the talent to make for a contending team? If history is any indication, he could wind up like Ripken- in receiving a lot of earned credit but not a lot of postseason appearances.

Do You Give a Third of a Billion Dollars to a Player Coming Off Such a Serious Injury?

Reports about Stanton’s recovery from his bean ball incident have been encouraging. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be ready well in advance of 2015 spring training. However, what we know about him is physical; the mental recovery has yet to be seen. Taking a pitch to the face is akin to being involved in a serious accident. It’s trauma, plain and simple. Having the courage and mental toughness to get back in the batter’s box and attack pitchers with the same laser focus and aggressiveness is no easy task.

The Boston Red Sox had a young outfielder named Tony Conigliaro, who led the American League with 32 home runs as a 20-year-old in 1965. He was well on his way to being one of the team’s best players ever when he was struck in the face by a pitch in 1967. He returned in 1969 but was never the same. Granted, he suffered some permanent damage to his vision but there was certainly a mental component to it as well.

It’s not to say that Conigliaro and Stanton suffered equally physically debilitating injuries as much as it is to point out that there are many complex components to returning from such an experience. While the body may indicate to a player that he is able to come back, the mind may have something entirely different to say on the matter.

One can only hope that Stanton comes back stronger and better than ever. That being said, giving him the largest contract in professional sports history before he has played one competitive inning since the beaning seems rash. Since he is under team control through arbitration for the next two seasons, there was no urgency in getting a deal done this offseason.

Getting a little more information and context are never bad things when negotiating landmark contracts. The Philadelphia Phillies gave slugger Ryan Howard a $125 million extension in 2012, two years before he was due to be a free agent. Since then, his production has fallen off a cliff.

All contracts in sports are gambles. There are simply no sure things. It all comes down to taking smart and calculated risks. With the way Stanton’s 2014 season ended, it seems like an extraordinary leap of faith to lock him in before seeing how and if he bounces back.

Is Stanton Actually a Superstar?

Stanton is an excellent player. However, it’s reasonable to ask if he is a superstar—particularly is he one who will sustain his production for a reasonably lengthy period of time.

There is little doubt that Stanton is one of, if not “the”, premiere power hitters in the game. By just about any metric, he hits the balls harder and farther than anyone else, but what about his others skills?

He is a good but not great defensive player. At 6’6” and 240 pounds, he presently gets pretty close to maximum value in the outfield with his body type. It will be interesting to see how long he can maintain his ability with the glove or if he will eventually recede into a DH skill set—which would be problematic with the Marlins playing in the National League.

Injuries have played a significant role during the early stages of his career. In his first four full seasons, he has missed a total of 114 games, with most of those being due to various ailments. It’s fair to wonder if he can consistently stay healthy, as the amount of money he will be making for a team of Miami’s financial inclinations would mean he needs to be on the field as much as possible.

While Stanton makes his fair share of contact, he is also a prolific whiffer, having struck out 742 times in 2,640 career plate appearances. That’s good for once every 3.56 at-bats, or about once per game on average. That figure has not changed appreciably as his career has progressed, but could it as he ages and his bat speed eventually reaches the point where it inevitably slows?

Baseball Reference’s player comparison by age indicates that Stanton’s current closest comp is former Texas Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez. Gonzo was definitely an excellent player but never developed into the Hall-of-Famer some had him pegged for earlier in his career. He was through being an impact player after his age-31 season and was out of baseball at 35. If nothing else, that’s a reminder of how expectations don’t always get fulfilled and how quickly a player can decline.

Conclusion:

The immediate take away should be that Giancarlo Stanton is one of baseball’s bright young stars and should be congratulated for landing his huge new contract. However, as Uncle Ben once famously told his nephew Peter Parker (we’ll forget that Voltaire actually coined the phrase), “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s for that reason and that reason alone that picking through the player and the deal with a fine-toothed comb is a necessity.

As mentioned previously, every contract in professional sports comes with its own risks and concerns. These become magnified as the deals get longer and the expenditures increase. About to get a guarantee for an historic amount of money, the spotlight is about to shine on Stanton with the luminescence of a pulp detective interrogation room lamp. Here’s hoping that the deal works out for both sides, but in the meantime there are a number of reasons to question whether or not it is a big mistake.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew