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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mashi: A Review

Although baseball is the American Pastime it truly is an international game. In recent years, the major leagues have seen players coming from an increasding variety of countries, with Japan being among the most prominent. For that reason it‘s surprising how relatively unknown Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese big leaguer, is to modern fans. Fortunately, that obscurity should change with the 2014 release of Robert K. Fitts’ Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer (University of Nebraska Press).

Murakami (or Mashi, as he was affectionately known) was a left-handed relief pitcher who appeared in a total of 54 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. Sent to the United States by his Japanese professional team as a teenager in 1964 to gain seasoning, he pitched so effectively in the low minors that year that he earned a late-season promotion to the majors where he continued his dominance.

Mashi’s signing of a 1965 contract with the Giants sparked a near international baseball incident, as both his American and Japanese clubs jockeyed to assert what they each believed were their rights to his services. Ultimately, he returned for one more season with San Francisco, but at the young age of 21 at the time of his final major league appearance, he reluctantly returned home in deference to familial and cultural expectations that he remain loyal to Japanese baseball—which operated a code of honor modeled after the famous Samurai warrior class of years past.

This is an amazing story. Fitts sets the stage early on with his vivid descriptions of Mashi’s experiences on diamonds on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Although baseball was fundamentally the same game, the vast differences in approach and cultural influence simultaneously made it completely different. The pitcher’s ability to not only navigate this shifting terrain, but also thrive, makes it all the more fascinating.

Fitts’ easy writing style is enhanced by the participation of Mashi in this project. The former ballplayer’s recollections, along with a good number of his personal candid photos really tie things together. Much of his baseball journey was dictated or heavily influenced by others, giving him a burden not borne by many of his peers. His perspective shows how much the business side affects the game, and in particular, how much impact it had on his career.

Mashi is very well written and sourced, making it an authoritative voice on the subject. Some of the themes of particular interest include:

Mashi’s adaptation to American baseball and culture. Barely out of high school upon his arrival, he had a crash course on every level imaginable.

The overt and more concealed racism he experienced as a major leaguer. In particular, Fitts does a great job of digging up some of the erican media coverage, which frequently was unable to resist highlighting the pitcher’s ethnicity in varying degrees of inappropriateness.

The murky side of baseball’s front offices are a theme throughout this story. Mashi often seemed to be treated as property first and a person second. His talent was such that teams fought for the right to control him and how and where he would play.
The Murakami family dynamic is also a fascinating element. Mashi’s father was strict and traditional, and his initial opposition to his son playing the game was perhaps the largest hurdle he had to clear in attaining his baseball dreams.

With Mashi being Fitts’ fourth book on Japanese baseball, it’s time to proclaim him as one of foremost experts on the topic today. One can only hope that this top-notch baseball historian will continue to produce work as thorough and enjoyable as this story of the major league’s first Japanese player proved to be.

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

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Josh Pennington: Boston Red Sox Pitching Prospect on the Comeback Trail

The Boston Red Sox are enduring a disappointing 2015 campaign, languishing in the cellar of the American League East for much of the season. Although things have gotten to the point where several veterans have been sent away by trade or release, not all is lost. The broken expectations have led to extended opportunity for young players, whose spots in the minors are now being seized by other industrious prospects. One youngster who could make a rapid ascension is pitcher Josh Pennington.

The right-hander attended Lower Cape May Regional High School in Cape May, New Jersey. Unfortunately, torn elbow ligaments derailed his senior season in 2014, and he had to undergo Tommy John Surgery. Despite a scholarship to attend St. John’s University, he elected to start his professional career and was selected in the 29th round by the Red Sox in that year’s first-year player draft.

Having spent the last year rehabbing his arm, Pennington has worked his way back and finally took the mound as a pro for the first time this year. The 20-year-old has been eased along slowly as to not tax his repaired arm. Pitching for the team’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, he has appeared in seven games, going 2-1 with a 0.82 ERA, notching 22 strikeouts in 22 innings.

This season will be all about him building back his strength and getting his feet beneath him. However, beyond that, the future looks bright. Although his injury and inexperience make him a raw prospect, there is talent there to spare. With a repertoire that includes a low-90s fastball, he could develop into an intriguing prospect.

Pennington was gracious enough to answer some questions for me this past year. Keep reading to learn more about Boston’s young hurler on the rise.

Josh Pennington Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite team growing up was the Phillies just because I grew up in a family that loved Philadelphia sports. My favorite player was Jimmy Rollins because he was the face of that franchise. He also was a great example of a professional on and off the diamond.

You had Tommy John surgery during the summer of 2014; how are you progressing from that?: I am progressing very well. Everything has been by the book, nothing out of the ordinary. It's really been a very straight forward rehab process given that I still have a while until I pitch in a game.

What pitches do you throw and which do you think needs the most work?: The pitches that I throw are four-seam, two-seam, slider, curveball, and a splitter. I know my splitter needs the most work since I just started throwing it right before I had TJ. I think it could be one of my best pitches as soon as I develop it.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you, and what was your draft experience like?: I first found out the Red Sox were interested in me when they sent a draft questionnaire the fall of my senior year; along with when my area scout Ray Fagnant came down for a home visit in the winter. My draft experience was amazing. My dream was always to play professional baseball. Although the wait was killing me, as soon as my name was called, I was just so happy that I was being given a chance.

You suffered your injury in April and had previously committed to St. Johns. If you remained healthy, do you think your draft would have turned out differently?: If healthy, there is no doubt in my mind that things would have been different. Yet I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason.

What are you primary goals for 2015?: My primary goals in 2015 are to first get 110% healthy. Also I want to finally get back out on that mound and be able to show everyone what I can do.

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Some Odd Struggles of Hall-of-Fame Players

Baseball players gain membership in the Hall of Fame because of their superior talent and subsequent accomplishments that raise them above their mere mortal peers. Despite their legendary feats, even these all-time great encounter struggles from time to time during their careers. Some of these bumps in the road make sense (like facing other Hall-of-Fame players), while others defy explanation. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting examples.

Mickey Mantle Hitting at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium: The switch-hitting outfielder is one of baseball’s most iconic figures, hitting a combined .298 with 536 home runs during an 18-year career with the New York Yankees. For whatever reason, he just wasn’t the same player when playing on the road in Cleveland. Perhaps it was playing in a facility that was also known as “The Mistake by the Lake” because of its cold and windy conditions. The Mick played 159 games there over the years, and while he bashed 36 home runs, he hit a pedestrian .267 with an 83 OPS+ and struck out 135 time—the most he had in any park as a visitor.

Hank Aaron Batting Against Reliever Jim Brosnan: The Home Run king could obviously handle pitchers of all stripes, as he hit .305 with 755 home runs during his 22 seasons in the majors. Unfortunately, he had the darndest time figuring out the right-handed Brosnan. In 49 career at-bats against him, he mustered just seven hits (.143 batting average) with only one walk.

Brosnan pitched for four teams over nine seasons, posting a 3.54 ERA. While he could never be accused of being a slouch, he was also certainly not a star, so his total dominance of one of the greatest hitters who ever lived remains a mystery.

Sandy Koufax Facing the Cincinnati Reds: The great southpaw typically toyed with the opposition like a hangry (yes, hangry, not hungry) cat might with a mouse, going 165-87 with a 2.76 ERA. However, for whatever reason, when he suited up against the Reds, he pitched with the abandon of your average fourth starter. In 57 career games (45 starts) against them, he was 19-20 with a 3.74 ERA. It’s the only team against which he has a losing record—in fact he had at least a .593 winning percentage versus every other team he faced during the regular season. Additionally, it is his highest ERA against any one team by a full half run.

While the Reds weren’t an annual second-division team during Koufax’s 12 major league seasons, they also finished as high as second place only twice during that time, making his struggles against them all the more perplexing.

Willie Mays Batting Against Pitcher Max Surkont: The right-handed Surkont posted just two winning records in nine major league seasons with five teams, finishing up at 61-76 with a 4.38 ERA. However, he morphed into Cy Young when facing the Say Hey Kid.

Mays, who hit .302 with 660 home runs during his distinguished career, managed just three hits in 32 at-bats against his tormentor. Other than a double, he had no other extra-base hits, and he also whiffed six times (again surprising, as Surkont was not a strikeout pitcher—fanning just 4.3 batters per nine innings during his career).

Bob Gibson Pitching Against Third Baseman Richie Hebner: “Feared” is a term so loosely thrown around in sports that it often loses meaning. However, it aptly described the right-handed Gibson. He terrorized the National League for 17 years, accumulating a 251-174 record and 2.91 ERA. Known for his penchant for pitching inside and getting strikeouts (3,117 in his career), it’s hard to imagine batters looking forward to facing him—with the possible exception of Hebner.

Hebner had a solid 18-year major league career, hitting .276 with 203 home runs. Surprisingly, those numbers were enhanced by the 62 at-bats he had against Gibson. In those matchups, he collected 24 hits (good for a .387 batting average), 10 walks and five home runs—all while striking out just eight times. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that although he had the hurler’s number, he managed to escape without being hit by a pitch from his nemesis.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pedro Martinez: Celebrating His Legendary Stint with the Boston Red Sox

Last weekend, former right-handed pitcher Pedro Martinez (along with Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio) was part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s most recent induction class. Although he pitched for five teams during his illustrious 18-year major league career, he is best known for the seven seasons he spent with the Boston Red Sox. During his stint in the Hub, he created many memories, which have already become part of team lore.

Pedro won 219 games with a 2.93 ERA during his career. However, his time in Boston was truly special, as he was a combined 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA, 1,683 strikeouts and 3 Cy Young Awards (another three top-three finishes). Not to be forgotten is the integral role he played on the 2004 team- his last season in a Red Sox uniform- when the team finally won a World Series after an 86-year drought.

As someone who watched nearly every one of Pedro’s Boston starts, either on television or in person, I can attest that whenever he took the mound it was an event; a spectacle. The very real possibility existed that something special might happen every single time he toed the rubber. There could be a shutout, a no-hitter, a preponderance of strikeouts. The buzz he generated was electric. Baseball fans of all backgrounds delighted in watching his exploits from the edge of their seats.

A wisp of an athlete, Martinez’s exploits were made all the more incredible because of their perceived improbability. Although small of stature, he possessed a fearsome mid-90s fastball, a curve and changeup that rank among the best of all time. He may have often been the smallest player on the field but because of his physical abilities, he seemed like a giant.

Fiercely proud of his Dominican heritage, he brought his culture with him when he came to Boston in a trade with the Montreal Expos prior to the 1998 season. Almost immediately, Dominican flags sprang up all over Fenway Park on days he started. In a city with a history of racial strife, this was no small feat. His mere presence changed the dynamic of crowds and how fans rooted for the team. The colorful fluttering flags, fans yelling themselves hoarse and gleefully hanging “K” signs in the outfield stands created a diverse and carnival-like atmosphere that has never been seen before or since.

Ability can get you only so far in baseball. For that reason, Martinez’s infectious fun-loving personality made him all the more entertaining to watch. From being cheerfully tied to a dugout post by teammates, to donning a Yoda mask while cheering between starts, number 45 made the game more fun for everyone around him.

There were many other highlights during Pedro’s Boston tenure, including:

The 1999 All Star Game, which was held in Boston. In front of the home crowd and a shockingly aged Ted Williams, Martinez started and threw the first two innings, facing some of the most feared hitters in the game at the height of the PED era. Nevertheless, he showed his superiority, getting five of his six outs by way of the strikeout. Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell (2,219 career regular season home runs between them) were all victimized by his electric stuff that night, marking an all-time moment for the Mid-Summer Classic.

Then there was the one-hitter against the New York Yankees in September, 1999. The only hit he allowed was a first-inning home run to Chili Davis, as he went the distance, striking out 17 and walking none. It was not only an exhibition of pitching in the truest sense of the word, it also came against the team’s arch enemy, which was akin to seeing an 85-pound boy mop up the playground with the oversized bully during recess.

If those things weren’t enough for a legendary 1999 season, Martinez saved his best for the postseason. During that year’s ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, he entered pivotal Game 5 in the fourth inning and pitched six no-hit innings despite an ailing back that had forced him out of Game 1, allowing the team to capture the series. Later admitting it was a move that could have jeopardized his career, it can also be seen as a possible turning point for a franchise that had been a doormat for so many years, and just five years later would finally win a World Series.

Even though injury and age depleted his talents by the time he reached his final Boston season in 2004, he was still an integral part of that team. Despite winning 16 games, his 3.90 ERA was more than a run and a half higher than any of his previous Red Sox seasons. That’s why his final start with the team was so fitting. It came in Game 3 of the Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Martinez was in vintage form, firing seven shutout innings and putting his team in the driver’s seat for the eventual sweep.

Martinez’ perpetually jovial disposition only flickered on the field. He was certainly not a bad guy but his competitiveness ran fiery hot. There was the 2000 game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, when he hit their first batter of the game, Gerald Williams, who promptly charged the mound and instigated a melee. Once order was restored and the bruised batter was ejected, Martinez exacted his revenge. He slammed the door—to the tune of 13 strikeouts and just one additional base runner—a ninth inning single permitted to John Flaherty.

Much like his career on the mound, Martinez shone giving his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He spent most of his time thanking the many people, both family and those within baseball, he credits with helping him through his baseball journey. The only thing wrong with that is that we, the fans, should be thanking him. He allowed us to see things never before seen or thought to be possible. Along the way he brought a lot of excitement to the game, and in particular, hope and pride to fans of the Red Sox. Legends may fade away but they never truly die. If you ever spent one moment watching Pedro Martinez pitch you’d know that to be true.

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