Baseball anecdotes

We’re down to the wire in the Major League baseball season, with wildcard winners still to be decided. My eyeballs feel the strain, watching as many games as I can fit in with MLB.tv. Exciting stuff, with three or four games to go. It’s nice to be semi-retired with time on my hands.

I played baseball for most of my youth and into young adulthood, though I failed to make Little League. First there was Babe Ruth, then American Legion, then high-school ball, followed by college. From the age of 16 to my mid-20s I was on several different semi-pro teams. That’s a lot of games, and from that history I have a few memories more distinct than others.

The one seared deepest in my head takes us to old Veterans’ Field in Los Angeles, then home to the UCLA Bruins. It’s the bottom of the 12th, and I’m in to hold a one-run advantage for Cal. I don’t recall how a Bruin reached base. But I do recall that Chris Chambliss, UCLA’s first baseman came to the plate representing the winning run. I made the cardinal error of throwing a slider into the left-hander’s sweet spot, low and inside. The ball screamed off his bat, taking just a few seconds to clear the right field fence. I shouted, for the first and only time, “F**k!” (I take some solace in shutting out the Bruins  in Berkeley a few weeks later. A one-hitter, if memory serves.)

Let’s visit Concord’s municipal ball field, which has since been replaced with city offices. I’m starting a playoff game against Richmond’s team. Two runners get on in the top of the first. The next batter for Richmond has a neck as thick as my thighs. He wreaks power. My manager bounds out of the dugout to have a little chat with me. He tells me that whatever pitch I throw to this guy, make sure that it’s not over the outside part of the plate so that the batter with the thick neck can extend his arms. Next pitch, precisely into the forbidden zone, from which the ball was launched over the armory outside the left-field fence. Three runs, just like that. (More solace that afternoon, as I settled down, pitching near hitless ball the rest of the way, with our team winning 15-3.)

Back at Cal’s Evans Diamond. I had pitched one inning the night before in an exhibition game with the Oakland A’s in the Coliseum. Three up, three down against Rick Monday, Joe Rudi, and Tom Reynolds, though Monday’s line drive nearly knocked over our second baseman. At Cal the next day, I was to start against Santa Clara, in what became my weirdest performance ever.

The visitors hit the hell out of the ball in the first couple of innings. Fortunately, all the batted balls found leather, and I escaped unharmed. It was the third inning, I think, when after a few more line-drive outs I completely changed my mechanics, adopting techniques of a fellow pitcher. Amazing. I wound up throwing a shutout with lots of swings and misses.

Now on to Stanford’s Sunken Diamond. I take the mound in the bottom of the first for visiting Cal. The Cardinals’s (as they were then called) leadoff hitter happened to be my battery mate in high school. He did not waste a moment, propelling my first pitch over the centerfield fence. The next time I faced him, he drilled a line drive off the outfield fence for a triple. There was no solace this time, as I lost that game, though I got Bob Boone to pop out.

Finally, I’ll return to high school. I had pitched a no-hitter the previous start. Fast forward to the top of the seventh (the last inning). I had yet to give up a hit and recorded two strikeouts. Just one more out to go. I induce the next batter to swing and miss at a curve ball in the dirt. Unfortunately, the ball got past our catcher. It bounced against the wooden backstop right back to him. He had more than enough time to throw to first base to nail the batter and record the final out. Ah, but his throw sailed over the first baseman’s head and into right field for an error. Now you’re guessing what happens next. I’m going for my second, consecutive no-hitter and need just one more out. However, the next batter shows no mercy, lining the next pitch over the shortstop for a solid single. I threw my glove down in disgust, which made the headlines of the local newspaper’s next edition. So, I settle for a one-hitter.

We have but a weekend left in the MLB regular season. The Mariners are hanging on, just two games shy of a wildcard berth. My beloved Giants, who mysteriously forgot how to win games in the second half, after sporting baseball’s best record in the first, cling to the second wildcard slot in the National League, with St. Louis just a game behind. The team that drafted me out of high school in 1965, the New York Mets, holds the first wildcard position. There is a very real possibility that the Giants will travel to Citifield for the one-game playoff between the two wildcard winners.

Divided loyalties, to be sure. Mercifully, no Trump in this post.

A cartel and its impoverished workers

No, I will not be talking about some Latin American or Middle Eastern operation. Rather, I’ll be briefly discussing major league baseball, specifically its minor league affiliates.

But first a brief story about my almost-career in our “favorite pastime,” the sport of heroes and, more recently, multimillionaires.

Let’s go back to 1965, the first baseball draft ever. I was a headlines-grabbing pitcher for Mt. Diablo High School, located in Concord, Calif., about 30 miles or so east of San Francisco. The New York Mets took a chance on me, though not too big of one. My name was not called until days after Rick Monday became the first player ever drafted. My number was 660. The scout who recommended I be drafted, Mr. Partee, met with my parents and me in our cozy living room. While I had visions in my head of great fortune, the Mets thought otherwise, offering me a signing bonus of $5,000 and a salary of $500 a month to play baseball in some small West Virginia town I had never heard of. In the end, I opted to accept a scholarship to Cal, figuring that if I did any good in college, the scouts would take another look. A string of injuries and mostly less-than-stellar performances later, I found myself with a degree in history and no prospects for playing professional ball, though I continued to play semi-pro for several years thereafter.

One occasionally looks back at life’s forks in the road. Pace Yogi Berra, you have to choose one; you can’t take both. What if I had signed with the Mets? How would things be different?

Well, disturbing statistics suggest that I’d have lived in poverty for as many seasons as I might have survived in professional ball. Indeed, according to this article in the Washington Post:

More than 80 percent of draft picks will never reach the big leagues, and most live on salaries of less than $10,000 per season; the starting salary for a first-year player, paid only during the regular season, is $1,100 a month.

Some current and ex-minor leaguers are pushing back in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. Here’s a summary from NBC News:

The class action suit, brought on behalf of minor leaguers for all 30 Major League teams, alleges violations of federal law requiring fair wages and overtime. Filed in February, and twice expanded ahead of a September hearing, Senne vs. MLB portrays minor league baseball players as the game’s exploited underclass. They toil year-round with no overtime, unpaid extra assignments, and no right to switch teams or renegotiate, the lawsuit alleges. In exchange, they get a maximum starting salary of $5,500—a sum far below minimum wage.

“No one is saying that minor leaguers should be getting rich,” says Garrett Broshuis, a minor league baseball player turned attorney who helped build the case. “But if McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can pay a minimum wage, then Major League Baseball can too.”

Remember: Liberty and justice for all.

Memorial Stadium

I spent many hours at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, mostly in a worker’s role. As part of my athletic scholarship I devoted my spare time to “sweeping the slopes,” a reference to cleaning out the garbage left from Saturday home football games. Once the refuse was collected, I and other athletes would load large bags onto a truck, which we then drove to the local dump near San Francisco Bay. Fun.

The stadium was built in 1923, and it looked as much. “Old” works. So does “ugly” and “spartan” and even “depressing.” It was even worse when I was there from 1965 to 1969, because the Cal Bears were a dismal lot, routinely decimated by nearly every team in the then-Pac 8. Lousy field. Lousy stands. Lousy football. Cheers.

I recall the seismograph underneath the north slopes. The stadium sits directly over Hayward Fault, still quite active. Given the arena’s age, the university heads feared the worst. So they undertook a massive retrofit to shore up the concrete and other materials against tremors. While they were at it on the seismic front, why not actually improve the place for fans?

They seem to have done so, as you’ll note from video linked here. Cool.

Oh, and Go, Bears!

Talent and the King

My brother, who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time surfing the Web, just sent me a link that has to do with me. To wit, he discovered my name amongst baseball’s first amateur draft, held in 1965, the year I graduated high school. If you scroll down far enough in the linked webpage you’ll see me in the 37th round, selected by the New York Mets. I was the 762nd player drafted. The team had the good sense to pick Nolan Ryan ahead of me, and he turned out pretty well.

Although it may sound impressive that I was drafted at all, context helps. According to the Mets’ organization, I must have had some potential to make the big leagues, just not very much. And the team’s offer to me confirmed my lowly status. Besides, had I signed I would have been sent to some affiliate in the hollers of West Virginia, or so I imagined. I opted to accept a scholarship to Cal instead.

Yet, at the time of the draft I thought I was a pretty damn good pitcher. I had the stats and headlines to confirm, including one no-hitter and what should have been a second consecutive no-hitter—on a third strike swing-and-miss that would have ended the game—the catcher retrieved the passed ball, only to throw it over the first baseman’s head for an error. I was “better” than every other pitcher in the league and in the tri-valley area. The scouts obviously had a different opinion of my assets.

That said, the Mets’ brass believed that there were eleven other available players that were or would be better than Nolan Ryan. The team’s number one pick, and second over all, was a young man named Les Rohr, whom I’ve never heard of. As you can see from the link, he pitched just three seasons with the Mets, recording a total of 24 innings. Here is his sad story, from star to nobody—in baseball terms. Also, we should note that no one drafted higher than Ryan achieved stardom.

This drafting business invites a couple of comments. First, teams really take a chance in their selections, with most players never panning out for the major league club. Second, the talent exhibited at the amateur level, in my case high school, does not often translate into superior performance up the ladder.

I, for example, did not do nearly as well in college as I had done in high school. My fast ball, which routinely blew past young teen-aged batters, failed to impress collegians. Strikeouts at Cal were much rarer. I never pitched a no-hitter in the Pac 8 (see how old I am), but managed two one-hitters along with at least one shut-out.

Proof that my prospects had declined between the time I left high school and graduated from Berkeley was one simple fact: no one drafted me again, though I was eligible each year thereafter. No word from the Mets or any other team. As promising as things looked for me when I was 17 and 18, I had no future in baseball at the age of 22, when the really talented players are just getting started.

So, when I see a Felix Hernandez toss a perfect game with a dozen strikeouts, I am duly impressed. The Tampa Bay Rays are not high school players. But that’s how they seemed last Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Hernandez is a truly talented individual, and I think I can speak with some expertise on the subject.

Wow.

Obscure but amazing

My son sent me an email recently about a couple of items he saw on television. One was on the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto; the other on the NY Mets’ R.A. Dickey. I’ll do them in order.

Votto is the 28-year-old All Star first baseman for the Reds. He’s been in the majors since 2007. His lifetime batting average is .318. Only once, during his sophomore year, did he fail to reach .300; he hit only .297. So, here’s the amazing, but obscure, fact about Votto. He’s hit only one foul ball into the right or left field stands—in his entire career! What does that mean?

Votto strives to hit every pitch back through the middle. He doesn’t try to pull or go inside-out. Rather, he meets the ball with his bat nearly perpendicular to the pitch’s flight path. If he gets just a piece of the ball, chances are, overwhelmingly so, that the ball will go either straight down in front of him or to or over the backstop. His style of hitting, which I would heartedly recommend to any young ballplayer, is the polar opposite of, say, Ichiro Suzuki, the master of fending off one pitch or another by slapping it foul and into the stands—or the dugout, or the on-deck circle, or any other place but fair.

My wish for all the Mariners batters: emulate Votto.

Now on to R.A. Dickey. We used to have him, you know, here in Seattle. Now he toils for the team that drafted me. He became the first Mets pitcher to record two consecutive one-hit shutouts, barely missing a no-hitter in the first game, when third baseman David Wright could have been charged an error, although a very tough one, to be sure. Dickey, who is 37, throws a knuckleball, almost exclusively. And what a knuckler it is. The amazing thing about his is that it may rotate only once after it leaves his hand and crosses the plate. My son saw a video demonstrating this fact.

As a former pitcher I can attest to this pitch, since all of us throwers, at one time or another, experimented with the knuckle ball. Like any good fisher person talking about the one that got away, mine was spectacular. Ask any poor schmuck who had occasion to catch me in the bullpen; one did so without his protective cup, and he was sorry that he’d forgotten it that day.

The amazing thing about my knuckleball is that the only time I used it in a game was in an exhibition between the Cal Bears and the Oakland A’s in the Coliseum before a massive crowd of 2,000, or just under the A’s average attendance in most years.

I was scheduled to start the next day against Santa Clara, always a good baseball team, so I would pitch just one half-inning. Now most players, I should think, would view this as a lifetime opportunity, going against a major league team, the same team that in a few short seasons would record three consecutive World Series championships. But I was a head case who always struggled to be in the here and now while on the mound. My mind was elsewhere. And when I was physically elsewhere, my mind was back on the mound. Go figure.

During my warmup, I tried the knuckleball. It was working splendidly, dancing like a small school of fish. It was my turn to take the hill to face Rick Monday, Tom Reynolds, and, I think, Joe Rudi. Monday was the first player ever drafted, going number one in the 1965 debut draft. I was back aways—closer to 700, but I forget.

I started Monday out with my knuckleball. It was knuckling, all right. But no where near the plate. I could tell that Monday was miffed. The A’s on their day off would prefer to be anywhere but playing a bunch of college kids. Each Oakland batter came to the plate ready to tear the cover off the ball. Monday wanted nothing more than to have me throw the ball down the middle. After throwing three consecutive balls, all knucklers, I delivered a straight one down the middle. Every Oakland hitter had the green light that evening. So Monday swung mightily, connecting on the sweet spot. His one-hop line drive nearly drove our diminutive second baseman into the right field wall. But he caught it, stumbled a bit, then threw to first in plenty of time. One out.

I dispensed with the knuckleball for the next two hitters. I retired both on popups, as I recall. A curve ball got Reynolds. Don’t know what pitch did it with Rudi, or whoever it was.

Now, back to misery.

The Giants

Though I was born in New York state, I called California home from the tender age of three months until I moved north to Seattle in 1973. I always loved baseball and still do. But before turning eleven, I favored no particular major league team, since none yet existed nearby. Indeed, the geographically closest team was the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1955, when I was eight, the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City, making them the nearest club.

Ah, but in 1958, the New York Giants picked up stakes and moved to San Francisco, just 30 miles or so from our suburban East Bay home. I quickly took to the team led by Mays, forever calling them “my beloved Giants.”

They first played in Seals Stadium, just underneath the Hamm’s brewery, or so it seemed. A quaint yet fan-friendly venue, whose best seats were in left field. Only a chain-link fence separated players from onlookers. Intimate.

A couple of years later the Giants moved into the dreadful “Stick,” short for Candlestick Park. The wind. Many a Mays’s would-be home run fell victim to the gale forces blowing in from left field. Moreover, the initial distances of the fences required Herculean effort to overcome. So management moved them closer, but could do nothing about the wind. You remember Giants pitcher Stu Miller being blown off the mound during an All-Star game in Candlestick? Sorry, Willie. First the capacious Polo Grounds, then the blustery Stick. You’d be atop the career home-run list were it not for these two stadiums.

Twelve inches or so spelled the difference between winning the World Series or falling to the damn Yankees. That would be 1962. The seventh game, bottom of the ninth, and the Giants behind by a single run. Matty Alou was on third after a Mays’s double. Willie McCovey strode to the plate with two outs, Ralph Terry still pitching. Stretch swung, hitting the ball hard but low, low enough for five-foot-nine Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson to snare the line drive for the final out.

I confess to allowing my enthusiasm for the Giants to wane over the years. With the arrival of the Mariners, my loyalties conflicted. I followed the Giants only sparingly. That is, until 2010, the miracle year. Buster Posey behind the plate directing a splendid pitching staff, including UW alumnus Tim Lincecum. Fear the Beard. Finally. A World Series championship.

So, naturally, I purchased a subscription to MLB.TV. Now I can watch all the Giants games, whether on my iPad (“Retina”) or via Apple TV (2.0). I’m once again hooked on my beloved team.

But what the hell is wrong with Timmy? We’re told it’s “mechanics,” and there are lots of moving parts to manage in his delivery. While he recorded a win, he lasted only five innings in the first game of yesterday’s double-header with the Mets, my third favorite team, since they drafted me in 1965. Lincecum threw over 100 pitches, walked five and struck out eight. He did hit 92 on the radar gun. Frustration ruled his face, however. Timmy knew that he couldn’t find the groove, the one that earned him two Cy Young awards. Still, he pitched well enough to earn a victory, while lowering his ERA to around 8, down from 10.54.

Tonight Matt Cain takes the hill against the Reds, managed by Dusty Baker, former skipper for the Giants. No one is pitching better than Cain, and I look for more of the same this evening.

Perhaps later this year I’ll hear Russ Hodges intoning “the Giants win the pennant!” again and again. After all, that’s what old farts like me do. We hear things and believe they’re real.

Old men and baseball

Kevin Millwood pitched last night for the Mariners. He will turn 38 on Christmas Eve. After pitching masterfully in his first outing against the powerful Texas Rangers in their ballpark, Millwood let things hang up a bit, as they say, taking an 8-1 lead into the fifth. Then all hell broke loose. It took an eternity to record the final out in that inning. No wonder: the Cleveland Indians scored seven eight  times, shooing Millwood. His ERA ballooned from 1.50 to 6.30.

Ah, then there’s former Mariner Jamie Moyer. Last night he became the oldest pitcher to start and win a major league game. He will reach the half-century mark in November, just before Thanksgiving Day. Against San Diego Moyer tossed seven scoreless innings, baffling hitters with 78-mph “fast” balls and an assortment of slow and slower alternatives.

Nolan Ryan, now GM and co-owner of the Rangers, pitched until he was 46, and even at 40 was still reaching 100 mph. I share a couple of things in common with Ryan, besides our birth year. We were both drafted by the Mets in the same year, 1965.

Randy Johnson, born a few miles from my hometown of Concord, Calif., also lasted until his 46th year. He, too, could throw a 100 mph at the age of 40.

Then there’s Omar Visquel, who, I think, still makes his home in Issaquah. He’s just a couple of years shy of Moyer, but he’s an infielder with Toronto rather than a pitcher. I’ve never seen a better glove in my life. But he can also make contact, hitting .272 for his lengthy career. He hit .333 with Cleveland in 1999.

Masterful Maddux didn’t retire his cleats until the age of 42, when he recorded nearly 200 innings. Look at this stretch run, beginning in 1992 with the Cubs and ending with the Braves (the red line signifies the average of these years, 2.12):

Satchel Paige may have been the oldest pitcher. At the age of 59 he started a single game for the then-Kansas City A’s. He lasted three innings, but gave up only one hit. A publicity stunt? Likely. Because of the color barrier, Paige didn’t reach the majors until 1948, when he was already 42. My grandfather used to watch Paige toil for the Negro leagues, declaring him to be the best pitcher he ever saw.

What’s the point of all this? Well, clearly to acknowledge the longevity of a few. But these extended careers also demonstrate that proper skills developed in youth will continue to deliver dividends for as long as the body is able.

And one last thing. Timmy—the Freak—Lincecum had another miserable outing, though he managed to lower his ERA from 12.91 to 10.54. It was said before the game by Mike Krukow that Lincecum had spent much time with pitching coach Dave Righetti between his second and third starts working on mechanics and “release point.” It didn’t work.

The mechanics of the aforementioned elders that prolonged their time on the diamond seem to be absent from Lincecum, once the subject of a video study. How could someone so slight of build deliver pitches in the high 90s? It was all about the mechanics, which have evidently disappeared. This year he barely breaks 90.

That said, Moyer demonstrates that it’s all about location and pitch movement. Lincecum doesn’t have to throw hard to succeed. He just needs to have some idea of what the hell he’s doing out there on the mound. The batters have figured him out. Why not Timmy?