Vote Now!!!!

April 21, 2010

The All-Star Game is only 83 days away!  The ballot is up.  What in the name of Abner Doubleday are you waiting for?  With well over 50 plate appearances on which to base sound judgment, The Church hereby recommends the following:

AMERICAN LEAGUE:

1B – Daric Barton   Oakland’s iron man leads all comers with a .492 OBP.

2B – Joaquin Arias   He’ll have to make it as a write-in, but isn’t that what democracy is all about?

SS – Yuniesky Betancourt   Ironclad leather, scorching-hot lumber… looks like Dayton Moore is a genius after all.

3B – Adrian Beltre   It’s not like the Sox are hurting for runs.  Theo signed him for his defense, and he’s been absolutely adequate.

C – Jason Kendall   This grizzled backstop has evidently discovered the fountain of youth.  He’s hitting .352, and could very well become just the second AL catcher to win a batting title.

DH – Jose Guillen   A legitimate MVP candidate in spite of his near-fatal affliction.  And on top of all that a worthy role model, a great ambassador for the game.

OF – Franklin Gutierrez   Now hitting .421, he’s officially a beast.  No other outfielders necessary, but you can vote for up to three if you want to.

OF – Vernon Wells   Clearly the best all-around player in the game this season.  Fortunately for Blue Jay fans, he’s locked up for another four years at only $86 million.

OF – Scott Podsednik   29 GM’s are kicking themselves for not signing this guy.  He’s hitting .449, on pace for 76 steals.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

1B – Albert Pujols   Wow, even in small sample sizes this guy trounces the competition.  His numbers would be even better if only LaRussa could quit flashing him the hit-and-run.

2B – Martin Prado   He’s hitting .431, which is 25 points better than Ted Williams ever did.

SS – Ronny Cedeno  This guy’s a big reason why Pittsburgh is right in the thick of the NL Central race.

3B – Jorge Cantu   In case you spent the past three weeks on an asteroid, Cantu made baseball history!

C – Ivan Rodriguez   If he keeps raking like this, he’ll get his 3,000th hit next weekend at Florida.

OF – Jason Heyward   The Heymaker served dinner to all of Atlanta last night using just five loaves of bread and two fish.

OF – Alfonso Soriano   Plays every game with a fiery intensity that should be reserved only for the Midsummer Classic.

OF – Jim Edmonds   Because every All-Star team needs a purely sentimental pick.

I hear next year Lord Bud’s going to release the ballot in January, just to give fans something to do.  I say, why not December?

Patriots’ Day

April 19, 2010

The real “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” occurred not on October 3, 1951, but on April 19, 1775.  At sunrise on that fateful day, 77 farmers and militiamen assembled on the village green in Lexington, Massachusetts to await the arrival of over 700 British soldiers, who had been dispatched from Boston to seize the citizens’ weapons and to capture rebel leaders John Hancock and Sam Adams.  We’ll never know who fired the first shot, but eight Americans were killed before the Redcoats continued on to nearby Concord.  More colonists gathered there and ambushed the Brits as they marched across Old North Bridge.  The American Revolution had begun.

In my opinion, April 19 is more meaningful than July 4.  Yet somehow Patriots’ Day is commemorated only in Massachusetts and Maine, with parades and stirring reenactments of the battles.  And since 1969, Fenway Park has opened its gates for a morning ballgame, with the intention being that the final out would come just in time for patrons to witness the last stretch of the Boston Marathon pass through Kenmore Square.  (The Sox and/or Boston Braves had occasionally played morning games on Patriots’ Day in prior years, but it did not become an annual part of the holiday until ’69.)  Personally I despise Red Sox Nation for its highbrow pretensions, for its over-dramatic self-pity turned to over-inflated arrogance, and for “Sweet Caroline.”  But I love how they play that early game every year on Patriots’ Day.  The only thing better than waking up on a Monday and remembering that you don’t have to go to school or work, would be to cook some brunch in your bathrobe and flip on the Sawx.  Thankfully, Lord Bud has kept his hands off this tradition.

In 1969 a sellout crowd (a rare sight at Fenway in those days) turned out to see Mel Stottlemyre and the hapless Yankees win 6-4, just as Yoshiaki Unetani crossed the finish line in a then-record 2:13:49 (or approximately one inning of Jonathan Papelbon facing the Bombers today).  The Bostons dropped six of the first seven Patriots’ Morning affairs (including a 12-1 beatdown of Spaceman Bill Lee by the Yankees on the 200th anniversary of the midnight ride) before Ferguson Jenkins shut out the Twins in ’76 and beat Detroit in ’77.  Bostonian Bill Rodgers won his third straight Marathon in 1980, just as Tony Perez, Pudge Fisk, and Dewey Evans were putting together a late rally to come from behind and beat the White Sox.

Eight years later the first Kenyan victor was crowned.  And a few blocks away, Wade Boggs worked Mitch Williams for a nine-pitch walk leading off the ninth; Jim Rice followed with a booming double off the Monstah and Mike Greenwell provided the sac fly to win it.  Greenwell was the hero again in ’89, when his eighth inning homer proved to be the game-winner over Baltimore.  Consecutive 13-inning losses crushed the hearts of the Nation; in ’91 the immortal Brook Jacoby homered for a 1-0 Indians victory, and in ’92 the big, bad Blue Jays took it 6-4.  John Dopson threw a 3-hit shutout at the White Sox in ’93, but they came back the following year to win 12-1 in the only 3-homer game of Tim Raines’s career.  Fenway was quiet on Patriots’ Day in ’95, as was every other big league ballpark, due to the strike.  Of course, the Sox faithful returned.  They cheered Mo Vaughn’s 11th-inning single that scored Jim “Cowboy” Leyritz in 1998, then watched with dismay as the great Gil Heredia held the Sox to just three hits in a 1-0 A’s win in 2000.  Boston’s October 2004 miracle was presaged by the Patriots’ Day game, when Papi and ‘Tek turned a 4-1 Yankee lead into a 5-4 Sox triumph.  In ’06 it was Mark Loretta who muscled up the walk-off homer.  In 2007, the Boston Marathon start time was moved up from noon to 10 AM, making it impossible to see both the Red Sox and the race finish.  A conventional afternoon start time would have solved this problem, but the morning hardball has continued.  The Sox have won the last six Patriots’ Day games to run their record to 20-21 overall since the ritual started back in the Conigliaro/Petrocelli era.  So they have a chance to even it up at 11:05 today (conveniently right around my son’s naptime).  Go Rays!

Sages in the Shadows

April 13, 2010

Now that the Major League season is in full swing (and the year’s class of non-roster invitees has been sent down or cut loose), teams in the “bush leagues” are finalizing rosters for their runs at lesser championships.  Josh Levitt of The Hardball Times has compiled a list of some former big leaguers still clinging to the dream in the Atlantic League.  He’s also promised forthcoming pieces on players in the other independent leagues, so I won’t steal his thunder here.  But Levitt’s writing got me thinking – how many other demigods are out there, toiling in our midst in relative anonymity.  I love the independent leagues because (at the risk of sounding hackneyed) the game is pure.  Unlike an affiliated farm team, an indy league team’s goal is simply to win.  The very idea of the indy leagues goes back to the “glory days” of the early twentieth century – small-town nines competing against other towns in the region for the pride of a few hundred friends and neighbors.  The players do receive a paycheck, so technically this is the lowest rung of the professional ladder.  But really it’s guys stretching and striving just to reach that lowest rung.  Many have fallen from higher up on the ladder and are praying to get back on.

As astronomical as the odds are for the players on these clubs, it’s even more unlikely that their managers and coaches will make the climb.  These men are no longer chasing personal glory; like humble rabbis they are only trying to help others reach the Promised Land.  (That, and they love coming to the ballpark every day and putting on a uniform.)   Here are some whose names awoke long-dormant memory cells in me.

Atlantic League
Phillie fans who remember Von “Five for One” Hayes need only cross the Ben Franklin Bridge to see him manage the Camden (NJ) Riversharks.  Terry McGriff didn’t do much in his big-league career, but he comes from a 7-time All-Star family and certainly brings a wealth of knowledge to the Bridgeport (CT) Bluefish.  Former Met Bud Harrelson fought Pete Rose in the 1973 playoffs, but had no problem working with Pete Rose, Jr. as bench coach and part-owner of the Long Island Ducks.  The father-son magic will continue when Tim Raines‘s Newark Bears face Sparky Lyle‘s Somerset (NJ) Patriots and outfielder Tim Raines, Jr.  Lancaster (PA) native Tom Herr will be joined in the Barnstormers’ dugout by his former Cardinal teammate Danny Cox.  Southern Maryland Blue Crabs’ pitching coach Marty Janzen was the main prospect that the Yankees sent to Toronto in ’95 in exchange for David Cone.  Ancient Oriole Andy Etchebarren will call the shots for the York (PA) Revolution.

Can-Am League
Former Red Sox underdog Brian Daubach leads the Pittsfield (MA) Colonials in their inaugural season (he skippered them last year in Nashua, NH).  Fiery former Pirates catcher Ed “Bodyslam” Ott returns to managing with the Sussex (NJ) Skyhawks.  Fans in Worcester (MA) have apparently forgiven Tornadoes manager Rich Gedman for letting Bob Stanley’s pitch get by him in ’86.

Northern League
I remember Fargo-Moorhead (ND) pitching coach Steve Montgomery as the one dependable arm in the 1999 Phillies’ bullpen.  And I’ll never forget the sight of current Joliet (IL) Jackhammer coach Bryce Florie lying bleeding on the mound at Fenway after getting drilled in the face by a line drive.  Lake County (IL) Fielders owner Kevin Costner  interviewed several qualified candidates, but Crash Davis didn’t want to leave Visalia, Shoeless Joe would disintegrate on road trips, and Billy Chapel was too busy chasing that broad. 

American Association
The Fort Worth (TX) Cats’ 84-year old first base coach Wayne Terwilliger is the oldest in the business.  He played with Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  1990’s journeyman southpaw Butch Henry is back for a fifth season with his hometown El Paso (TX) Diablos, while former teammate Pete Incaviglia leads the Grand Prairie (TX) Air Hogs.

Golden League
The Calgary Vipers will probably hear the inspirational story of manager Morgan Burkhart, an indy league legend.  Longtime LOOGY Ed Vosberg will help the immortal Pete LaCock on the Tucson Toros’ bench.  Gary Templeton will be the man to bring in 18-year old female knuckleballer Eri Yoshida for the Chico (CA) Outlaws.  Former Indians and Dodgers rifleman Cory Snyder will pilot the Maui Na Koa Ikaika (Hawaiian for “Strong Warriors”).  The Orange County (CA) Flyers pitching staff should benefit from the worst 17-game winner in MLB history – Paul Abbott.  Proto-sabermetric slugger Darrell Evans will manage the St. George (UT) RoadRunners.  One-time Mets phenom  Bill Pulsipher will be trusted to keep the Yuma (AZ) Scorpions’ hurlers healthy (in a related story, Sarah Palin is now Secretary of State).

Frontier League
Former Giants shortstop Hal Lanier (.228/.255/.275 in almost 4,000 plate appearances) may think every kid on his Normal (IL) Cornbelters squad is the next Pujols.

United Baseball League & Continental Baseball League
Not a single name jumped out at me in the ranks of these two struggling circuits.  The UBL season will open with the entire league in bankruptcy proceedings.  Meanwhile, the CBL has gone from six teams down to four.  Only two of the four have a permanent home park.  This underscores the reality, as true today as it was when Yogi Berra said it, that “if people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.”  Simply paying a ballplayer doesn’t make him better than he was as an amateur, so baseball history is thick with the obituaries of failed professional clubs and leagues.  Nevertheless, the baseball gods will be smiling on these hot, dusty fields in Texas and New Mexico this summer, as they do wherever two or three are gathered with a ball and bat.