Tuesday, April 19, 2016

April 19: Enter the Sandman

[Roy Mitchell, St. Louis AL (baseball)]
Roy Mitchell didn't make the rotation, but might
be a good long man out of the bullpen.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division Washington, D.C.
It's April 19, 1972. Mike Kekich has pitched brilliantly for the Yankees, having given up just three hits in 8 2/3 innings against the Brewers. He's got a runner on base, checks him, and throws...and there it goes. Home plate ump Merlyn Anthony and Yanks catcher Thurman Munson look skyward, as Brewers first basemen Johnny Briggs sends it out beyond the wall for a home run. It brings the score to 3-2, Yankees, and it brings Yankees manager Ralph Houk out of the dugout. He calls for the lefty.

The bullpen gate opens and out strides Sparky Lyle, as the Yankee Stadium public address system suddenly blares the opening bars of..."Pomp and Circumstance"? It's the first time a reliever has entered a game with his own theme song. And Lyle feels it just doesn't work for him. After the game - after successfully getting George Scott out to finish it off - he puts it on hold.

Theme music worked for Gorgeous George, when he used "Pomp and Circumstance" in the 1950s, and later "Macho Man" Randy Savage would use the same tune, but theme music for pro wrestlers didn't become commonplace until the 1980s. Baseball, the sport that held Disco Demolition Night, used organ music, and fans would have to know tunes (without hearing the lyrics) to catch the connections (snake charmer music for Dave "The Cobra" Parker, for instance). Now, though, especially since the fictitious Ricky Vaughn first strode onto the field to "Wild Thing" in 1989 in Major League, every baseball player has his own music, it seems. During the 2010 World Series, whenever Shane Victorino walked to the plate for the Red Sox, 33,000 fans sang in unison, "Every little thing gonna be alright." Music, more than ever, is a part of the game.

The Stars

Bucky Walters and Frank Viola make for a solid one-two punch at the start of the rotation, and Joe Mauer definitely stands out among his peers, so we'll go with them.

The Team

Walters (198-160, 3.30 ERA) will get us started from the number on spot, and Frankie V (176-150, 3.73) backs him up ably. Even our third and fourth starters give us a good chance with each game. Zach Duke (58-83, 4.39 and still pitching) may not have the best record, but in today's game his ERA is adequate for a back-of-the-rotation guy, as was Scot Kamieniecki's (53-59, 4.52). Since we have the Lyle story, and since, on this date we had the first-ever Presidential relief opening day ceremonial first pitch tosser (Vice President James Sherman threw it out in place of President William Howard Taft, who was mourning the loss of a friend on the Titanic) we'll look at a few relievers. John Wyatt is a shoe-in with his 103 saves, and George Sherrill is next with his 56.We'll also take Ambiriox Burgos for his 20, as well as his name. Fred Mauer will join us, too, so at least at one moment in time we can say that the battery is Mauer and Mauer.

Joe (.313, 120 HR, 762 RBI) will catch and Spike Owen (.246, 46, 439) will play short. Jose Cruz (.247, 204, 624, 113 SB, and not that Jose Cruz, but his son, also the nephew of Hector and Tommy) will play left. Rick Miller (.269, 28, 369) will play center and Alberto Callaspo (.265, 52, 369 - the same number of RBI as Miller) will start at second so we can have room for Whitey Kurowski (.286, 106, 529) at third, he of the four all-star games in a nine-year career. R.J. Reynolds (.267, 35, 294, 109 SB) takes right field, and Bill Greenwood (.226, 8, 185, 194 SB) will step out of the nineteenth century to play short. Harry Craft, Chick Shorten and Nat Hicks will all back up the outfield.

And somewhere, music plays, as a batter steps to the plate. Our game being global means that music is always playing on a baseball field somewhere, even if it's just in the head of the kid who believes he's the next Nat Hicks.

The Round Numbers
Hits Allowed: John Wyatt, 600.
Walks Allowed: Dennys Reyes, 400.

Monday, April 18, 2016

April 18: Yankees vs. Red Sox, etc.

[Sam Crawford, Detroit AL (baseball)]
If you're looking for Sam Crawford, he's probably standing on
third. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division Washington, D.C.
Yankee Stadium opened on this day in 1923. The old Yankee Stadium, that is, the one without all the empty $1000 seats behind home plate, the "House that Ruth Built." Ruth, of course, homered that day, off the Red Sox' Howard Ehmke, in front of 72,000 fans. He did it again, on April 18, 1929, the day after he got married, waving to his new wife as he simultaneously put another early season dagger into his ex-team. On 1950, the Yankees did it again, beating the Red Sox at Fenway, scoring nine times in the top of the 8th to win 15-10.

And that's the way the relationship went for decades, New York and its star power out-muscling the underdog Red Sox. The tides turned in 2004, but the Sox have a long way to go before they can truly claim any paralleling era of dominance.

Rivalries like this one make the sport go. Even without the idiocy of back-and-forth beanings and bench-clearing brawls, series between ancient rivals - Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants, etc. - can stand out on the 162-game schedule as must-tune-in moments. It's the kind of thing baseball fans live for, even if their team is habitually on the losing side. A little hate can go a long way to making even a lost season seem interesting.

The Stars

Sam Crawford is in the Hall of Fame, even though he never played for either the Red Sox or Yankees, but he did play for Detroit, as does Miguel Cabrera. I think we need some White Sox to balance them out.

The Team

Our two top starters (and we only have three) each have the same number of wins. Jack Scott (103-109, 3.85) and Steve Blass (103-76, 3.63) are almost interchangeable. It almost seems cliche to bring up Blass' legendary control problems at the end of his career, and I only do so due to another interesting ailment that struck another player born on this date. We'll get to him in a minute. Our third starter, Dennis Rasmussen (91-77, 4.15) played for five teams in 12 years, never really letting his suitcase too far out of his sight. In the bullpen we have Chuck Taylor and his 31 saves, who would have made the team anyway, just because he is also a style of sneaker. Bobby Castillo is next with 18 saves, and is the guy who taught Fernando Valenzuela his screwball, so he's a keeper. We'll also take Hans Rasmussen (no relation, but who will know) and Danny Friend, because when the going gets tough for a starter, it's always good to know you have a Friend in the bullpen.

Wahoo Sam Crawford (.309, 97, 1525, 367 SB), a contemporary of Ty Cobb with the Tigers, starts off a pretty good line-up with a bang. Crawford is the career leader in triples, with 309, a number that will never, ever be broken; baseball just isn't played his way anymore. Two-time AL MVP Miggy Cabrera (.321, 411, 1456) anchors first base, and Duffy Lewis (.284, 38, 791, 113 SB) was such a fixture in left field in Boston that a part of the terrain was named for him. Billy "Country Breakfast" Butler (.290, 142, 694) will make for a great DH, since he can't wrestle first base from Cabrera. Jim Eisenreich (.290, 52, 477, 105 SB), like Blass, had his battle to fight on the diamond. In Eisenreich's case, it was Tourette Syndrome. He persevered, though, and played in the bigs for 15 years, becoming a shining icon for others with the condition. He can play left field on my team any day. Doug Flynn (.238, 7, 284) gives us a steady second baseman while Rico Brogna (.269, 106, 458) gives us a third first baseman. Brady Clark (.277, 36, 210) can start in right. For alliteration's sake we'll take Hughie Hearne and Vince Ventura, and throw Mal Moss, Marcus Mateo and Harry Hulihan in the bullpen.

And then, sometime in early August, when we have nothing to play for, we'll have a series against those bastards from October 6th. We so can't stand them...

The Round Numbers

Sunday, April 17, 2016

April 17: Where are all the pitchers?

[Adrian C. Anson, Chicago White Stockings, baseball card portrait]
Cap Anson played for 27 years, starting
his career just two years after the first
professional baseball game was played.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division Washington, D.C.
There's a weird dynamic at play with this date in baseball birthday history. In 1940, when Lefty Smoll threw his last major league pitch, he was the last man born on this date to pitch in the bigs until Dan Jennings took the mound in 2012. That's 72 years between pitches thrown by April 17th-born pitchers. Weird, I say, Weird.

There were plenty of ballplayers who came between them, some of them damn good at what they did, but not a single one ever stood on the mound in the pros (I can't speak for Little League or high school). But think of all the major events that took place on this date in between: Syria became independent, as did Ireland; Bangladesh formed; Pete Gray, the one-armed ballplayer, played his first game, in 1945, and Mickey Mantle, his, in 1953; in 1955 it was Roberto Clemente, and in 1956, Frank Robinson, Luis Aparicio and Don Drysdale; and in 1964 the first Ford Mustang was introduced. And that's just the first quarter century.

But it was something that happened back in 1869 on this date that holds the most importance for today's players, born on any date. Harry Wright's Reds - all under contract, making them the first professional baseball team - played the Amateurs in the first pro game.

The Stars

Cap Anson turned 17 that day, probably not realizing that he would someday be in Baseball's Hall of Fame, especially since that idea wouldn't even come to fruition for another six decades. Incidentally, he shares the birthday with Alexander Cartwright, who is also in the Hall as an architect of the game.

The Team

Much like April 16, we have a small pitching pool from which to choose. Just like April 16, only three pitchers started more than 100 games. One started 43, and the other seven started a combined 18. So we start with Jersey Bakley (76-125, 3.66) and Charlie Ferguson (99-64, 2.67), and end with Scott Perry (40-68, 3.07). And then we pray like hell for rain. Our 11 pitchers have a combined total of 11 saves. Anson had one, too, but that wasn't really his job.

On longevity alone, Anson (.334, 97 HR, 2075 RBI, 277 SB) should be in the Hall. He played in 27 seasons, with more than 10,000 at-bats! He can play third, where he started in 1871. Marquis Grissom (.272, 227, 967, 429 SB) had himself a pretty good career in just 17, and will take center field. Jake Daubert (.303, 56, 722, 251 SB), the 1913 MVP, will play first, and Denny Walling (.271, 49, 380), who took 18 years to get 3,000 at-bats, claims left field. Solly Hemus (.273, 51, 263) will start at shortstop, which means we have to find room elsewhere for Jed Lowrie (.259, 65, 326). Ryan Raburn (.258, 85, 329) can have the last outfield spot and Pedro Garcia (.220, 37, 184) will play second (or maybe Lowrie will). Gary Bennett (.241, 22, 192) will split catching duties with Deerfoot Needham (.209, 8, 119), and Craig Worthington (.230, 33, 144) will back up Anson at third.

I don't see many wins coming from this team, but if we stick it out for 27 years like Cap did, maybe the pitching ranks will fill in. Until then, we stall, and let him tell some stories. After all, he was 8 when Fort Sumter was shelled. Maybe he has some good "Johnny Reb" jokes.

The Round Numbers

Saturday, April 16, 2016

April 16: The Numbers Game

[Dutch Leonard, Boston AL (baseball)]
Dutch Leonard will take the ball on day 2 for this
team. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division Washington, D.C.
On April 16, 1940, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians became the first pitcher to throw an opening day no-hitter. Plenty of people who were there remembered every detail, all the way down to the number he was wearing on his back. (That same day, in Washington, D.C., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hit a camera with his opening day first pitch).

Uniform numbers today are a given, but it was on April 16, 1929, that, again, the Indians became the first team to wear them permanently. And what a change that was. Think of it - people new to the game could check scorecards as references to see who was who, to locate the heroes they had read about in the papers. And soon, teams would start retiring numbers (kind of a dangerous prospect for the best teams, which may run out of them if baseball survives another century). They became symbols as recognizable as the players themselves. In Fenway Park, when fans look over to the right field corner, they see Red Sox history flashing before their eyes - 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 26, 27, 45 and 42, or Cronin, Doerr, Pesky, Yaz, Ted, Boggs, Pudge, Pedro and, of course, Jackie Robinson (whose number hangs in Boston ironically, symbolic of missed opportunity).

All around the majors, fans play the same game, with the same numbers from team to team, backed by different colors, standing for different accomplishments and moments in the sun. Thank the Indians, who made the leap, so that one day the number 19 would hang in the ballpark to stand for the man who threw the first-ever opening day no-hitter.

The Stars

We have a Hall of Famer, one of the famed Waner brothers. Paul Waner had a career .333 average, and a .404 OBP, which means he was on base many more times than the mere mortals who played around him. At least we are guaranteed one live bat.

The Team

We have a dearth of pitching, in that only three guys born on this day started more than 26 games, and only 5 started more than 8. But, those three weren't half bad. Jim Lonborg (157-137, 3.86 ERA) was the heart and soul of the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox. Dutch Leonard (139-114, 2.76) pitched complete game victories in both the 1915 and 1916 Red Sox World Series wins. And Curt Young (69-53, 4.31), while not an ace, had a fastball you definitely didn't want to stick your face into. Ironically, he, too, had a Red Sox connection, as their 2011 pitching coach. He, too, played in a couple of World Series, with the A's in 1988 and 1990. Antonio Alfonseca (35-37, 4.11, 129 SV) is all we have in the bullpen. Just walk away and let it be. Trust me.

Waner (.333, 113 HR, 1309 RBI, 104 SB), or "Big Poison," was the 1927 NL MVP, and more than qualifies as our starting right fielder. Pecky Suder (.249, 49, 541) played 13 seasons with the Athletics, including the jump from Philly to KC, and probably would have played more had World War II not gotten in the way. He can take third, as we'll give second to Fernando Vina (.282. 40. 343, 116 SB), who had a hotter bat and a better glove, if his two golden ones are any indication. Bernie Allen (.239, 73, 352) naturally would like to play either second or third, and Red Rollins (.269, 77, 399) would love to take the call at the hot corner as well. As would Nolan Arenado (.281. 79. 263). That's just how it goes when you have a limited number of players with which to work, it seems. Babe "Blimp" Phelps (.310, 54, 345) at least wants to catch, but so, too, does Bob Montgomery (.258, 23, 156)...(sigh). With so many open spots, I'm giving Piggy Ward a job, too.

We're not going anywhere with this team, it's fair to say. They just don't seem to have anybody's number.

The Round Numbers
Hits Allowed: Jim Lonborg, 2400.
Strikeouts: Antonio Alfonseca, 400.

Friday, April 15, 2016

April 15: Certainties

[Sy Sutcliffe, Cleveland Spiders, baseball card portrait]
Sy Sutcliffe fills a need on this team by
taking first base, which no other player
seemed to want to do.
Library of Congress Prints and
Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 
Let's face it - a lot of crappy stuff has happened on April 15. Abraham Lincoln died. Titanic sank. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Boston Marathon bombing. Your taxes are due. I hate to say it, but April 15 kind of sucks.

Perhaps, then, it needs redefinition. So, let's go. In 1924, Rand-McNally published its first road atlas. Americans were becoming freer to roam than ever before, and tools like this one were novelties. Instead of matching up train tables, we started mapping out our own individualized routes for adventure. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. It may have been controversial for its time, but there were so many important stories that came out of it - white teammates boycotting establishments that wouldn't let him in, etc. - that Ken Burns recently aired a documentary about how it helped kickstart the Civil Rights movement. In 1955, the first McDonald's opened. In 1964, the first Ford Mustang rolled off the line.

It wasn't all that bad. And to boot, it gave us 39 professional baseball players, 33 professional hockey players, 77 NFL football players and 13 professional basketball players. None of this gets you out of your taxes, by the way.

The Stars

Hmm. This seems to be the area in which we are lacking.

The Team

We only have three qualifying starters, two of whom are still pitching today: John Danks (79-102, 4.36), Cinders O'Brien (59-65, 3.68) and Chris Tillman (57-43, 4.21). Without knowing, could you guess who had the old-timey name? If he had 14 more starts, we could have considered King Cole for the fourth spot, but we'll make sure he's on the team anyway, just to keep things merry. We'll also take Red Gunkel, because anybody who willingly went through life with the first seven letters of his name spelling "red gunk" is ok in my book.

Afield we start with the TV and movie star himself, Willie Davis (.279, 182 HR, 1053 RBI, 398 SB), who did everything from play center field for the Dodgers to appearing in an episode of Mr. Ed. Jeromy Burnitz (.253, 315, 981) will join Davis in the outfield, and Ted Sizemore (.262, 23, 430) will take his 1969 NL Rookie of the Year award with him out to second base. Milton Bradley (.271, 125, 481) will take the third outfield spot, and three Eds - Bailey (.256, 155, 540), Abbaticchio (.254, 11, 324, 142 SB) and Mayo (.252, 26, 287) - will catch, play short and third respectively. Hub Collins (.284, 11, 319, 335 SB) will back up second and obviously be our first pinch runner off the bench. Adieny Hechevarria (.260, 12, 147) will back up short while Sy Sutcliffe (.288, 6, 174) will play first, rounding out the lineup. We still have room on the bench for another middle infielder in Joe Hoover (.243, 5, 84), backup third baseman Bill Gray (.242, 1, 141) and backup first baseman Mike Lehane (.213, 1, 108).

Death, taxes and...the third one depends on for whom you root. In my world, it's "the Canadiens will always get the first power play in Montreal." How about you?

The Round Numbers
Hits: Cinders O'Brien, 100.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

April 14: Teammates

Don Mueller 1953.jpg
Don Mueller never played for the Braves.
Thank goodness. Bowman Gum.
Baseball is all about moments in time. The game rolls on and on, thousands of pitches thrown, hundreds of home runs hit every year, at least 65,000 outs recorded. To those of us watching casually, with no rooting interest, it can all become a blur. For those invested, there are moments we don't forget. Years stand out as signposts in our lives: 1975, 1986, 2004, 2007, 2013...yes, I'm from Boston. For the players who played the games. who threw thousands of pitches and hit hundreds of home runs, those moments are forever cemented in time.

Three players who share this birthday - Greg Maddux, Steve Avery and David Justice - played together for four consecutive years with the Atlanta Braves, in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996. The Braves were a juggernaut at the time, a far cry from their 1970s and '80s incarnations. They switched from the NL West (yes, Atlanta was in the West) between the '93 and '94 seasons to the NL East, and in 1995 they went over the top, winning the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. For each, it was a chance to stand atop the baseball world. After the '96 season, they parted ways, Justice heading to the Indians, Avery to the Red Sox, Maddux onward to the Hall of Fame.

But for one brief moment in time, 3 of the 51 major league ballplayers born on this date (at that time, actually, 42) shared the game's highest honor.

The Stars

Maddux is in the Hall of Fame, so we'll take him. Pete Rose isn't, but we'll take him anyway. He was pretty good.

The Team

The Professor (355-227, 3.16 ERA) gives us a chance to win almost every time out. Avery (96-83, 4.19), not so much, but, a) he shouldn't be compared to Maddux, and, b) he was never really asked to be a number 2 starter. Unfortunately, this team only has one more experienced arm in Carlos Perez (40-53, 4.44). After that, it's off to the bullpen. But get this: Kyle Farnsworth (57 SV) and Ron Schueler (11 SV) also played for the Braves, as did Johnny Hutchings (OK, the Boston Braves), Jay Aldrich and Cory Gearrin. Mike Trombley didn't, but we'll take his 44 saves, and we'll grab Ben Tincup, in case we want to play some golf. And how could we start the season without Wild Bill Luhrsen?

Rose (.303, 160 HR, 1314 RBI, 198 SB) is the all-time leader in games played, plate appearances, at-bats and hits, so we'll start him at second. Brad Ausmus (.251, 80, 607, 102 SB) will catch, with our second Gregg, Zaun (.252, 88, 446), right behind him. Justice (.279, 305, 1017), who was not only Maddux's teammate and shared a birthday with him, but was born the same day in 1966, will play left field, so that we may invite "Mandrake the Magician" Don Mueller (.296, 65, 520) to play right. Our third Greg, Myers (.255, 87, 396), is not only our second catcher named Greg, shared the same birth date as Maddux and Justice in 1966, but was also briefly Maddux's teammate with the Braves in both 1997 and 1999. This is getting exhausting. Joe Lahoud (.223, 65, 218) can play center field and Marty Keough (.242, 43, 176) will take first.

And with that, I am done.

The Round Numbers
Games Played: Frank Bertaina, 100.
At-bats: Paul Hoover, 100.
Innings Pitched: Jack Bracken, 100.
Hits Allowed: Carlos Perez, 900; Mike Trombley, 800.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April 13: ALS

[Kid Elberfeld, Washington Nationals, baseball card portrait]
Kid Elberfeld could track a pop-up, one of the many
attributes that gives him our starting third base job.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division Washington, D.C.
I had a friend die of ALS. I suspect many of us have. But, man, did I learn a lot from him.

George, or Papa G, was one of my best friends, despite the fact that I was in my 30s and he his 60s. We met in my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, out on a pier. I was doing work for the local newspaper, concluding my series on "A Day in the Life in Hull," ten things that happened on a daily basis in the community that people overlooked. That day's assignment was fishing. It all turned into a book, if you want to check it out on Amazon (You Don't Have to Catch Fish To Go Fishing).

Anyway, George spoke to me through a litewriter, or by email, and we joked and teased each other relentlessly. Here was this 62-year-old foul-mouthed plumber, wasting away inside his own body, yet holding yard sales and participating in charity walks (in his wheelchair) to support ALS research. It was the saddest, most beautiful thing I ever experienced. He sometimes would ask me to stop by and just stare at the ocean with him, and like the best of friends, we could sit quietly and patiently in each other's presence, knowing that between true friends, words needn't be spoken. It's been nearly five years since he was taken from us all, and I miss him more every day.

On this day in 1939, Lou Gehrig hit his last two home runs. It seems like a sad fact, but what George taught me was to love the moment, not feel sorrow at the situation. Papa G lived every day as if it wasn't his last, even though it might be.

The Stars

We're going to have to go with active players, like Hunter Pence and Lorenzo Cain, as history isn't giving us much to work with.

The Team

We have another one of those days on which we have only 41 baseball players born. Typically that means we have few qualifiers for this chosen format (100 major league starts for pitchers in the rotation, 1,000 at-bats for position players), but strangely we have plenty of qualifiers this time around. I wouldn't say that we have an All-Star lineup, but we have experience. Claude Hendrix (144-116, 2.45 ERA) is very worthy of being our ace, and is followed by Vean Gregg (92-63, 2.70), Charlie Sweeney (64-52, 2.87), Ben Cantwell (76-108, 3.91) and Mark Leiter (65-73, 4.57). Our two top relievers are Ricardo Rincon (21 SV) and Roxie Lawson (11 SV), but we have to take Squiz Pillion, Biff Wysong and Woody Upchurch for obvious reasons.

"Germany" Herman Long (.277, 91 HR, 1055 RBI, 537 SB, born in Chicago) gets first choice afield, based on longevity, and he picks shortstop. Pence, or "Captain Underpants" (.283, 196, 739, 106 SB, still playing) can take right field while "The Tabasco Kid" Elberfeld (.271, 10, 535, 213 SB) will start at third. Jake Stahl (.261, 13, 437, 178 SB) can take first and Doug Strange (.233, 31, 211) will grab second. Cain, or "CrunchWrap" (.287, 35, 221, and still building his stats) slides nicely into center field while Oscar Grimes (.256, 18, 200) becomes our first utility infielder. Steve Pearce (.248, 53, 181) completes our outfield picture, and Red Killefer (.248, 3, 116) makes it a little deeper, as does Wes Chamberlain (.255, 43, 167). Mike Simon (.225, 1, 89) fills out our lineup card, at catcher.

So, boys, win one for Lou Gehrig, or Papa G. But whatever you do, play ball like you're going to do so forever!

The Round Numbers
RBI: Oscar Grimes, 200.
Strikeouts; Ricardo Rincon, 400.