Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dan Neville: The Man Who Got Close to His Dream But Couldn't Touch It

Ray Kinsella: "You came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy."

Moonlight Graham: "We just don't recognize life's most significant moments while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day."
----Field of Dreams

Dan Neville was once one of the more promising pitching prospects in the Reds system and a man who lived out the dream of his childhood--almost. I had a chance to speak with him in 2009. When I called, fittingly, he was watching a baseball game on TV.

Dan Neville grew up across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in Covington, Kentucky. He loved baseball from as early as he could remember. He loved everything about the game. He spent hours as a youth collecting baseball cards and throwing a rubber ball against a wall and fielding it, dreaming of one day playing for his beloved Cincinnati Reds. He spent many days at Crosley Field, walking across a suspension bridge to watch his idols Ted Kluzewski, Wally Post, Joe Nuxhall and Gus Bell.

Dan developed into a good baseball player--a right-handed pitcher with heat. The summer after his junior year at Covington Catholic High School, he played for Eagle Savings Bank, a top traveling amateur team that included future major league shortstop Ed Brinkman and a skinny hustler from west Cincinnati named Pete Rose.

Dan signed with the Reds in 1960 and played in the rookie league at Geneva, New York with Rose, Tony Perez and Art Shamsky. He blazed his way to a 15-4 record with a 1.94 ERA in 1961 and his future looked bright. While at Tampa the next season, however, a shoulder injury almost ended his career. When the Reds' brass wanted to cut him loose, he convinced Tampa's manager, Johnny Vander Meer (yes, that Johnny Vander Meer) that he would do anything to hang around. He agreed to essentially be the clubhouse boy for the 1962 Tampa team. For five months, Neville washed uniforms, shined shoes and picked up for teammates who were lucky enough to still be playing baseball.

Then, toward the end of the season, he started tossing a ball against the side of the dugout and noticed that his arm didn't hurt anymore. He was able to get back in uniform and did well: 13-9 with a 2.70 ERA at Macon in 1963.

Neville attended spring training with the Reds in Tampa in 1964. He still remembers the thrill of being in the same locker room as Joe Nuxhall, a player he had idolized as a youth, and how Nuxie treated everyone the same--like a king. He also recounted a story of a spring road trip in which his roommate procured female companionship for the evening and locked him out of their room. Neville was rescued from the lobby sofa by veteran Vada Pinson, who allowed him to sleep in the extra bed in his room for the night.

Neville pitched well that spring but, unusually, the Reds were loaded with pitchers that year: Joe Jay, Jim Maloney and Bob Purkey had all won 20 games in the previous one or two seasons and lefty Jim O'Toole had averaged 17 wins over the previous three years. Neville was one of the last pitchers cut and was sent to San Diego.

As the Reds fought for the 1964 pennant, Neville and several others were called up from San Diego in September. It was a talented bunch that included future Big Red Machine mainstays Tony Perez and Tommy Helms.

With the pennant race so tight, the newcomers didn't get much playing time. Neville dressed in a
Reds uniform but only got to warm up twice. He did not get in a game.

So close he could smell the coffee, but didn't get a taste. Although Neville didn't get to play, he didn't feel too bad. He was sure he would be back. He was only 23 years old. There was plenty of time.

But then, there wasn't.

In 1965, Neville was once again in AAA San Diego, once again doing well. The Reds announced that Neville would be called up after San Diego's weekend series in Indianapolis. He pitched poorly in relief that weekend and the call-up never happened. The second near-miss was crushing. "I just lost it," he said in 2014. "I was defeated. To this day I wish somebody would have dragged me aside and given me a heart to heart."

Neville began to drink heavily. When the Reds tried to call him up at the end of the season, he refused to go. He was traded to the White Sox and his career quickly unraveled.

"It's nobody's fault but my own," he said.

After baseball, Neville returned to the Cincinnati area and worked for Procter and Gamble for 29 years.

So what's it like to get so close to your dream that you can taste it and then lose it? What if you thought you had lost it, got it back again and then lost it again forever? Would you be bitter? Would you hate everything about your dream?

Neville said that he has remained a baseball fan and still watches the Reds whenever he can. He still loves the game.

"I don't have any regrets," he said of his time on the Reds bench at the end of the 1964 season, even though he didn't get to play. "It was the best two weeks of my life."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Denny McLain and the Raccoon That Changed Baseball History*

* Or did it?

One of the more curious, and potentially disturbing, episodes in baseball history came at the end of the 1967 season.

The 1967 American League pennant race was one of the closest ever and it occurred in the years without any divisions or playoffs--there were no extra chances for finishing in second place.

At the end of August, the Twins, Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers were all within one and a half games of each other. The Twins were a potentially great team, wracked by dissension, in no small part caused by a young coach named Billy Martin. The White Sox were hitless wonders, made even more hitless by the skulduggery perpetrated by their field maintenance crew to help their pitchers. The Red Sox were the surprise team, a bunch of youngsters led by Yaz who was having an amazing year.

The Tigers appeared to many to be the favorites, however. They were a deep, talented bunch with the best catcher in the league, Bill Freehan, along with sluggers Norm Cash, Willie Horton and the venerable Al Kaline. They also had a great pitching staff topped by Earl Wilson, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain.

After 159 games, absolutely nothing had been settled--four teams were still within one and a half games of the promised land. The White Sox finally dropped out after 160 games, but 3 teams went into the last weekend with a chance for the pennant.

But something was wrong in Detroit.

McLain, who had already established himself as one of the best pitchers in the majors, was not performing up to par. In 1966, he had become the youngest twenty-game winner in the American League since Bob Feller. In 1967, at the age of 23, he should have been on top of his game. His record stood at 17-14 after a complete game 3-hitter August 29 but, during the tight pennant race, he would not win another game that year.

The brash McLain was a man of excess. He threw continuous fastballs, even when the situation called for something offspeed--and seemed unrepentant about giving up homers in such situations, joking that "I like to challenge a hitter, unfortunately this year I've lost 34 challenges." He reportedly drank as many as 25 Pepsis a day. And he made a habit of playing in nightclubs on his Hammond organ into the late night hours throughout the midwest, bragging that he was the best 20-game-winning organ player around. No one, especially Tiger manager Mayo Smith, seemed to mind because McLain usually won on game day. He had quickly become one of the most outspoken, widely-quoted fan favorites in baseball.

McLain was said to have "wrenched his back" in late August, 1967. In September and October he made 5 starts, did not get out of the sixth inning in any of them, averaged 3 innings and 3 runs per start, and Detroit went 1-4 in those games.

Most perplexing was that he showed up September 18, the day after losing to the Red Sox, with a swollen foot, hobbling on crutches and appearing to be done for the year. The team physician examined him and reported that he had dislocated the two outside toes on his foot.

There was apparently some confusion as to the exact cause of the foot injury. The story that McLain repeated most often, and seemed to be believed by out-of-town writers (those in Detroit, who knew McLain more intimately, strangely had their doubts), was this version, printed in the December, 1967 issue of Sport Magazine: "my wife went to bed and I sat on the living room sofa to watch TV. Up here The Untouchables comes on at 1 A. M. . .  I fell asleep. . . . A raccoon knocked over an empty garbage can and it startled me. . . So I jumped up. My left leg was sleeping and I turned my whole left ankle." Because the foot was asleep, he didn't realize the pain and took a few more steps on it, further injuring it.

Other stories soon popped up, however. One had him outside chasing the raccoons when he injured his foot. Another (attributed to Mickey Lolich) had him kicking a water cooler. Some reporters said McLain told them he kicked some lockers in the clubhouse in anger after the loss to the Red Sox.

The Associated Press September 21, 1967 quoted Mayo Smith as saying, "He was sitting down at home Tuesday and his foot went to sleep. When he stood up, his ankle rolled out from under him."

Whatever the cause, McLain was on crutches for about a week, then Smith started him the second game of a double header on the final day of the season. A Tiger win would have forced a playoff with the Red Sox. McLain lasted  only 2.2 innings, gave up 3 runs and the Tigers lost, paving the way for the Impossible Dream of the Red Sox.

And so the story ended: a bad luck injury had knocked out one of the best pitchers in the majors during the heat of a pennant race in which one win would have made the difference. Everyone had a good laugh and the particulars were forgotten. Sport Magazine noted that the Tigers would probably win the pennant in 1968, "provided, of course, no one falls off a couch."

The next season, a healthy McLain lit up the baseball world, winning 31 games and leading the Tigers to the pennant. In 1969, he won 24 games and his second consecutive Cy Young Award. He had won 108 games in 5 years and was still only 25 years old. He was suddenly bigger than the game.

And then, things got interesting.

In January, 1970, the FBI conducted a crackdown on a five-state gambling ring with ties to organized crime. Their haul included numerous underworld figures and low-level gamblers.Some of the unindicted co-conspirators, as unindicted co-conspirators are wont to do, sang to save their miserable necks. In doing so, they alerted authorities to some interesting happenings in the Detroit-area sports arena.

Morton Sharnik, who had written for Sports Illustrated for a decade on boxing and baseball, picked up some of the rumors and nosed around. He did not name his sources other than to say that they were "several law-enforcement agencies" and a one-time Detroit Mafia lawyer who spilled his guts to the authorities. Sources also apparently included a Flint, Michigan sportswriter who covered the Tigers and a Flint detective--both of whom spent a lot of time hanging out, drinking and gambling at a seedy Flint club and steakhouse named the Shorthorn.

The result of Sharnik's work made the cover of SI on February 23, 1970 in one of the magazine's biggest block-busters to date:

Denny McLain and the Mob! The American League's two-time reining Cy Young Award winner and one of baseball's most popular and biggest personalities apparently, according to the magazine, was mixed up with "The Mob." Organized crime. Underworld figures. Gangland members. Leave the ball, take the cannoli. It was unbelievable.

The article claimed that McLain was involved in a bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn in Flint, which was under the protection and backing of the Syrian Mob, apparently an organization of great importance in the Detroit area.

According to the article, McLain bet heavily with the Syrians on basketball and hockey and lost regularly, resulting in a large debt. He apparently so flaunted baseball's rules that he openly placed bets on the phone in the clubhouse. Also, it claimed, in February of 1967, McLain had agreed to put up his own money to back the bookmaking operation. Things turned sour, however, as McLain was later swindled by the bookmakers--they kept the winnings themselves and sent lost bets to McLain to pay off.

Allegedly, trouble started in mid-summer 1967 when a Battle Creek man won $46,000 on a long shot in a horse race and he was sent to McLain for the funds. When McLain refused to pay, the man went to a street fixer with Mob ties for help.

The article claimed that it was this mobster who stomped on McLain's foot in September of 1967 as a reminder to pay his debts.

The magazine further claimed that a "gangland source" stated that the mobster had bet heavily on the Red Sox and Twins to win the pennant and against the Tigers in McLain's last start.

In the most salacious detail, and an act stretching the line of respectability of journalism, the article concluded with the sad news that the gambler who was owed the $46,000 dollars was later found dead at the scene of a very suspicious single-car accident on a lonely road (adding that it was in a period of good visibility and weather). The obvious conclusion left for the reader was that someone (possibly even McLain?) involved in the gambling ring was responsible for the man's death.

Sports sections all over the country blew up with the news. It was indeed, as stated by the UPI, "Baseball's worst scandal since eight members of the White Sox were banned for life for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series."

If the article was to be believed, here was one of the game's biggest stars who was not only heavily indebted to gamblers and organized crime personalities, but participated with them in organized crime; that one of the mobsters had played a role in a pennant race by damaging a key pitcher for a contender and, possibly, had influenced that pitcher to throw other games.

And, by the way, they may have killed a guy.

Behind the scenes, notified by the magazine of the article a week ahead of time, Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn immediately called McLain to his office in New York and questioned him. McLain admitted to gambling quite often on basketball and hockey and to being involved with the bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn. But he stated that he gotten out in midseason and, since he was himself swindled and received no money, he felt that he was an innocent victim. He denied everything else in the article.

Bowie Kuhn was then in a precarious situation. He astutely realized that we can't have, um, raccoons running around affecting the outcomes of pennant races. But he faced the classic Baseball Commissioner-conundrum: How to ensure that raccoons don't influence pennant races, and punish those who may traffic with raccoons, without admitting publicly that baseball may have a raccoon problem--or any other kind of a problem.

It's a delicate two-step that other commissioners had successfully pulled off in the past. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, of course, established the precedent by banning for life the members of the Black Sox and then later refusing to acknowledge that any similar crime could ever be committed (see Cobb/Speaker).

Happy Chandler suspended Leo Durocher for a year before the 1947 season for associating with low-lifes with organized crime and gambling ties, but conspiracy theorists can point to the cover-up perpetrated in the otherwise excellent movie "42" in which the stated cause of the suspension was the outrage of Catholics over Durocher's dalliance with married actress Loraine Day--throwing Happy under the bus in the process by making him look like a dolt--and not even mentioning gambling.

Bowie Kuhn, if nothing else, considered himself to be a master of maintaining the appropriate appearance. He famously wore a short-sleeved shirt during a frigid night World Series game, in hopes of convincing the television audience that the rest of the Nanook-dressed crowd was overly sensitive and that, obviously, it was not at all cold.

Later he suspended the retired Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from baseball activities because they had taken jobs shaking hands and schmoozing customers at casinos where, gasp, gambling took place.

Kuhn released a well-crafted statement the day the magazine hit the racks. He announced that he was suspending McLain indefinitely, pending further investigation. He was careful to make it clear that the suspension was for the bookmaking activities and was "not based on allegations contained in a magazine article, many of which I believe will prove to be unfounded." He added that "his [McLain's] own gullibility and avarice had permitted him to become the dupe of the gamblers with whom he associated."

Soon thereafter, Kuhn announced that the investigation was completed and that McLain would be re-instated July 1. In case anyone was wondering, he added "There is no indication that [McLain's activities] in any way involve the playing or outcome of baseball games."

Not long after McLain returned, perhaps having realized how popular he still was as over 53,000 fans crammed into Tiger Stadium for his first appearance, Kuhn suspended him for the rest of the season, this time for a very vague charge of carrying a gun on a Tiger road trip. McLain stated that he did indeed have a gun, legally owned and registered (perhaps to fend off marauding raccoons) but that he never took it on a road trip. Confusingly, no one could be found who actually saw the gun--there were only unsubstantiated rumors of a guy who knew a guy who said he heard McLain had a gun on the road trip.

Many felt that it was Kuhn's way of further punishing McLain and removing him from the limelight without saying the dirty G-word again.

Baseball could have had a very big problem on its hands (imagine, a Hall of Fame-talent star who felt himself to be bigger than the game mixed up in gambling) but Kuhn was rescued from any further decision-making as natural history played itself out and McLain's arm was soon deader than his organ-playing career and he was out of the game within two years.

But that brings us back to the original question--what really happened in 1967?

McLain wrote two autobiographies, the last of which, published in 2007 was aptly called, "I told you I wasn't perfect."

In it McLain speaks very freely and  admits that he:

a) gambled heavily on football, basketball and hockey during the sixties.

b) became involved as a financial backer for the bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn.

c) occasionally, in his youthful arrogance, did call in bets from the clubhouse or press room at baseball fields.

But he maintains that, finding out that he was being taken, he opted out of the bookmaking operation in early August of 1967--before any of the alleged bad things happened.

Regardless of anything else, McLain had obviously shown a propensity for getting himself mixed up with very unsavory and unreliable characters. Early in his Detroit career, when reporters mentioned his fantastic consumption of Pepsi, a Detroit Pepsi Vice President and marketing director, who McLain referred to as a classic jock-sniffer, immediately contacted him, befriended him and began delivering 10 cases of Pepsi to his house each week and got him a $15,000 promotional fee from Pepsi. He also introduced him to his gambling buddies and bookie.

McLain and his new friend bet, and lost, heavily. McLain claimed he lost as much as $200 to $300 a week (at a time in which his baseball salary was around $25,000).

McLain's organ playing also led him to unsavory characters. He had developed a nightclub act that was quite entertaining to boozed up sports fans. In 1966, he played a gig at the now-infamous seedy Flint club called the Shorthorn. The owner, a low-grade mobster, took bets on the side and became the bookie for McLain and his Pepsi friend.

With their gambling losses mounting, McLain and his friend decided they would do better if they were the bank. They agreed to join the bookmaking operation of the Shorthorn as the financial backers. McLain took out personal loans totaling over $10,000 to bankroll the deal.

All these things McLain readily admits, but he steadfastly denies any of the other claims of the SI article and sticks to the story of the raccoon.

Who else can we look to for the truth?

In 1970, amid all the hoopla over the article, a Detroit television sportscaster who knew the alleged mobster, brought said alleged mobster to the TV studio and, in a live interview, asked him point blank, "Did you ever step on Denny McLain's foot to prevent him from pitching or whatever else?"

The mobster, who appeared to be a very nice gentleman and was appropriately perplexed by all the fuss, denied that he had ever even met McLain and stated categorically that no, he did not ever step on McLain's foot to prevent him from pitching. Or whatever else. He didn't add, but we can safely assume, that he was also shocked, shocked to find out that there was gambling going on in Detroit.

And so there you have it--from the mouths of the alleged perps. Although there are those who remain doubtful, all we really have to go on is speculation and the old statements of some very unreliable characters, some of whom were trying to save there own hides when talking.

McLain's post-baseball career has been well-documented and includes several major prison terms for some very nasty offenses, including racketeering, loan-sharking, trafficking, cocaine dealing and looting the retirement funds of a company of which he was part owner.

He eventually became known as a very talented and once great footnote to a very troubling time in baseball history; and a cautionary tale.

The amazing thing is that, for all the bombastic claims, the original 1970 article from Sports Illustrated appears to have been quickly forgotten. The sports world simply moved on to a new topic next week--who's hot? who's not?

No one seemed to care about the poor dead gambler or any of the other details. No one was ever prosecuted regarding anything printed in the article.

But this still leaves us with the very unsettling thought: Did a raccoon, or some other nocturnal creature, really influence the outcome of one of the closest pennant races in baseball history?

We will never know the truth--and that's probably just as well, for all of us.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Aaron, Mays, Bench and Koufax: The Four Greatest Living

Sometimes Major League Baseball gets it right, and this was one of those times. The All-Star game is always a great time to look back at the game's history. I love the chance to see and talk about the best players.

When I heard the announcement that the Four Greatest Living Baseball players would be introduced at the All-Star Game, my initial thought was: "Great, we get to see Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and maybe Stan the Man and Bob Feller.

Then it struck me. Damn. It's sad to realize how many of the immortals have passed away in the not-too-distant past--proving that the immortals are, indeed, mortal and that our youth is rapidly sliding away.

The title of "Greatest Living" used to be universally bestowed on Joe DiMaggio. I'm not really sure that he was, but it was just that he insisted on being addressed as that and, well, people loved to see him; loved the persona; loved the era he played in; loved the luscious blond chick he married and, yeah, there were all those World Series titles.

But all those guys are gone. So, now its time for the next generation.

Since there seemed to be a little controversy with the four selected, I thought it would be good to discuss the merits of each and whether or not they truly deserved the honor. I should note that I don't really care that much about pure stats--don't give me WAR and OBP/OPS, my ADHD/OCD can't handle it.

Also, when considering baseball greatness, I prefer to be like that guy who testified in Washington a while back about pornography--I can't define it, but I know what it looks like when I see it.

* I should also note that I prefer to ignore the accomplishments of anyone who needed steroids to accumulate their baseball resume.

First, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays:  You've gotta be kidding me, right?

Moving on to the next one:  Johnny Bench.

I'll admit, I was a bit surprised to see Bench make it. Not that I don't totally agree with the selection. I do, I just thought that it was my little secret. Bench was so good, so young--he hit 45 home runs, 148 RBIs and won an MVP award at 23 years of age--that I always felt that people took him for granted after, say, 1972.

People forget the four World Series, two titles; the two MVPs, the fact that he led the entire major leagues in RBIs for the decade of the 1970s. And he deservedly  won all those Gold Gloves. Guys wouldn't even try to steal on Bench after the first few years.

Think about all of the positions on a baseball field. At any spot, you can get a good argument regarding who was the absolute best. Any position, that is, except for catcher. There is no argument.

Very little discussion.

Again, excluding any alleged steroid-users, there is really no one close. Bench was so much better than any other catcher, both offensively and defensively, there is nothing to add.

Berra? Yeah, he won all those World Series titles, but no one would seriously say Berra was as good as Bench.

Campanella? No.

Carlton Fisk? Fisk was a very good catcher--so good someone could write a book about him and it would probably be a very good book and a great choice for that baseball lover on your Christmas list--but he wasn't really close to Bench.

What about the other Hall of Fame catchers? Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Gary Carter? Nuh-uh.

Ray Schalk for crying out loud? Sorry.

There's no one. Bench deserves it. He was that good.

Sandy Koufax

This is where I had a problem and after much thought, I just can't agree with Koufax belonging in the group. Sure, Sandy is the trendy choice. He had the charisma, the aura, the class and he's maintained it. You will never see him hawking everything he ever owned to the memorabilia leaches, trying to squeeze out that last buck.

And he meant much more to so many people than just a baseball player. I get it; Yom Kippur and all that. Heck, he was John Wayne in a yarmulke. But that doesn't make him one of the top four living baseball players.

Sure, from 1962 to 1966 he was as good as anyone could ever hope to be as a pitcher. But that's my problem: no matter how good he was, it was only for five years. We'll go ahead and give him 1961, when he was 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA. But that's only six years. And that's it. His career ended with a 165-87 record.

Okay, at his peak, Koufax was transcendent; absolutely dominating in a way that was both artistic and beautiful. But if we accept him only for those few years, then we are forced to accept this: at his peak, Denny McLain won 31 games, at his peak, Steve Carlton won 27 games with a miserable Phillies team that only won 59 total, at his peak, Ken Griffey, Jr. was nearly Willie Mays with his hat on backwards, and at their peaks Rod Carew and George Brett nearly hit .400.

We can't just take guys at their peak--it's not fair to anyone who ever grew old and feeble--like all of us.

But that's really the thing we love about Koufax--he never got old. Like JFK, Elvis and Secretariat, we were never forced to witness those sad, awkward moments when age robs our heroes of everything once held dear. Koufax alone walked away when he was absolutely on top.

But does that make him better than everyone else? No. It just means that we were spared the sad spectacle of the 8 win-13 loss seasons and ERAs north of 4.00, the begging and crying for just one, or maybe two, more chances to show that he could still play. Had Koufax stuck around, those things would have been inevitable. We know that he pitched in constant pain those last few years and, I'm pretty sure, medical science has taught us that that's not a good thing. So he would have broken down eventually. But he didn't. He left the game and so, even now, Koufax' left arm remains an eternal flame, forever 30 years old, showering lightening bolts on hapless would-be hitters.

But if Koufax doesn't deserve it and, if I may, he doesn't, then who does? What are our other choices?

Greg Maddux

If we are going to give Koufax credit for essentially a 6-year career, we should look at the numbers Maddux put up in his phenomenal run of 7 years. From 1992 through 1998, he was 127-53 with ERAs that ranged from 1.56 to 2.36.

This certainly compares favorably to Koufax' run from 1961-66 in which he was 129-47 with ERAs from 1.73-3.52. If we throw out his high of 3.52 in 1961, the next highest was 2.54.

After that run, Maddux didn't walk away from the game. He pitched for a long time and finished with 355 career wins. That certainly should be a feather in his cap.

But the major black eye for Maddux was his well-documented postseason foibles, and they were considerable. He was 2-3 in World Series play, albeit with an ERA of 2.09. We could accept his plea of lack of run support, but then his NLCS stats were even worse: 4-8, 3.67. This wasn't just one bad game, it was enough to be a pattern. We would like to think that if we have a stud ace, if we throw him in the biggest game of the year, we will win. But we certainly didn't with Maddux.

Rickey Henderson

Henderson could get on base and score runs better than any man who ever played the game other than possibly Ty Cobb. Scoring 2295 runs in a career is pretty good no matter how you look at it.

But all those vagabond-for-hire years really detract from his legacy. The guy went from Oakland to New York to Oakland to Toronto to Oakland to San Diego to Anaheim to Oakland (he really liked it there, but not enough to stay long) to New York to San Diego to Boston . . . .

Also, you always got the feeling that Henderson was in it just a little bit too much for himself; the kind of guy who never even knew the name of most of his teammates. But, to quote George Costanza, "Was that wrong?"

Mike Schmidt

If I was a Phillies fan, I think I would take exception to the fact that Schmidt has been universally overlooked for what he accomplished. The guy was great. A gold glover and a great power hitter. And he compiled his home run totals in years where 38 home runs were, well, 38 home runs and not just the mid-season total of a jacked-up middle infielder like in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I have no explanation for why Schmidt is not at least in the discussion for Top Four Living. He is certainly in my discussion.

Yogi Berra

 See the above discussion on Bench. If Berra wasn't the best at his position, and he wasn't, he can't really be considered one of the top four. But there should be some place for Berra, somewhere. Maybe greatest ambassador with the most World Series titles and best quotes.

Derek Jeter

Jeter could have been the avant-garde choice, what with all the schmaltz laid on him during his year-long lovefest in AL parks. I'm actually surprised he didn't get much support. He kept his nose clean for a long time, piled up some great career numbers and was an admirable face of the franchise. But while he was very good for a long time, for many years he was not even the best at his position in his league. He's certainly a first-ballot Hall of Fame guy, but I don't think he's Top Four material. Maybe some day, but a few guys need to pass on first.

Tom Seaver  

Like Maddux, if we want to compare apples to apples and pitchers to pitchers, Seaver would probably have been a better choice than Koufax. Seaver had some years that were close to those of Koufax--and remember Seaver pitched in an era that was a bit less kind for pitchers. And Seaver did it for much longer. Seaver was very popular in The City which, although I disagree, seems to mean more to some people than being popular somewhere in the Heartland.

Ken Griffey, Jr.

If only he had never grown up. At 31, Griffey deserved to be on anyone's short list for all-time greatest. But then we were forced to watch the painful, surly, injury-plagued mediocrity that was his Cincinnati career. He's a definite first-ballot HOF guy, but again, not quite Top Four. Not yet.

This brings me to my choice to replace Koufax:

Frank Robinson

Robinson had the misfortune of playing at the same time, and being overshadowed by, Aaron and Mays. And then Clemente became the darling of the public in the early 1970s, just when Robinson was making the World Series a yearly habit. But that shouldn't take away from Robinson. He was great; people forget just how great. And I'm not sure why.

He could do everything on a baseball field exceptionally other than throw, the result of a minor league arm injury. He played great defense, hit for average, power and could steal a base. Hustle? The only difference between Robinson and Pete Rose is that "Frankie Hustle" didn't quite have a ring to it.

Most players from the '50s and '60s will name Frank Robinson as the most competitive player they ever saw. He was a team player who raised his teammates to another level. He played in 6 World Series, won 2. His first-inning home run in the 1966 classic off a snarling, nasty Don Drysdale, set the tone for the surprise Baltimore sweep in the Series.

Maybe the fact that Robinson hit only 586 home runs in his career is held against him. The number 586, which put him at a solid fourth on the All-Time list for years behind Aaron, Ruth and Mays, seems so ordinary now--bypassed by a bevy of bulked-up roid boys; 586 is almost quaint, a relic of the seventies, like leisure suits, disco and platform heels.

But its really a shame that Robinson's contributions have been marginalized. He certainly deserves better.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Put Me in Coach, I Can Pitch

            One of the more memorable players when I was coaching Little League was Nolan (not his real name). Long on enthusiasm but short on talent, Nolan was 10 years old, bigger than most kids his age, but much less coordinated. He wore thick glasses with a frame that was too big for his face and was invariably crooked. His grandmother brought him to the first practice and explained an alphabet soup’s worth of labels for his learning disability and emotional problems. Although he had trouble staying focused, he was hard not to like. He lapped up adult attention with puppy dog-like zeal.

            At the first practice Nolan informed me that “I pitched all the time last year and the coach said I was real good.” I watched him throw and, to put it delicately, he was not real good. In fact, he was terrible. Because of his obvious effort and determination, I stayed after each practice and let him pitch to me.
            “I’m getting better, ain’t I coach,” he would state with authority after each practice. 
            “Sure Nolan,” I would reply while rubbing my knees and ankles which were covered in bruises from bad throws.
            “You know, I pitched all the time last year and the coach said I was real good.”

            We were scheduled to play the last-place team the final game of the season. “Can I pitch the last inning if we’re ahead?” Nolan asked me the day before the game.
            “Okay Nolan,” I told him. “You’ve been getting a lot better in practice.”
            “Because, you know, I pitched all the time last year and the coach said I was real good,” he replied.

            The next day, we held a comfortable lead late in the game. “Am I really going to get to pitch the last inning Coach?” Nolan asked between innings.
            “Sure Nolan,” I answered trying to keep from falling as I tripped over him while he followed me around the dugout.
            “Well, I didn’t exactly pitch all the time last year,” he confessed with just a hint of uncharacteristic sheepishness. “But I did pitch a lot. And the coach said I was real good.”

            As we prepared to take the field for the last inning, I gave Nolan a few words of encouragement. “I didn’t really pitch a lot last year,” Nolan quietly admitted. “But I did pitch some.” Then, he quickly added, “And the coach said I did real good.”

While the team was warming up before the start of the inning, I was talking to some of the players on the bench. After a few minutes, sensing something was wrong, I looked toward the field. The umpire was standing behind homeplate, his arms spread with the palms facing skyward, looking at me as if to say, “Can you do something?” I looked out to the mound and saw Nolan, his face as white as the baseline chalk, visibly shaking, holding the ball with a death grip, unable to move. I called timeout and walked out to rescue him.

            When I was about ten feet from the mound, he tearfully erupted, “Coach, I’m sorry. I lied. I’ve-never-pitched-before-in-my-life. I can’t do this.”

            I put my hand on his shoulder. “Nolan, you’ve practiced all year. You’ve got a good team behind you. You can do it.” I walked back to the bench congratulating myself on my sports psychology know-how, sat down and looked up just in time to see Nolan plunk the batter in the back with the first pitch.

            I closed my eyes and hoped for divine intervention as Nolan threw the next pitch. The batter swung at a ball two feet over his head and hit a little popup back to Nolan. To the amazement of everyone, except himself, Nolan caught the ball then threw it to first to catch the runner off base. A double play! I don’t remember how Nolan got the next batter out, but he did. With an expression of unadulterated joy, full of confidence, as if he did this every day, Nolan walked off the field and into the Hall of Fame of my memory.

 I always like to think of the conversation Nolan surely had at the first practice of the next season with his new coach: “You know Coach, I pitched all the time last year and . . .”

Friday, July 10, 2015

1971: When the Baseball Stars All Came Out Together

In general, I hate to be one of those guys. You know, the grouchy curmudgeons who insist that virtually everything was better back in the old days.

But, sometimes, I can't help it. As baseball's All-Star break approaches, I feel a sadness for the loss of the way things used to be. The All-Star game used to mean so much.

Part of the feeling is because nothing about baseball is ever as good as when you were 10 years old. But the more I think about it, the more I think there is a valid argument on this one, All-Star games were better back then:

---There was no interleague play; players and fans only saw the other guys during the spring and during the magical time known as the World Series. So there was the exotic chance to spy the guys from the "other" league.

---Players spoke openly of playing for pride and for their league. The American League was in the midst of a long losing streak that went back to 1962. Later, National Leaguers like Hank Aaron would admit that guys like him and Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente always wanted to play a little harder because of the American League's relative lack of African Americans. They felt they had something to prove.

---There was no need to attach artificial significance to the game, such as the ridiculous home-field-for-the-Series rule. Want to know how hard guys played to win All-Star games back then? Ask Pete Rose; or Ray Fosse.

--Very few players would even consider skipping the All-Star game to rest. Old-schooler Carlton Fisk said it best in the late 1990s when, as the game's honorary captain, he called out one of the American League's leading sluggers who begged off with the lame excuse that he was tired: "You can rest when you're dead."

But the best thing about the game was that, back then, it was truly a showcase for the game's greatest stars. The All-Star manager had little trouble filling his roster with at least one participation-trophy player from each team since there were only 12 teams in each league--that left plenty of space for the true superstars, the guys everyone wanted to see every year.

So, yeah, the All-Star games were better back then. And there was never a better showcase than 1971.

First was the venue: venerable Tiger Stadium in Detroit; a venue full of character, with it's double-decker porch in right field. And it was packed that night--over 53,000, an All-Star game record at the time.

A look at the roster from that game still gives me chills: Bench, McCovey, Torre, Aaron, Mays, Stargell, Carlton, Jenkins, Marichal, Seaver, Brock, Santo and Clemente for the NL. The AL trotted out Carew, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Aparicio, Yaz, Palmer, Killebrew, Jackson and Kaline.

There were 22 (that's twenty-two) future Hall of Famers on the field, and almost all of them were no-doubt-abouters at the time. Also on the roster were Tony Oliva, who barely missed induction in the Hall of Fame last year, and Pete Rose.

The managers? Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver. Even the managers were Hall of Famers for crying out loud. This contrasts greatly with recent games, such as, for example, the 2009 game which had Jeter, Ichiro, Rivera and Pujols; along with the maybes Molina, Beltran, Hoffman and Verlander--that's eight, at the most.

And then the game started.

The previous fall, Brooks Robinson had tormented Johnny Bench and the Cincinnati Reds with a dizzy display of unbelievable plays, robbing Bench alone of three hits.

The first time up in the All-Star game, in the second inning of a scoreless game with a man on, Bench hit the ball where Robinson couldn't get it--into the left field seats. His second time up, he tempted fate and hit a shot toward third. Before Bench could drop the bat and take one step, he saw that the ball had found Robinson's mitt. He threw up his hands, as if to say, "You again?"

Oh yeah, the home runs. There would be more. The NL added a run in the third on a home run by a guy named Aaron, who had hit a few others in his career. The AL took the lead in the bottom of the third, the first two on a jack by Reggie Jackson, and then two more on a shot by Frank Robinson.

The most memorable, of course, was Jackson's epic shot off the light tower on the top of the stadium. Reggie was an up-and-coming slugger, but was still a few years away from becoming "Mr. October." The awe-inspiring blast was his introduction to a generation of fans and served notice that he was a guy to watch.

The AL added two more runs later, on a tater by Harmon Killebrew, and then Roberto Clemente closed out the scoring with a solo dinger.

It was great players, playing great in a great game. There were no flukes, no one-year-wonders, no happy-to-be-here guys getting lucky.

There were six home runs in all; and they were hit by Aaron, Bench, Clemente, Jackson, Killebrew and Frank Robinson--a who's who of the best of the best.

So call me a curmudgeon if you will, but I'm sorry, things really were better back then.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Dave Criscione and the Best Two Weeks Ever

Sometimes you stumble across a great story when you're not looking. Such was the case with Dave Criscione, a guy who had a very brief major league career--but made the most of it. He played for the Baltimore Orioles from July 17-31, 1977 and ended his time with a career .333 Major League average and had the one shining moment every kid in America dreams of. I had the good fortune to talk to Dave about his time in the majors in 2012.

Born and raised in Dunkirk, a small New York town on Lake Erie, Criscione was a high school legend and signed with the old Washington Senators in 1969 after being drafted in the 5th round. He then began a minor league odyssey as a catcher that took him to such exotic places as Geneva, New York, Anderson, South Carolina, Burlington, South Carolina and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He eventually worked his way up to Spokane and Sacramento of the PCL, but was unable to move any higher.

Although he had some very good years hitting in the minor leagues, he seemed destined to never get a chance at the bigs--most likely because he bore very little physical resemblance to a major leaguer. The 5-8, 200 pound Criscione was once described as a "beer can in a baseball uniform." Baseball executives, hung up on conformity, never gave him a chance. After seven years in the Texas/Washington minor league system, he was traded to Baltimore in December of 1976 and assigned to AAA Rochester.

In July of 1977, Criscione was playing in his fifth season at AAA, wondering if he would ever get a sniff at the majors. He was a guy who saw himself rapidly getting older, working in a dog food factory in the offseason, with a pregnant wife, wondering how he would pay the bills for a growing family on a minor league salary. It was just a matter of time before he would be forced to call off his baseball career and return to the real world.

The Rochester team had finished a game in Toledo hours earlier and the players were lounging in their hotel rooms when Rochester manager Ken Boyer called Criscione to his room at 11 PM. Boyer delivered the news Dave had waited for his whole life: he was going to the show.

Baltimore catcher Rick Dempsey had been hit by a Don Gullett pitch and fractured a finger. Criscione was being summoned to Baltimore to back up catcher Dave Skaggs. He was told to pack his bags--he was leaving for Baltimore at 6 AM.

These were tense days in Baltimore. The Orioles were in the midst of a tight pennant race at the time--battling the Yankees and Red Sox neck and neck. Criscione arrived in Baltimore to what seemed like a dream world--and a great dream at that. He was put up in the same hotel the Yankees were staying. He watched the famous major leaguers, as well as Howard Cosell, in town to do the Monday Night Game on TV, stroll through the lobby. Dave reported to Memorial Stadium where he was assigned a locker next to Baltimore icon and future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. The forty year old Robinson, playing in his last season, dividing his time between bullpen coach, pinch-hitter and cheerleader, immediately called Dave by his name, welcomed him to the team and made him feel like he belonged.

It was clearly understood that Criscione's stay would be a short one. While a lot of guys in that situation have languished on the bench or made a few forgettable appearances, Criscione made the most of his chance.

After watching his first game in a major league uniform, Dave left with the Orioles for a six-day road trip to Texas and Milwaukee. He sat through the series in Texas, then was given his first chance. Facing the Brewers, he lined out to the second baseman in his only at bat. Before the team made their way back to Baltimore, Dave made a quick side-trip to Rochester to see his wife, who went into labor and delivered their first child.

Back in Baltimore, the new dad was given his first start in the second game of a double header against the Brewers.

The first time up, he singled up the middle for his first major league hit. Brewer third baseman Sal Bando called for the ball and passed it to the Oriole dugout. Dave was amazed when the hometown crowd gave him a standing ovation. He wasn't sure what to do. First base coach Jim Frey told him, "You better tip your hat or they'll never stop."

After the game, Brooks Robinson joked that the ovation was so loud that it woke him up and he almost fell off his perch in the bullpen.

Dave later got another hit and received another standing ovation. In his last at bat, the game was tied with a runner on second and he dutifully laid down a bunt and sacrificed the runner from second to third (the runner would score moments later on a fly ball). As he was returning to the dugout, he received another standing ovation. The Orioles won the game 4-3.

For those keeping score at home, that's 2 hits in 3 at bats, with a sacrifice and 3 standing ovations.

The next day, Dave's older brother and his wife were in Baltimore and in the stands, having driven all night from upstate New York, realizing that there might not be much more time to catch his major league act. It was a damp, rainy night and only about 8,000 living souls stayed for the game.

 Late in the tied game, Oriole manager Earl Weaver used a pinch hitter for catcher Skaggs. When the inning ended with the game still tied, Weaver pointed a gnarly finger in Dave's direction and once again the spotlight shone on him.

Dave walked to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning. He caught a fastball and hit it into the left field seats. A walk-off home run. He ran at a full sprint almost to second before slowing down to enjoy the moment.

After shaking hands with third base coach Cal Ripken, Jr., he ecstatically jumped the last few steps to home plate where he was mobbed by happy teammates, including Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Earl Weaver.

The game put the Orioles in first place.

Dave's brother joined him in the clubhouse and was entertained by Brooks Robinson while waiting for Dave to finish with the crowd of reporters surrounding his locker. Brooks remarked loudly,  "He's been here for ten days and he's already got more reporters that I had in twenty years."

Dave was a major celebrity in Baltimore. "It was Italian Festival downtown that week," he later said. "I could have been mayor."

The next morning the team left for a 13-day west coast trip. Dave soon learned that the Orioles had made a deal for experienced catcher Ken Rudolf; his major league days were numbered. He played in two more games, going 0-for-3, and was soon back in Rochester, never to wear a major league uniform again.

He played one more season in Rochester before retiring. After baseball, Criscione returned to his hometown. He coached college baseball at nearby Fredonia State for over 20 years as well as worked as a quality control lab supervisor.

Dave has never forgotten the reception he received from Baltimore fans. He still receives letters from fans who remember his shining moment. And the balls he hit for his first major league base hit and the home run still reside in a special place of honor in his home.

The major league career of Dave Criscione was a long time coming and it was very short; but it was an oh-so-sweet tasting cup of coffee. It consisted of 7 games and 9 at bats--with 3 hits for a cool .333 career batting average.

And one very, very big home run.

Throw in a baby girl and there you have it--the best two weeks ever.