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Posts Tagged ‘Baltimore Orioles’

The last baseball game I attended before the strike was at Yankee Stadium. Me and my co-workers for the summer were given complimentary tickets, along with several other youth and teen groups, in the left-centerfield bleachers. I defiantly wore my Mets hat to the game, which pitted the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing the hat of New York’s National League team proved to be the right move, since former Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee was in attendance, signing autographs in the bleachers; his appearance was part of the program that allowed us to get into The House That Ruth Built gratis. I still have that hat, which Agee signed on the green underside of the bill.

Back then, I lived for baseball. Well, I still live for baseball – make my living in baseball, even – but, in those days, I was obsessed. Every winter, I’d suffer through pangs of withdrawal because there wasn’t any baseball on television; I’d scour Sports Illustrated for any blurb or mention of the National Pastime. I eagerly anticipated the Mets’ first spring training game, which was always televised on WWOR TV. I loved WWOR’s spring training open – which featured a wooden crate filled with oranges that would be hammered shut and, after a time lapse, reopened to reveal that the oranges had turned into baseballs – not only because it was pure genius, but also because it signaled that another baseball season was around the corner.

But now, there was a possibility that the baseball off-season would be longer than ever. The team owners and the players’ union were at an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement and a strike was imminent. None of the so-called experts seemed to think the strike would be brief, although no one had any idea how long it would last. A few weeks? A few months? Into the postseason? Into the following season? Anything seemed to be possible except, of course, a quick resolution.

The strike deadline set by the players was four days away and in the back of my mind as I watched former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez staked to an early 4-0 lead, only to leave in the sixth with the score tied. I was sitting behind the Orioles bullpen and just missed getting the baseball reliever Jim Poole tossed into the crowd when he entered the game in the 10th. Mark Eichhorn, who had been warming up alongside Poole, teased and tantalized the fans who asked him for a ball; it seemed like poetic justice when Eichhorn gave up Randy Velarde’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th to lose the game for Baltimore.

Three days later, when I turned on my green-and-white radio on August 11th, 1994 to listen to the Mets play in Philadelphia (the game was televised on SportsChannel, and Mom had yet to sign us up for cable television), I was hoping the game lasted forever. It didn’t, but it came close; Ricky Jordan’s walk-off RBI single in the 15th won it for the Phillies. And I turned off my radio and wondered when I’d get to hear Major League Baseball again.

I finished the month at a summer camp in western Massachusetts, where I spent a week and a half canoeing, hiking and pitching tents in the wilderness. We were only allowed to shower every few days and there was no access to television or radio. Occasionally, our travels through the Berkshires and Adirondacks would take us by a newsstand or a newspaper vending machine, which would lead me to check the front page of the paper to see if the strike had been resolved. And, in every instance, there was a front-page headline about the strike. And, in every instance, that front-page headline indicated that the players were still on the picket line. Chris, a Chicago White Sox fan who served as my camp group’s counselor that summer before resuming his studies at a small, liberal-arts college in Minnesota in the fall, picked up on my routine. “Anything?” he would ask, after he saw me peek at newsprint. I’d shake my head. Nothing needed to be said.

The routines and rhythms of my sophomore year of high school helped pass the time, but the strike was never far from my mind. Those of us who are baseball crazed tend to gravitate to other seam heads, and it was all we talked about. I mean, it was all we could talk about, since the strike eliminated typical fall conversations about the postseason – which wound up being cancelled – and free agency. None of us really understood all of the issues at play; we were just hopeless baseball romantics hoping and praying that our beau would return post haste.

I had Biology class with Jonah Parsoff, who loved baseball almost as much as I did. Almost. Jonah also claimed to know more baseball trivia than me, which simply wasn’t possible. So, I offered Jonah a challenge: I would give him five baseball trivia questions every day and I guaranteed he would never get all five of them correct. So, for about two months, I spent the first few minutes of Biology writing trivia questions on a piece of loose-leaf paper, which I would covertly pass to Jonah in the front of the class (I always sat in the back of all of my classes, much to my mother’s chagrin. “You wear glasses” she would ask, “why are you sitting in the back?”). Jonah would attempt to answer my questions and slip the paper back to me. I don’t think he ever got more than three right; I know he never went five for five. I took delight in Jonah throwing his head back in frustration once I gave him the correct answers – a gesture that would prompt Mr. Young, our Biology teacher, to ask “Jonah, is something wrong?” mid-lecture. And, thus, my place atop the baseball-trivia throne was secure.

While I spent most of my time in Biology goofing off, I took Global Studies seriously; I always took great interest in history, which was partially responsible for my love of baseball trivia. However, I was convinced that my teacher, Mrs. Goodman, was assigning us papers at an insane rate that was unprecedented in the annals of high school history. However, I had little issue with one assignment from Mrs. Goodman that allowed us to write a 5-page paper on a current event selected from a pre-approved list when I saw that the list included the baseball strike. I immediately set to work on my masterpiece, in which detailed the follies of both the owners and the players’ union. My heartfelt missive earned me an A, and some unexpected praise from Mrs. Goodman; she told me I was an excellent writer and I should consider working for my high school’s monthly newspaper. I never thought of myself as an above-average writer and seeing my byline in print never occurred to me. But wouldn’t it be cool to write about sports? I thought to myself. And, after approaching one of the sports editors, I became a full-fledged sports journalist, penning important pieces on weighty topics – like the upcoming cross-country season – much to the delight of readers everywhere. At least that’s what I told myself.

My Pulitzer still hadn’t arrived in early March, when Dad and I plopped in front of the television to watch the Mets’ first spring training game, against the Yankees. Except it wasn’t the Mets, at least not the Mets with which we were familiar. The broadcast on WWOR opened with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver explaining that they weren’t going to pretend that the upcoming game featuring replacement players was to the Major League Baseball standards fans were accustomed. Thank goodness, because it would’ve been hard to pretend. Nevertheless, Dad and I were glued to the set because we had no idea what to expect from these people donning Mets and Yankees uniforms. An over-the-hill Doug Sisk, the frequent target of Mets fans’ derision when he was a reliever in the 1980s, started the game and was as uninspiring as I’d remembered.

I don’t recall the score, but I do recall the Yankees led by a narrow margin when the bottom of the ninth dawned and they summoned a pitcher named Mike Pitz to get the last three outs. After we finished making fun of his last name, we watched Pitz load the bases with two outs, bringing up Lou Thornton. The day before, we saw a local sportscast where Thornton proclaimed he didn’t get a fair shake when he was with the non-replacement Mets a few years prior and he became a replacement player to prove he belonged in the Majors.

“Well Lou,” Dad opined as Thornton dug in. “This is your chance.”

Thornton worked the count full before swinging and missing at a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone. Game over.

I don’t have vivid memories of where I was or what I was doing when the strike ended, probably because the ending seemed so anticlimactic. And it didn’t really end, per sé; future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners, which prevented them from implementing new labor rules and from using replacement players. Thus, the owners lost a significant amount of their leverage and were essentially forced to work something out with the players. Shortly thereafter, a truncated spring training preceded a truncated regular season and the love of my life was back. Unlike many fans, I didn’t hold any animosity toward the players or the owners; even though I didn’t understand all of the issues that led to a strike, I figured both sides were probably each at fault to a certain extent. Regardless, I just wanted to see baseball. The strike was the first test of my passion for baseball and, strangely, it increased my love for the game. If I could still obsess over baseball even after dealing with the postseason being canceled for the first time in 90 years and after months of uncertainty, then nothing would mute my love for the National Pastime. And nothing has.

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The Binghamton Mets’ manager’s office at NYSEG (pronounced “nice egg”, an acronym for the local electric company) Stadium in Binghamton, New York had a 35-inch television hanging from the ceiling in the corner diagonally across from the door. The channel was turned to ESPN, as it generally was in the early afternoon. ESPN was talking about the resurgent Detroit Tigers; under new manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers were not only poised to finish with their first winning record in 13 years, but they were likely to make the post-season as well.

I was sitting in a chair next to the manager’s desk, which was occupied by Juan Samuel, who was in a unique position to talk about the Tigers’ success. Before signing on to manage Binghamton for the 2006 season, Samuel had spent the previous seven years as a coach for the Tigers. The Tigers were dreadful during Samuel’s tenure there; just three years prior, Samuel was on the staff of a Tigers team that lost an AL record 119 games. After the ‘05 season, the Tigers decided to part ways with manager Alan Trammell and the contracts of Samuel and the rest of the coaching staff weren’t renewed.

Samuel told me he wasn’t surprised by the Tigers’ success, that last year’s staff thought they were very close to being a very good team. I asked him if he were bitter or upset that he didn’t get a chance to be a part of that year’s team. He said he wasn’t.

“We had three years [with manager Alan Trammell] to get it done and we didn’t,” Samuel said. “We deserved to be let go.”

I asked Samuel about the 119-loss 2003 season and how much accountability he and the rest of the coaching staff had for that year.

“I can tell you we worked just as hard as every other Major League coaching staff that year,” Samuel said. “We just didn’t get the results we wanted.”

That comment led me and Samuel into a conversation about the role and importance of Major League coaching staffs. Samuel told me that, while coaches and managers can help, talent almost always wins out in the end. So, if you don’t have talented players, you’re going to struggle to win ballgames and if you do have talented players, you won’t struggle as much to win. That’s true regardless of who’s managing or coaching, Samuel told me.

The statistics agree with Samuel. There have been several studies done on the impact of a manager on a Major League team’s success. Most of them concluded that a manager wasn’t worth more than five wins or losses over the course of a season. In other words, the worst possible manager for a team would cost them five wins while the best possible manager would help them win five more games. Since most managers are neither the “best” or the “worst” for a given team, their impact is even smaller. And, the impact of individual coaches much smaller. Ultimately, it comes down to your team’s talent.

I distinctly remember when I knew that Trey Hillman needed to be relieved of his duties as manager of the Kansas City Royals. It was during a particularly rough stretch for the offense and Hillman was asked what the team needed to do to get out of it.

“It’s gotten so bad,” Hillman said, “sometimes, you think about squeezing in the first inning.”

Calling for squeeze plays in the first inning? When has that ever gotten a team out of an offensive slump? There are few things a manager can do tactically to get a team out of offensive doldrums; at the end of the day, the team has to hit its way out of it. The manager’s job in such situations is to instill confidence in his team and not to panic. That doesn’t mean you don’t shake things up to send a message (e.g. changing the lineup, promoting/demoting players), but there’s an art to knowing what to do and when to do it. I think a Major League manager’s main job is to stay out of the way and prevent the team from panicking. If a manager isn’t doing those things, it’s probably time for him to go. And, when Hillman began discussing putting on first-inning squeeze plays, he was getting in the way. He was panicking. And I knew the time had come for him to go; he was fired a few days later.

The Royals were 152-207 in two-plus seasons under Hillman. So, was he just a terrible manager? I think the only way to find out if a manager is any good is to have him manage a team with talent; if he is able to screw up a good team, then he’s probably a lousy manager. Of course, many managers never get an opportunity to manage a talented team, so we may never find out whether they’re any good. I’ve had several baseball people tell me that Buddy Bell (career record as a manager: 519-724) is a great manager but has never gotten a chance with a talented team, hence his poor results. I’ve also had several baseball people tell me that Bob Brenly (career record as a manager: 303-262) was an awful manager who got way too much credit – and a World Series ring – because he always had good players.

With coaches, it can be even trickier to determine whether they’re having an effect or not. Generally speaking, if he’s making players better, then that coach is effective. However, improvement is only a good measuring stick with younger players, since veteran players don’t have as much room for improvement. Also, the pitching coach is the only coach players – in this case, pitchers – have to work with. The infielders and outfielders don’t have to work with the infield and outfield coaches, respectively. The hitters don’t have to work with the hitting coach. Sometimes, the reason a player is struggling is because he isn’t listening to his specific coach, which can be the fault of the player or the fault of the coach or the fault of both; it’s really hard to know, even if you are around a team on a daily basis.

A lot of times with coaches, it comes down to getting to a player at the right time in his career. After several disappointing and injury-plagued seasons with the Royals, Alex Gordon has turned the corner in 2011 and is finally putting up great offensive numbers. Gordon has worked diligently with Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who certainly deserves some of the credit for Gordon’s success. But, if Seitzer had come across Gordon in his first Major League season, after Gordon had torn up college and the minor leagues, was maybe a little too cocky for his own good and had never suffered a serious injury, would they have worked as well together? Maybe not.

People often think baseball isn’t a “real” job, but it is. It’s a more glamorous job than most, but it’s still a job. And, in any job, success is the result of patience and hard work, but it’s also the result of timing and a little bit of luck. Baseball is no different. Ned Yost, Hillman’s replacement with the Royals, has had a more promising, more talented group of players with which to work than Hillman. There’s a chance Yost’s managerial record with Kansas City will end up looking a lot better than Hillman’s when all is said and done. If Yost does wind up having more success, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better manager than Hillman. It will mean he had more to work with and joined the Royals at the right time.

Oh, remember Juan Samuel, the former coach for the hapless Detroit Tigers? After managing Binghamton for a year, he got back to the Majors in 2007 as the Baltimore Orioles third base and infield coach. He was with Baltimore for four seasons, even serving as interim manager last year; the Orioles lost over 90 games each year he was there. Now, Samuel is in his first year as the third base and infield coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, who have dominated the National League all season long. Samuel’s poised to get to the post-season for just the second time in his 28 seasons as a Major League player or coach; I guess the Phillies are winning in spite of him.

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