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Posts Tagged ‘Houston Astros’

I’d just gotten back to my car after one of my first deliveries of the day when my phone rang. It was the Sports Information Director at The College of St. Rose, a Division II school in Albany. Thankfully, I’d already put on my seat belt because I almost leapt out of my chair. A few days prior, I’d heard that St. Rose’s basketball broadcaster accepted a broadcasting gig elsewhere, so I called the athletic director and left a voicemail. The college basketball season was starting soon, and I figured St. Rose had already pegged someone to do their games. There’s no harm in calling them, I reasoned, because I might get lucky.

And get lucky I did. By the time the SID called, St. Rose’s first game was a week and a half away. It was a beautiful fall Saturday in Binghamton, where I’d wrapped up my first season as the broadcaster for the Binghamton Mets two months prior. Could you overnight your résumé and demo CD to us on Monday? the SID asked. Of course I can! Anything would be better than using copious amounts of Febreze in an attempt to eradicate the sickening stale pizza smell that permeated my car after every one of my delivery shifts. The Binghamton Mets hired me seasonally, so I needed to find a way to make money from Labor Day until April. In mid-September, I took a job delivering pizza, which paid well, but was the definition of tedious.

A couple of days after overnighting my stuff to St. Rose, I made the two-hour drive to Albany for an interview. St. Rose hired me on a Sunday night. Their first game was Tuesday. Like many Division II schools, St. Rose played men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders, with the women’s game starting at 5 pm – or 1 pm for afternoon contests – followed by the men’s game. I’d also agreed to call 1-2 high school basketball games a week for a small radio station in Sidney, a rural town 45 minutes northeast of Binghamton. That winter, I became intimately familiar with Interstate 88, which runs through Sidney and terminates in Albany. The radio station in Sidney covered five area high schools and they let me make my own schedule, which dovetailed nicely with St. Rose’s; the college games were usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the high school games were Tuesdays and Fridays. If St. Rose had road games, I would hop on the team bus once I got to Albany and travel another 2-4 hours with the teams, call two basketball games, get back on the bus for another 2-4 hours and then drive the two hours back to Binghamton in the wee hours of the morning. Upstate New York winters can be pretty harsh but, amazingly, I only had to drive through one snowstorm that season. All for $200 and a chance to call my second-favorite sport, after baseball. It’s a good thing I love hoops, because I ended up calling 75 basketball games that winter. My car died a few months later.

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“What do you do in the off-season?” is one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked in my baseball broadcasting career. The baseball season is a grind; games every day for 5-7 months, depending on whether you’re in the Majors or minors and whether or not you call spring training action. Every baseball broadcaster needs a break after a season but, for many, that break is very short, if there’s a break at all. Seasonal employment, like I had with the Binghamton Mets, was the rule for most of my baseball broadcasting career. As a result, I had to find employment at the conclusion of each baseball season.

My first baseball off-season was in Yakima, Washington after calling games for the Yakima Bears of the short-season Northwest League. I hung around Central Washington to work as an account executive for the Yakima Sun Kings, a minor league basketball team that played in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. And I was miserable. For one, I’d hoped to land a job calling football and/or basketball, but I wasn’t as aggressive when it came to pursuing those opportunities as I should’ve been. And, I realized quickly I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive. It didn’t help that the degree of difficulty selling the Sun Kings for a novice account executive was high. The Sun Kings, like the rest of the CBA, folded two years prior before being reborn the previous year. Yakima sat out the first season of the new CBA before returning under new ownership when I came aboard. There were many people who lost money with the old Sun Kings and many of those people took out their frustrations on me. Plus, as I mentioned, I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive; cold-calling and going in and out of businesses to persuade people to spend money with the team just wasn’t my thing (It probably doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of salespeople selling me things unsolicited. I’m the guy who, when he’s in the store or on the showroom floor, politely declines assistance and grimaces at salespeople who come at him with their huge smiles and mindless small talk. If I need you, I’ll find you. Otherwise, leave me alone). Nearly every day I worked for the Sun Kings, I woke up with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, dreading spending another day trying to convince people to buy courtside signs and group tickets. I contemplated quitting daily and, on one occasion, cleaned out my desk in anticipation of walking before changing my mind. Stick it out until you get another job, I told myself.

You can imagine my relief when, after five months of misery, I was hired by a radio station group in Kalamazoo, Michigan as the voice of the Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. I didn’t have to start my new job for another two months, but I was so eager to rid myself of my account executive existence that I loaded up my car and drove cross-country to New York City, my hometown, as quickly as I could. I was much happier back home, where I spent two months teaching SAT prep courses on Long Island before heading to Michigan. That awful feeling in the pit of my stomach disappeared and hasn’t returned since. After initially being hired in Kalamazoo just for baseball season, I wound up getting a full-time position, ending my need to scramble for off-season employment. Instead, I slid right into radio news reporting and anchoring and broadcasting high school and Division III college football and basketball once the Kings’ season drew to a close.

You would think I would’ve learned from my Yakima experience when I left Kalamazoo after two years for the seasonal position with the Binghamton Mets. However, I waited until August to seek off-season work and found myself scrambling to find something with little time left, which is how I ended up handing people boxes filled with warm pizza for two months. The following off-season, I planned on returning to The College of St. Rose, but I was able to land the women’s basketball play-by-play job at Binghamton University, which was Division I, as opposed to Division II, and a 15-minute drive from my home, as opposed to a two-hour drive. Needless to say, the switch was a no-brainer. That off-season, I also got back into officiating basketball, which I’d done in Yakima, and I started substitute teaching. I wasn’t exactly living like a king, but I did okay for a single guy with few obligations.

After four years in Binghamton, I was hired by the Kansas City Royals’ flagship radio station to be their Royals reporter and pre- and post-game show host, the latter show featuring phone calls from fans. Once again, I was a seasonal employee but I’d learned from my earlier follies. In the middle of the summer, I contacted every school within a three-hour drive of Kansas City that sponsored intercollegiate athletics and let them know I was available to call basketball games if the need arose. The most serious inquiry I received was from the University of Nebraska Omaha, a Division II school three hours away. Nebraska Omaha needed someone to broadcast their men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders because their previous broadcaster recently accepted a position that made it difficult for him to call all of the games. However, Nebraska Omaha’s SID hedged on completely handing the reins to me, saying he could guarantee me all of the road broadcasts, but nothing else. Since I wisely left the door open with Binghamton University when I departed for Kansas City, I passed on Nebraska Omaha’s offer and returned to Binghamton to call women’s basketball that fall and winter before going back to Kansas City in the spring. The following off-season, Nebraska Omaha offered me their full-time basketball broadcasting position. I gladly accepted, calling their games for three seasons, which included the first two years of their transition to Division I. As a matter of fact, I was finally hired full-time by the Royals’ flagship station my final year calling Nebraska Omaha’s games, but I was able to make the schedules work, just like I did with my St. Rose and high school basketball schedules in Binghamton many years prior.

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The day I agreed to terms with the Houston Astros to be their radio broadcaster, I no longer had to seek employment during the baseball off-season. The Astros compensate me year-round, which means seven months of baseball followed by five months of inactivity, if I so choose. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to call other sports, or deliver pizza, or substitute teach, in the fall and winter. I would like to call basketball and/or football again, but I won’t starve if I don’t. In short, I’m blessed. And, after years of hustling for work once baseball season ended, not a day goes by in the off-season when I don’t think about how fortunate I am.

Years ago, I watched an interview of Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, where he mentioned that, every few months or so, he takes a “reading vacation”; he’ll hole up in some remote locale for a couple of weeks and read all of the books he hasn’t been able to get to. My off-season these days isn’t exactly a reading vacation, but I have more time for books. I finally read Wherever I Wind Up, the autobiography of Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, which was outstanding. I just finished Bleeding Orange, the new autobiography authored by Jim Boeheim, longtime basketball coach at Syracuse University, my alma mater. I recently ordered You Can’t Make This Up, the new autobiography of legendary broadcaster Al Michaels. As you can probably tell, I love non-fiction in general and autobiographies in particular. However, the best book I’ve read this off-season was Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s outstanding novel that’s been turned into a movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there’s no way it can captivate as well as the book, but isn’t that always the case?

When the weather cooperates, I try to bike at least 20 miles a day; I bike during the season, but I can get in more reps when there aren’t any games. I also like going out for lunch; since I spend so much time at home alone during the day, it’s nice to be around other people, even if I’m not communicating with them. I also get to reacquaint myself with my four-year-old daughter, time I really treasure since we don’t get to spend copious amounts of time together during the season. Once November and December arrive, I start prepping for the upcoming baseball season. By beginning my prep early in the off-season, I can work gradually all winter and have a lot of work done before spring training begins, giving me an opportunity to focus on other things and preventing me from being burned out once it’s time to call games.

More than anything, I use the off-season to decompress and to recharge my batteries. By the time I leave for spring training, I’m excited about a new season and ready to get to work. And I’m thankful for all of the work that I’ve done and jobs that I’ve had – in baseball, broadcasting and otherwise – that have helped me get to this point.

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When you grow up a New York Mets fan, you get used to the near-no-hitters. Despite an impressive array of pitching talent throughout its history – 14 pitchers who’ve won a Cy Young Award have donned the orange and blue – Mets fans learn to accept the fact that their organization is star-crossed when it comes to no-hitters. There are, on average, two no-hitters thrown per season, but none of them have been thrown by a Mets hurler. Sure, the Mets have thrown a record 35 one-hitters in their history, but no no-nos. Call it an inconvenient truth or an unfortunate reality, Mets fans grow up knowing that not seeing one of their pitchers throw a no-hitter is their fate.

I grew up watching Mets games on a portable, black-and-white television with a four-inch screen  in my bedroom and, on April 28th, 1992, I watched David Cone mow down the Houston Astros with ruthless efficiency at Shea Stadium. Cone was the Mets’ ace and I was used to seeing him pitch effectively, but that night was different. Even my 12-year-old eyes could see that Cone’s great splitter and slider seemed to have a little more bite, his blazing fastball a little more juice. The Astros couldn’t touch him and, after Cone kept them hitless through five innings, I started to get excited. After six no-hit innings, I convinced Mom to turn the color, 30-inch television in the living room to the Mets game, which was on WWOR that night. Cone got through the seventh with no problem, once again retiring the Astros without allowing a hit. The Mets were already ahead 4-0, and I was rooting for a quick bottom of the seventh so I could see Cone continue his run toward baseball history.

The eighth began with Casey Candaele grounding out. Cone then walked Eddie Taubensee, missing with a 3-2 pitch. The pitcher’s spot in the order was due up next and Benny Distefano was summoned to pinch-hit. The Brooklyn-born Distefano had never hit much at the Major League level, spending most of his career in the minors; the Astros called him up from Triple-A Calgary just three days prior and he was getting just his second Major League at-bat of 1992. Cone’s first pitch to the lefthanded hitter was a ball. The next pitch was a good pitch, a breaking ball down and away, and Distefano managed to hit it off the end of the bat. The baseball rolled slowly down the third-base line where Mets third baseman Dave Magadan watched helplessly; there was no way Magadan was going to throw out Distefano and he had to hope the ball rolled foul. It didn’t. Distefano had his first Major League hit since 1989 and the Mets were still without a no-hitter in their history. Cone settled instead for a two-hit shutout. Even though the Mets won, I remember feeling empty after the game. David Cone was so close! I thought to myself, as I lie awake in my bunk bed that night. And, of all people, Benny friggin’ Distefano was the one who ended it? Who the heck is he? It’s hard to fall asleep when you keep shaking your head.

I had a different feeling on September 29th, 2007 when I watched the Mets battle the Florida Marlins in the season’s penultimate game, accompanied by my girlfriend, a friend of ours and his wife. My 10-year high school reunion was in Manhattan that evening so, through connections cultivated thanks to my job as the radio broadcaster of the Mets’ Double-A affiliate in Binghamton, New York, I was able to snag field-level box seats down the first-base line for that afternoon’s game at Shea. John Maine, a very talented righthander who was having a very good season, was having little problem with the Marlins’ young lineup. The Mets’ lineup had few issues with the Marlins pitchers, knocking out Florida’s starter in the second inning and building an 8-0 lead after three. I’d kept score at every Major League game I’d been to over the previous decade or so but I didn’t keep score that day, content to spend a relaxing afternoon with friends and show my girlfriend around Shea Stadium, which she was visiting for the first time. I even broke what had been one of my cardinal rules and left my seat while the game was in progress because I wanted to take my girlfriend to the Nathan’s Hot Dogs stand and have her partake in their legendary crinkle-cut french fries (she was a vegetarian at the time, so no delicious Nathan’s frankfurters for her). I noticed Maine was keeping the Marlins hitless, but I was conditioned; neither Maine nor anyone else for the Mets was ever going to throw a no-hitter, so no big deal.

My friend wasn’t feeling well, so he and his wife decided to leave during the seventh inning. Just before they departed, he turned to me.

“He’s going to get it,” my friend said.

“No. No he’s not,” I responded.

“Yes he will. It’s going to happen.”

I shook my head. My friend didn’t grow up rooting for the Mets, so how could he know? I hoped he was right, but I knew he’d be wrong.

Maine started the eighth by retiring the first two hitters. Maybe he will do it, I thought. He’s only one out from eight no-hit innings. Maine got ahead in the count against Marlins catcher Paul Hoover, a 31-year-old, September call-up who was playing in just his 15th Major League game. Hoover then beat a 1-2 pitch into the ground and up the third-base line; the ball didn’t go more than 50 feet. However, neither catcher Ramon Castro or third baseman David Wright would be able to get to the ball in time to throw Hoover out at first base. And, once again, the Mets were denied a no-hitter. Mets manager Willie Randolph pulled Maine after that hit, and the fans gave him a rousing ovation. The Mets bullpen didn’t allow a hit in the 13-0 win and I went on with my day and to my high school reunion that evening without giving a second thought to what I’d just seen. I’d long ago accepted that Mets pitchers don’t throw no-hitters, no matter how talented or dominant they are.

That changed on Friday.

I’m not much of a New York Mets fan anymore. I still like them and still want them to do well, but the strong affinity I had for them as a youngster has dissipated, a victim of my career covering baseball for a living. But, on Friday, I became a Mets fan again.

I was at Kauffman Stadium, covering the Kansas City Royals, who were hosting the Oakland Athletics, when I saw on my Twitter feed that Mets pitcher Johan Santana had thrown five no-hit innings against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field. Then six no-hit innings. Once the seventh inning began, I was following along on my iPhone, using Major League Baseball’s At-Bat app. When Santana got through the seventh without allowing a hit, I knew At-Bat would allow the eighth inning to be broadcast free of charge – you normally have to pay a fee to watch the television broadcasts of games – because a no-hitter was in progress. I watched the eighth as a clearly out of gas Santana worked around a walk, but still prevented the Cardinals from getting a hit. I thought Santana – who underwent shoulder surgery that prevented him from pitching in 2011 – would be pulled in the ninth inning in favor of a fresh arm from the bullpen. You don’t like to see pitchers removed when they have a no-hitter going, but I thought that would be the prudent move in this instance.

But, I continued to watch on my iPhone as Santana went back out for the ninth. I breathed a sigh of relief when Matt Holliday lined out. Allen Craig’s lineout was followed by a fist pump. David Freese swinging over an off-speed 3-2 pitch for the final out got me out of my chair and led to more fist pumps. Santana did it! He threw a no-hitter!

And, then, I stood in disbelief. Not only did Santana throw a no-hitter, but he threw a no-hitter for the Mets. This wasn’t Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, the two greatest pitchers in Mets history, throwing no-hitters after they left the Mets – adding insult to injury, Gooden threw his no hitter for the crosstown Yankees. This wasn’t Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan, two hard throwers who never figured it out with the Mets, going to other teams and tossing no-nos – Ryan throwing a record seven no-hitters after departing. This was Santana, whose surgically repaired shoulder hadn’t thrown more than 108 pitches, tossing a career-high 134 pitches and running on empty over the last couple of innings. There were no journeymen catchers or light-hitting utility players to spoil Santana’s moment, the Mets’ moment. The Mets had finally become like every other team (except the San Diego Padres, who still don’t have a no-hitter). Now, when a Mets pitcher takes a no-hitter deep into the game, Mets fans will believe it’s possible for their pitcher to get 27 outs without allowing a hit and, if that pitcher loses the no-no, Mets fans won’t think it’s because their team is cursed. If Johan Santana can do it, then any Mets pitcher can do it.

But, man, why couldn’t Benny Distefano’s ground ball have rolled foul?

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By any measure, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. Over his 21-year career, Rodriguez set Major League Baseball records for games caught, putouts by a catcher and assists by a catcher. He threw out 46% of attempted base stealers, the highest percentage by any catcher in 40 years. Rodriguez was the rare great defensive catcher who could also hit, setting the doubles record for catchers – he had 572 of them – to go along with 311 home runs and a .296 batting average. Rodriguez was also a 14-time All Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner, the 1999 American League Most Valuable Player and the 2003 National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player.

After an injury-plagued 2011 season with the Washington Nationals, Rodriguez wasn’t invited to spring training by any Major League team this year and decided to retire. Given his superb play, Rodriguez would seem to be a shoo-in for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, the first year he’s eligible. However, it’s very likely Rodriguez won’t get into the Hall of Fame in 2017 and it’s possible he’ll never get a plaque in Cooperstown.

Why? Only God knows.

Those three words were uttered by Rodriguez in 2006, when a reporter asked him if he tested positive for steroids in 2003, the first year Major League Baseball tested for the drug (the tests were meant to be an anonymous survey and the names of the players who tested positive have never been released publicly). In his 2005 book Juiced, admitted steroids user Jose Canseco claimed he injected Rodriguez with steroids when they were teammates with the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s, a claim Rodriguez has denied.

A cryptic answer to a question and a book passage not backed by corroborating evidence are circumstantial evidence, at best. However, such evidence is enough for many of the Baseball Writers Association of America writers with Hall of Fame votes to keep Rodriguez off their ballots. Heck, players have been kept out of the Hall of Fame based on even less; Jeff Bagwell, who had an outstanding 15-year career as the Houston Astros first baseman, has been eligible for Hall of Fame enshrinement for two years and has yet to come close to getting the required 75% of the vote because of “whispers” that he may have used steroids. In other words, I could make up a rumor about a great player using steroids and, if that rumor gains enough steam, it could be enough to keep that player out of the Hall of Fame.

Rodriguez and Bagwell both played during the 1990s and early 2000s, a stretch of time that will forever be known as the Steroid Era in baseball; testing was nonexistent and fans, media and Major League Baseball looked the other way, deciding to ignore the rapidly changing physiques that hinted at the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Without question, Major League Baseball should have instituted mandatory drug testing sooner and the media should have paid more attention to why muscles were bulging and home run records were falling at an unheard-of pace. But, history can’t be rewritten. Just as we don’t look down on all of the great Major League ballplayers who competed before integration or pitchers who achieved success largely by scuffing and doctoring baseballs with foreign substances before the practice was banned, we shouldn’t shun those who played in the Steroid Era. Indeed, steroids are illegal in the United States, but that’s immaterial; since baseball didn’t test for steroids, they were implicitly permitting their use. Some believe the Major League Baseball powers that be knew what they was doing; the rise in home runs – especially the legendary pursuit of the single-season home run record by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 – helped increase attendance after a debilitating strike that created ill will and wiped out the 1994 postseason and shortened the 1994 and 1995 regular seasons. So, why attempt to curtail an activity that may be one of the principal reasons business is booming?

This is different from Pete Rose, Major League Baseball’s all time leader in hits, being excluded from the Hall of Fame. Rose, who was banned from the sport for life after it was found he violated a long-standing rule by betting on baseball games, isn’t even allowed on the ballot. A year before he was eligible for enshrinement for the first time, the Hall of Fame passed a rule prohibiting anyone on baseball’s ineligible list from being considered for election. Whether Rose should be in the Hall of Fame has been taken out of the voters’ hands. However, it would be impossible and/or unfair to unilaterally ban all Steroid Era players from being considered for enshrinement, because it’s difficult to know for certain who did and didn’t take steroids during that era and many of that era’s deserving players who never took a performance enhancing drug would be shut out because of the misdeeds of their peers.

I kind of understand BBWAA members not voting for McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Rafael Palmeiro; all those players have either admitted using steroids, were found to have used steroids after an extensive investigation or tested positive for steroids, so there is more than just hearsay or circumstantial evidence that they juiced. But, I’d even vote for those players; why penalize anyone simply because of the era in which he played? If a player was one of the best in his era, he should be in the Hall of Fame, regardless. Baseball players have been looking for a competitive edge over the game’s entire history and can’t be expected to regulate themselves, especially when millions of dollars are at stake. It’s up to those in charge to make decisions that level the playing field and account for player safety in a reasonable fashion, and those in charge dropped the ball during the Steroid Era. Therefore, players who achieved success during that era shouldn’t be punished because of their bosses’ lack of oversight when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. It shouldn’t be up to the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame-voting members to determine who did the right things off the field and who didn’t. It shouldn’t be up to the baseball writers to determine what’s morally and ethically acceptable in the game.

After all, they’re writers. Not God.

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