Aug 02

Sad Anniversary For NY Baseball Fans

NOTE: This is a Mets-oriented blog, but I sometimes venture into New York baseball and baseball in general. Today is the sad anniversary of the tragic death of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson. A long time ago, I interviewed Munson’s widow, Diana, about that day a long time ago, It’s not about the Mets, but of a New York baseball icon. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Thanks. John

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It was one of those bitter cold days. The kind where the wind whips your face, where your fingers ache and even your eyelashes hurt.

Diana Munson doesn’t remember the year but recalls the afternoon when she and her husband, Thurman Munson, the captain catcher of the New York Yankees, were running errands in Manhattan and drove into a gas station.

alg-munson-action-jpg“The guy wouldn’t come out, so Thurman got out and started pumping the gas,” Diana said. “He was wearing jeans and a flannel jacket and boots – kind of a typical Ohio guy out of place in New York at the time.”

Diana sat in the car as her husband pumped the gas and a car pulled in behind theirs.

“I remember, the guy said, `Hey buddy, when you’re done with that fill this one up,’ ” Diana said. “If he only knew who he was talking to – he never would have believed it. The cutest thing about this story is he filled it up for him.”

Diana Munson’s voice paused, it softened, it became reflective.

“Those are the things about him that I just loved,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite stories about him. I think about that a lot.”

Her memories are more frequent now as she is reminded of the cruelest day of her life – on August 2, 1979, her husband was killed in a plane accident near their offseason Canton, Ohio, home. It was a Thursday, an off day for the Yankees, and Munson was practicing take-offs and landings in his twin-engine Cessna Citation.

Later that day, he was to meet her at an office to sign papers dedicating “Munson Street” in a nearby housing development. However, Munson was always busy and for him to be running late wasn’t unusual. Diana dismissed it and went to the grocery store and continued home.

“I was unloading the groceries and the people from the airport came to my house,” Diana said, her voice trailing to a whisper.

“Nothing has ever compared to it in my life,” she said of the chill – far more numbing than the one she experienced that day in New York – that ran down her spine.

“I’ve lost lots of people in my life, but it was the way that it happened. You’re not supposed to lose someone who is that young. You’re not supposed to lose someone on a beautiful day … not in the middle of baseball season. Thurman was the best father that I had ever watched. Looking at those little kids and knowing what they were about to go through just about killed me.”

Within minutes, the news was on the wire.

Yankees reliever Goose Gossage was getting dressed for a night on the town when he got the call from owner George Steinbrenner. Bobby Murcer was “stunned when I heard the news … I cried a lot at that time.” Yankees first baseman Chris Chambliss was driving with his wife when he heard the news on the radio.

Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, then the manager of the Mets, was in the dugout when the message flashed on the scoreboard.

“It was up on the board,” Torre said. “Just shock. Lee Mazzilli was in the batter’s box. He got out of the box and looked at me, `What do I do?’ It was such an eerie sensation.”

That sensation has never left Diana Munson, but, “it took me a long time to come to peace with this.” Her memories of Munson and the life they shared have softened. Some – like the one at the gas station – have aged like a fine wine.

She remembers a thoughtful husband and loving father to Tracy, Kelly and Michael. Sometimes, she remembers that Munson considered quitting flying. That’s not so pleasant … it gnaws at her. She remembers when she first knew she was going to marry him: “I was 10 years old at the time and I wrote Mrs. Thurman Munson on my notebook.”

Murcer and Gossage recalled Munson’s work ethic, and Diana remembered him getting up at 6 in the morning to caddy at a golf course, then cut lawns before going to baseball practice. She recalls the three-sport star at Canton’s Lehman High School, and that he loved real estate and listening to Neil Diamond.

“My poor children knew every Neil Diamond song before they knew their nursery rhymes,” she said.

She remembers his laugh – “always the loudest one in the room,” she said – and the time he drove to a Brooklyn church from Canton in a snowstorm for a Christmas party to distribute toys to underprivileged children. Munson brought with him the Yankees’ fine money for that season, nearly $5,000.

She remembers for months after his death receiving letters from charities, thanking her for Munson’s generosity. “Believe it or not, there were many that I had never heard of,” she said. “But, that was like him. He never did it for the recognition, he did it for right reasons.”

Sometimes, her memories, like at Old Timer’s Games, drift to the days when Munson was a special baseball player.

The public memories of Munson are of a gruff, grouchy, squat catcher. They are of his feuds with Reggie Jackson – “The straw that stirs the drink” – and Carlton Fisk, the taller, thinner, chiseled catcher for the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankee championship teams of 1977 and 1978 were loaded with stars – Jackson, Chambliss, Graig Nettles and Lou Piniella – but Munson was captain. He was a six-time All-Star and the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1976. He hit .512, .320 and .320 again in his three World Series appearances. He was the 1970 Rookie of the Year and hit over .300 five times.

Nothing meant more to him than being a Yankee captain.

“He loved the Yankees. His heart was a true Yankee heart,” Diana said. “He didn’t want to be captain because whenever you single yourself out like that you feel like you’re not as much a part of the team. He was uncomfortable with that, but at the same time he was so proud of that.”

Munson was the real straw in the drink.

“He was the leader on those teams and everybody knew it,” Murcer said. “We all looked up to him because of his toughness and his ability to produce in the clutch. He had such an uncanny ability to come through when the pressure was on.”

Twenty years later, Yankees catcher Joe Girardi – now the team’s manager – saw for himself when he was channel surfing when on his screen popped the unmistakable image of Yankee Stadium.

“It was Classic Sports, and they were showing the Kansas City game,” Girardi said of the pivotal Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

“I’ve heard a lot about that game and what he did. I wanted to see how he played so I kept watching.”

The series was tied 1-1 and the Yankees trailed 5-4 in the eighth inning when Munson – not normally known as a power hitter – crushed a line-drive, two-run homer off Royals reliever Doug Bird to give the Yankees a 6-5 victory.

Munson was named Most Valuable Player in the series and the Yankees went on to beat Los Angeles in six games in the World Series.

Hall of Famer George Brett played in that game. His Royals and the Yankees were one of baseball’s hottest rivalries in the 1970s.

“We hated the Yankees,” Brett said. “But we also respected them – and we all respected Thurman. He was so tough in the clutch and we feared him because he usually came through. However, the thing I’ll remember most about Thurman wasn’t that home run, but of something that happened in a fight we had against them.

“I slid hard into third base and Nettles and I started shoving each other. The benches cleared and it got real ugly. I remember being on the ground and Thurman was on top of me. I thought, `Uh, oh, he’s going to crush me,’ but all he did was whisper in my ear, `Don’t worry George, I won’t let anything happen to you.’ ”

Diana Munson said she gets sad when she returns to Yankee Stadium because it’s a reminder of what was and what could have been. It will be emotional for her tomorrow when she returns as the Yankees honor Munson on the anniversary of his death. The feelings will be a mix of pain and pride when she goes into the clubhouse and sees Munson’s locker that remains intact in his honor.

When the fans cheer her, they will be cheering their memories of her husband as a Yankee. But, if she hears it, she’ll love the Brett story, because it’s an appreciation of the man she loved – and always will.

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Apr 15

Major League List: First African American Players By Franchise

On this date in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. All players will wear Robinson’s No. 42 in today’s games.

The following are the first black players for each Major League team. Note: The list does not include those expansion teams (such as the Mets) formed after 1961 when baseball had become fully integrated.

The Mets are in Cleveland today to play the Indians, whose first African-American player was Larry Doby, who followed Robinson by less than three months, but faced the same obstacles. After his retirement, Doby became an executive for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets in 1979.

The List

Dodgers: Robinson, April 15, 1947

Indians: Doby, July 5, 1947

Browns (became Orioles): Hank Thompson, July 17, 1947

Giants: Monte Irvin and Thompson, July 8, 1949 B

Braves: Sam Jethroe, Braves: April 18, 1950

White Sox: Minnie Minoso, May 1, 1951

Athletics: Bob Trice, September 13, 1953

Cubs: Ernie Banks, September 17, 1953

Pirates: Curt Roberts, April 13, 1954

Cardinals: Tom Alston, April 13, 1954

Reds: Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, April 17, 1954

Senators (became Twins): Carlos Paula, September 6, 1954

Yankees: Elston Howard, April 14, 1955

Phillies: John Kennedy, April 22, 1957

Tigers: Ozzie Virgil, Sr., June 6, 1958

Red Sox: Pumpsie Green, July 21, 1959

ON DECK: Mets Need To DH Wright In Cleveland

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Apr 05

Where Did Opening Day Go?

We all know Major League Baseball scuttled tradition years ago, but did it have to do away with common sense, also?

At one time, baseball owned the first week of April with Opening Day, with the season traditionally starting in Washington and Cincinnati – the nation’s capital and the city of the sport’s oldest franchise. Those traditions made baseball unique. That disappeared awhile ago, but baseball still had the sense to open up after the NCAA Championship game.

However, the National Football League wrestled the concept of Opening Day away from baseball with the scheduling of the Super Bowl champion the Thursday before the first weekend. But, even before then Major League Baseball started doing screwy things that ruined how special Opening Day is … or was. Both the Mets and Yankees opened the regular season in Japan, then returned to the United States to play exhibition games. That’s beyond stupid.

Then it started opening games on Sunday night between the Final Four and the Championship game. But, with the nation’s attention focused on basketball, does this really make sense?

Ideally, Opening Day should be on the Tuesday after the hoops game, when, as Johnny Bench recently said, it could be a de facto national holiday with baseball owning the attention of the national sporting world.

However, in addition to the starting date, the scheduling of the teams has been far from ideal.

You all know how I feel about interleague play, but really on Opening Day? It is absurd, and for no other reason the high probability of poor weather postponing games.

If not the opener, then the rest of the series makes re-scheduling a rainout difficult because the team won’t come back. And, that argument applies to more than interleague games. Too many times teams make only one visit to a city because of the unbalanced schedule caused by interleague play.

Given that, does it make sense to have two cold-weather teams, such as Boston and Cleveland (which was postponed Monday) play each other? For that matter, why have two dome teams (Toronto played at Tampa Bay) or two warm-weather teams, such as the Dodgers and Padres, playing each other out of the gate?

I realize warm-weather and dome teams don’t want to schedule high-draw teams such as the Yankees, Mets, Cubs and Red Sox early in the season because they want to save those games for later in the summer.

However, it doesn’t have to be every year.

What makes the most sense is to schedule within the division because if those games are rained out they are easier to re-schedule because a team will make two more trips to that town.

Look, I understand it will never be the way it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.

Of the 15 opening series, there were only five divisional match-ups, and two of them included Dodgers-Padres and Blue Jays-Rays.

This is just not smart. It seems that not being smart is one tradition Major League Baseball will not abandon.

ON DECK: No way Royals will retaliate against Syndergaard.

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Jan 31

Time To Evaluate All All-Star Games

Good morning. On this bright and sunny – but cold – Sunday morning. Plenty of snow despite the sun. On this last day of January, with the Super Bowl a week away, what better time to talk about the All-Star Games, in all sports?

With the NHL and NFL All-Star Games today it got me to thinking – as I usually do – about the nature of the All-Star Games. They have become obsolete with no compelling reason to watch any of them. All of the sports, with the exception of football, feature some kind of skills competition the day prior to the game.

The hockey skills are the most interesting, mostly because I don’t see that much hockey. The NBA’s three-point demonstration is far more challenging than the slam dunk competition. Jumping over a car or running the length of the court does nothing for me. The slam dunk show does symbolize what the sport has become, which is a “look at me,” exhibition.

The NBA game itself is a playground game of one-on-one duels broken up by an occasional demonstrations of trick passing, which is to remind us these exceptional athletes can pass when the mood strikes them. Of course, the NBA game wouldn’t be complete without some bitching and moaning from LeBron James, who despite the limited rosters complains because there aren’t three Cavaliers on the team. He especially notes the absence of Kyrie Irving, who had played in all but 18 games when the teams were announced.

Then again, this is James, who earlier this week boasted of his “high basketball IQ.” For somebody supposedly so smart, how come he can’t figure out such basic things as roster size, not to mention something so basic as to get along with his coach?

There is no designated skills competition in the NFL game, primarily because there isn’t a headhunting exhibition. The NFL game is the one that should first be abandoned. A player gets fined for skipping the NHL game even with a legitimate injury, which shows the importance the league places on the game. Conversely, seven New England Patriots will skip today’s game in a hissy fit for losing to Denver. Not a peep from the NFL office or the supposedly sophisticated Boston media which goes mostly spineless when it come to the Patriots.

This brings us to the baseball All-Star Game, whose highlight, unfortunately, is the Home Run Derby. Not only do some players bring a malaise to the game, but the idea of making an exhibition game determine something as important as home field advantage in the World Series is beyond stupid.

I hate to be someone who says, “the way things used to be,” but in this case that’s the way it is. From the stuffing of the ballot box (there’s some degree of checks and balances when they limit the voting to only 35 votes, but you can log on under a different screen name and vote again) to the Derby to the home field, the baseball game has lost its meaning.

And, that’s too bad because the All-Star games used to mean something. Part of the reason is the mystery of the other league is gone. Growing up in Cleveland, I rarely got to see the Dodgers or Giants. I used to drive to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, or watch the Mets when my family visited New York. But, that curiosity is gone with the gimmick of interleague play and cable television. These days you can see all the San Diego Padres games you want, whether you live in Cleveland, Alaska or the Congo. The mystery is gone.

This year the Padres will host the game. Last year it was Cincinnati. Next year it will be the Marlins. That’s three National League parks in a row. The game is no longer rotated by leagues, but as a reward for building a new stadium. That’s why the Mets got their game, and Minnesota. Actually, it will be more accurate to say in most cases it is a reward for coaxing the taxpayers to pay for the new buildings (this was not the case with the Mets).

Yet, MLB, like the other sports, puts make-up on their games to hide the ugliness that their All-Star Games have become. But, as the saying does, “if you put lipstick on a pig it’s still a pig.”

But, if I want pig, I’ll eat BBQ ribs. There’s no need to watch any of the All-Star games because there’s nothing compelling about any of them. Too bad, because they used to have value and I used to love watching.

Spring training is 18 days away, so I thought I’d get a head start on my bitching and moaning.

Jun 09

Baseball’s Scheduling A Joke

There probably is if I thought hard enough about it, but for now there are few things more absurd in baseball than its scheduling. While the sport is bent out of shape about the playing time of games, it might be more prudent to come up with a better scheduling format.

Seriously, how ridiculous is it for both the Mets and Yankees to playing at home tonight, against the Giants and Nationals, respectively? The teams were also home the same time for Opening Day and Memorial Day.

Of course, this is the byproduct of interleague play and the unbalanced schedule. Neither of those money-grabbing brain strokes has improved the game or the integrity of the schedule.

At one time, there was an even number of teams in each league and every team played every other team – home and away – the same number of times. They say a baseball season is a marathon, but currently not all teams run the same race. Some run 26 miles, while others run 24 or 28.

It’s just not the same race and that’s wrong. It’s emblematic of a sport without integrity.