Oct 25

Not On Cubs’ Bandwagon; I Want Indians To Win

While most of the free world wants the Cubs to win the World Series, my feeling is I hope they keep waiting. Maybe not for another 100 years or so, but at least until the Indians win this year.

The essence of the Cubs’ story of frustration is the angst doesn’t seem to end. What will happen if it does? You can make the case Cubs’ fans are identified by all those years of losing. Sometimes their season was over by May. Other times they lost in excruciating fashion. Mets’ fans cheered the collapse in 1969.

Chief Wahoo hasn't smiled since 1948.

Chief Wahoo hasn’t smiled since 1948.

The Steve Bartman game was simply cruel, but after learning of the viciousness of Cubs fans, my sympathy for them faded quickly. ESPN did a wonderful documentary of that incident, that included somebody from their public relations department smuggling him out of Wrigley Field in disguise. For you into trivia: Future Met Moises Alou had a play on the ball hit by another future Met, Luis Castillo.

My heart in this World Series goes to another frustrated franchise – the Indians. They were the team of my youth – Chief Wahoo and all – and their failures weren’t gut wrenching but quite simply they were victims of bad baseball.

When I was 10, I didn’t know anything about political correctness. I only cared about Rocky Colavito, Sam McDowell, Larry Brown and Sonny Siebert. A half-century later, I still wish I didn’t know about political correctness. As if we don’t have other things to be interested in, The New York Times sprawled the tired issue of team nicknames across its sports pages today. Leave it to The Times to take a political stance on the day of the World Series.

My first Indians’ memory was watching them in April of 1965 on a black-and-white Motorola with the rabbit ears placed just right so I could see them beat the Angels on a Leon Wagner homer. “Daddy Wags” they called him. He always had a chaw of chewing tobacco in his cheek. Another thing not politically correct.

My mother saw how thrilled I was and told my dad, “Jim, you need to take John to a game.” He did later that summer, taking me to cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which was originally built to host an Olympics than never came.

It was July 19, when Lee Stange beat the Orioles, 5-0, and Chuck Hinton homered. Years later, when I was covering the Orioles, I got a photocopy of the box score and gave it to my father.

One of my overriding memories was sitting next to my dad in the middle of a long row. Back then the vendors didn’t throw their food, but simply passed it down the aisle and the money was sent back the same way. When my dad handed me the hot dog I had no idea I was supposed to pass it along, so I started eating it.

Look, I was nine years old at the time. How was I supposed to know?

And, how was I supposed to know the Indians would always lose? They won their first ten games to start the 1966 season, then went to Baltimore and lost a doubleheader, 8-2, 8-3. I listened to both games on the radio – the Indians weren’t on local TV often – and I started crying after the second game.

In an effort to console me, my father said, “you know, some boy your age in Baltimore is very happy.’’

That didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense all these years later.

They played a lot of doubleheaders back then, including twi-nighters that started at 5 and usually ended at 11.

On July 25, 1967, they played two in Chicago. I listened to both games and kept score at the kitchen table. The Indians lost the first game, 3-1, when future Met J.C. Martin hit a two-run homer off McDowell, scoring another future Met, Tommie Agee, ahead of him.

I wasn’t happy but decided to stick it out for the second game – all 16 innings.

I thought my patience was going to be rewarded with Duke Sims’ RBI double in the top of the inning. When Ken Berry hit a two-run homer to win, 6-5, in the bottom of the inning off Steve Bailey, whom I completely forgot about until now, I threw my pencil across the room to the background sound of fireworks going off at Comiskey Park.

If I gave it any thought, I wouldn’t have cared about some kid in Chicago being happy. And, sometime next week, I will be very happy if some kid in Chicago cries into his deep-dish pizza.

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Oct 11

With Mets Out, Who Do You Root For?

With the Mets hibernating for the winter, who do you root for in the playoffs? When covering a game or team, I try to be very analytical. But when watching a game where I don’t have a reporting interest, I find myself taking sides. I’ll find a storyline, or a player, or something that makes me pull for one team over another.

What about these playoffs?

Well, two teams – Boston and Texas – are done. Just as well. There’s nothing really compelling about the Rangers, and the Red Sox, frankly, have are boring at times. When they were losing every year, they were the frustrated losers you felt sorry for. However, after winning three World Series, their fans have become insufferable, like they have a sense of entitlement. What other teams does that remind you of?

Let’s look at the field and find that nugget:

Giants: Yes, they’ve won three World Series since 2010, more than most teams have won in a lifetime. The Mets have won only two. But, it is how they play that is attractive. If you were up to 3 in the morning watching Game 3 of their NLDS with the Cubs. They aren’t star based – outside of workhorse Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey – but play as a collective unit. They play baseball the right way, with an attention to fundamentals and hustle. My best friend is a Giants’ fan and I like watching the games with him. They have won ten straight elimination games which is truly amazing. I would like them to send the Series back to Chicago, if for nothing else, to see the panic from Cubs fans.

Cubs: I know their story; they haven’t won the World Series since 1908. I get it, but it isn’t as if this group has been playing for nearly a century. After Steve Bartman, if is hard to empathize with their fan base. On the flip side, I do admire their organization for giving David Wright the third base bag last year after the NLCS. Very classy. But, it’s almost like a badge of honor in how their fan base takes defeat. Outside of Wrigley Field, where is their identity outside of losing. Actually, I think it would be a very cool thing for them not to win until 2018, which would be 110 years between titles.

Dodgers: I’m pulling for a Giants-Dodgers NLCS. That would be historic. That would be run. One of the greatest rivalries in sport highlighted in a Championship series. I’ve met Vin Scully, but he’s not calling the games anymore. Their arrive late-leave early fan base in annoying, but it’s Southern California. What can you do? The Dodgers have some great players to watch, like Clayton Kershaw. Would like to see him break his postseason funk. He’s going today. Of course, you could always root for Chase Utley.

Nationals: You can always root for Daniel Murphy, and I see nothing wrong with that. The Mets have had so many rivals through the years and the Nationals are the current team on their dislike radar. To me, there’s nothing compelling either way that would make me want to either cheer or boo them. Not even Bryce Harper.

Indians: I grew up an Indians fan and watched them struggle for years. This truly is a frustrated fan base. I have a good friend who works for the Indians, plus I have all those years going to that big, empty stadium. I still have the boxscore from the first game my dad took me to, plus that memory of he taking me and my brother out of school for Opening Day. I used to take a tape recorder and sit in the upper deck and do play-by-play.  Often I had an entire section to myself. Rocky Colavito, Sam McDowell, Ray Fosse, Sonny Siebert, Luis Tiant. Those were my guys. Plus, Cleveland Stadium had the world’s greatest mustard. Like the Giants, they also have a lot of players under the radar who play the right way. Credit Terry Francona. It’s good to see him back in the playoffs after he was unfairly run out of Boston.

Blue Jays: When I covered the Orioles and Yankees, Toronto was one of my favorite spots on the tour. Love that city. And, they are the only franchise I know that has their own song that they play during the seventh-inning stretch. The Canadian version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”  Nice fans, except for the moron who threw the beer can. How can any team sell beer in cans these days with the high jackass factor? The Blue Jays are a fun team to watch. Their World Series teams in 1992 and 1993 were underrated on the all-time greatness meter. This is a very good team with a lot of great players. Could either Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista be future Mets if Yoenis Cespedes leaves?

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Oct 10

Revamping The Playoff System

The Mets are gone, but I’m still watching the playoffs. I can’t help it as I am a baseball team first and foremost. The Division Round hasn’t been pretty with one series over and possibly another two ending today.

Only Dodgers-Nationals is assured of lasting beyond today. I have no animosity towards the Nationals and Daniel Murphy. The Nationals are a rival now, but what about in two years? The Mets’ rival changes from year to year. Next season it could be the Braves again … they are a lot better than people think and almost knocked the Mets in the end.

I’m sure MLB is already thinking of ways to liven up the wild-card game and Division Series. It’s only natural to assume something is wrong, but in what ways? Can you really say the wild-card drains the teams? The Blue Jays swept the Rangers, and if Madison Bumgarner does it again tonight, the Giants could tie the Cubs tomorrow.

Here’s what I would change:

Wild-Card Game: I’m not crazy about the wild-card game, but since it is a money-maker, it will continue. My objective would be to shorten the playoff format to avoid playing in November. We don’t need one with a month that has baseball in the beginning and Thanksgiving at the end.

Some want the wild-card to be a best two-out-of-three, but that practically guarantees November. If you go there, with possible rainouts you are assured of playing baseball in November.

One thing I would change about the wild-card game is the way it is telecast. With the networks having sub-networks, have a national feed and one using the announcers of each team. I would have liked to have heard Gary-Keith-Ron do a playoff game. I would have also liked to have listened to the San Francisco feed of Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper.

When NBC had the broadcast rights years ago it sometimes used the team’s announcers for an inning each.

Division Series:  I loved the first Friday of the Division Series when there was baseball from noon to midnight. It reminded me of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I understand the networks want a game every day and don’t want the games to conflict, but MLB needs to do away with the present format.

Let all the games of the Division Series be played the same day. Play both wild-card games on the Tuesday after the end of the season (Monday left open for tie-breaker games). Wednesday would be a travel day for the NLDS, with all four series starting Friday. Games 1 and 2 would be Friday and Saturday, with Sunday off as not to conflict with football. (MLB shudders at the idea of competing with the NFL). Sunday is a travel day, with Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday would be travel with Game 5 on Thursday.

Championship Series and World Series formats: Both go with a 2-3-2 format, which I don’t like. It gives the lower seed a distinct advantage and neutralizes the benefits of having a better regular season record. If there’s going to be a home field advantage, then make it a real one.This year’s World Series gives the American League the added advantage of not only having the extra game at home but getting the three middle games.

This year’s World Series gives the American League the added advantage of not only having the extra game at home, but the three straight middle games on the road. One more time: Get rid of the All-Star Game gimmick of the winner having the home field advantage in the World Series.

MLB tried to emphasize the element of fairness when it had all of Sunday’s games start at the same time. So, why not carry the premise the whole way?

Go 2-2-1-1-1. This year there are two California teams that could make for up to four cross-country flights in both series. It would mean extra travel days for both series, but do it in the interest of putting the best product on the field. Players always play tired and injured, but doesn’t the public deserve to have rested players whenever possible?

This year, if the World Series goes seven games, it could end – barring rainouts through – November 2. Either do away with the wild-card round or shorten the season, but playing into November is ridiculous. I understood it in 2001 as the playoffs started later because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I knew then that when the World Series touched Novermber that was no turning back.

Here’s how MLB can shorten the season by one week and move up the playoffs: The system is out of whack because of interleague and the unbalanced schedule. Since that won’t change, I would schedule one doubleheader a month for each team.

But, John, the owners don’t want to give up the extra gate, so what then?

Glad you asked. Schedule one day-night doubleheader a month with a division opponent. Since you’re playing your division 19 games each year – also backwards because of the uneven number of home games against that opponent – there’s plenty of wiggle room.

With six months in a season, that’s six extra days. If done correctly, that would mean for extra off days during the season. The players I spoke to don’t like day-night doubleheaders,  but would go with this plan because of the extra off days during the season.

That’ not the only tweaking I would do.

Umpiring: There are six umpires during the playoffs but only four in the regular season. Playing under different conditions than in the playoffs make no sense. MLB has plenty of money to afford six-man crews during the regular season. MLB wants to do it, as they say, to get it right? But, isn’t getting it right important during the season, also?

Can you imagine there being two additional refs for the NFL or NBA playoffs? I’m against inconsistency.

Instant replay: There are still flaws that need to be worked out. I’d rather have an umpire in the press box who can signal down he is reviewing a call. In could save some time. Along those lines, the reviewing umpire has 90 seconds to either confirm or overrule a play. If he can’t decide after 90 seconds, the original call stands. It’s not all that hard.

Rules: Tell me, does it make sense for the leagues to play by different rules? Of course, that brings us to the designated hitter. Play with it, play without it, I don’t care. Just make it the same for both. Again, it’s not all that hard, especially with the DH being used in high school. Does anybody know it they have the DH in Tee Ball?

I spoke with an American League general manager who hates interleague. He said the fastest and surest way for change is to have an American League manager in a National League park say he’ll use the designated hitter, and if the umpires don’t like it he’ll forfeit the game.

Sure, it is drastic, but pushing the issue is the only way it will be solved. When it comes to talking about it, we’ll have the same conversation in ten years. We’ve had the DH since the 1970s – take a bow, Ron Blomberg – but it was supposed to be a three-year experiment. I think interleague was supposed to be an experiment, too.

One edict Commissioner Rob Manfred could issue is to tell both teams in an interleague game that the American League team play by whatever rules it is comfortable with.

Of course, the AL team would opt for the DH, but can you imagine the NL team – that doesn’t have a Noah Syndergaard or Bumgarner – letting their pitchers hit just for the sake of the rule? I surely wouldn’t put a weaker team on the field if I didn’t have to.

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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


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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