Feb 19

My Favorite Spring Training Memories

For a baseball writer spring training can be a magical time. My first was in 1991, when I covered the Orioles. There was also time in Florida with the Yankees and Mets. All produced keeper memories, which flooded back this morning.

Things weren’t as stressful with the Orioles, mostly because there was only three or four writers. We showed up early, got our stories, wrote and played basketball. Larry Lucchino, then the Orioles president, played and chewed me out when I didn’t pass him the ball.

After that, it was usually seafood, a movie or the dog track. One night, Jim Henneman from the Baltimore Sun and his friend, nicknamed “Smoothie,’’ hosted us. We pooled our money and gave it to Smoothie to wager. Just as Smoothie was leaving the table, Rick Vaughn, the PR director of the Orioles, deadpanned: “I can’t believe we just gave all our money to a guy named Smoothie.’’

Another time Mark Maske of the Washington Post and Peter Schmuck of the Sun and I were talking with reliever Arthur Rhodes, who could hit triple digits. Maske asked Rhodes if he were to throw 100 fastballs how many times do you think we’d make contact?

He said, “Maybe 10 to 15. … What about you?’’

I was thinking maybe a foul tip.

But, it isn’t always smooth. Once a delicate story broke in the morning, but worked itself out during the game. Later, the Orioles manager, the late Johnny Oates, told us of the changing development. We were circled around him and he asked if we had a problem changing the story.

Nobody had an issue. When Oates got to me, I simply said, “I guess I have some rewriting to do.’’

What followed was a loud crash when Oates kicked a chair and screamed, “I knew it. I knew you’d be the one to write it.’’

He didn’t get I wasn’t going to print the original version. I simply turned and walked away as there was no purpose getting into it with him in public. As I was leaving the clubhouse, Brady Anderson said, “don’t worry about it, you’ve arrived when the manager rips into you.’’

Another Orioles favorite was Mike Mussina, who passed time with a six-by-three foot crossword puzzle in the corner.

Maybe my most memorable spring was spending nine straight weeks at the Tampa Westshore Marriott during the strike in 1995. It was like being Norm from Cheers, as everybody at the front desk greeted me by name. A supervisor even tried to get me my own parking spot.

The Yankees and Mets are different animals.

You arrive with a plan that often never materializes. In the spring of 1999, I had a plan every morning, but followed through maybe five or six times. That was when Joe DiMaggio died. Then, one day we were writing about Darryl Strawberry’s cancer when a Yankee staffer gave us a release that Joe Torre left the team to be treated for prostate cancer.

That day didn’t end until close to midnight.

That was the spring George Steinbrenner called Hideki Irabu “a fat pussy toad.’’ The Yankees were to fly to Los Angeles that day for an exhibition series with the Dodgers. Steinbrenner huddled with GM Brian Cashman, interim manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre for hours on what to do with Irabu, who triggered it all by failing to cover first base for the second time in as many starts.

The meeting lasted so long the Yankees had pizza delivered to the clubhouse.

I should have known what kind of spring it was going to be when on the first day the Yankees traded David Wells for Roger Clemens.

The Yankees beat was always competitive, made more so by the daily Steinbrenner watch. It was by luck one day I caught him coming in from the parking lot. He answered a couple of questions and then spent ten minutes talking college basketball.

Say what you will about Steinbrenner, but he was colorful and brought something to the table. He could be infuriating, but you had to wait him out. The worst words a Yankees writer could hear on his voice mail was, “John, George Steinbrenner returning your call.’’

You knew you weren’t going to get him a second time.

Meanwhile, Jeff Wilpon, for his part is accessible. Fred Wilpon usually holds court once a spring, and once uttered the words “playing meaningful baseball in September.”

With the Mets, many stories are gathered on the backfields. That was when I met Sandy Koufax. I knew I wasn’t going to get questions answered, but told him of when my dad took me to Shea Stadium and said to me, “you need to see this guy pitch.’’

He asked what I remembered and I sheepishly told him Wes Covington homered and the Mets won. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yeah, I remember that, too.’’

I will always love Koufax for that.

And, I’ll always love the promise of spring training.

Feb 14

Forget NBA, Baseball Still Has Best All-Star Game

For all the tinkering Major League Baseball does with its All-Star Game, it remains superior to the other All-Star Games, including the one we’ll see Sunday night.

Of course, all are commercialized to death, but the baseball edition still is played as a sport. They still play the game, unlike basketball and football, where defense is forgotten and it’s mostly showboating.

Those two are basically pick-up games.

I like the baseball game better because performances have to be earned. It’s also that way in hockey, where not much of anything can be predicted. The batter still has to hit the ball, whereas the basketball game can easily be taken over by a singular player.

In football, with no blitzing, there aren’t many quarterbacks who can’t light up a secondary.

This might sound weird, but one of the reasons I like the baseball game better is that players wear their own uniforms. In that, you get a sense of team. You don’t get in the other games, with the exception of football and their helmets.

Another reason is history.

Selected games in all sports have their moments, but there is a history, a tradition, to the baseball game. Ted Williams’ game-winning homer in 1941 in Detroit; Reggie Jackson going off the light tower, also in Detroit; the 15-inning 1967 game in Anaheim, when pitchers actually pitched, with Catfish Hunter going five innings in relief; Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse; Johnny Callison winning the 1964 game at Shea Stadium; how New York buzzed over Matt Harvey two years ago.

There are so many more, but after awhile the dunks all look the same in the NBA game. And, please, the fashion week adds nothing.

Jul 04

All-Star Game Has Lost Its Way; From Voting Process On Down

Jonathan Papelbon’s dissing the notion of Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig’s being named to the National League All-Star team initially brought a reaction of agreement.

A month in the major leagues, regardless of how spectacular it might be, is not a large enough window.

“The guy’s got a month,’’ Papelbon said. “Just comparing him to this and that, and saying he’s going to make the All-Star team, that’s a joke to me.’’

PUIG: Let him play. (LA Times)

PUIG: Let him play. (LA Times)

Then, the more I thought about it, nearly everything connected with the All-Star Game is a joke, and pretty much has been since interleague play.

The luster from the All-Star Game has gradually worn off because there’s no edge to the rivalry of the leagues. The home run derby was once a novelty, but has gotten boring in much the way the NBA slam-dunk turned on the yawn machine.

Bud Selig’s decision to have the All-Star Game winner determine home field advantage of the World Series was gimmick. Selig knew the game was missing something, so he added that condiment. Kind of like putting ketchup on a piece of meat.

A century of tradition was brushed away by the gimmick of interleague play.

Also falling into the category of gimmickry is the voting process. When the voting was returned to the fans, which violated the privilege by stuffing the ballot box, it was initially as a reward to fans that paid their way into the park.

Ironically, now Major League Baseball encourages fans to stuff the box, but to its credit does observe limitations – you’re now only allowed to cast 35 votes. David Wright deserves to be on the team, but the trumping for his was shameless. There’s a logo in the dirt behind home plate telling fans to vote.  Imagine how tasteless it would have been had they gone through with the link to the dating website. It’s that way in all cities.

Also puzzling is adding a serious tone to the game by having it determine home field in the World Series, yet having each team represented, even if it means adding a player not worthy, which is to not field the best team.

The only team mandated to have a representative should be the host team. After that, there should be no push. If a team doesn’t have a worthy player, why should a deserving player be deprived?

The game has changed, and not for the competitive better. How can there be when Barry Bonds hoists Torii Hunter on his shoulder after robbing him of a homer in Milwaukee? You see that and think of Pete Rose plowing Ray Fosse at the plate and wonder what is wrong with that picture.

Two plays in two eras showing two ranges of emotion.

Starting pitchers would work up to three innings, with no limits when the game went to extra innings. In 1967, in Anaheim, which went 16 innings, Catfish Hunter pitched five innings. Starters such as Brooks Robinson, Tony Conigliaro, Harmon Killebrew and Roberto Clemente had six at-bats.

No longer.

If you weren’t paying attention, then the 2002 game in Milwaukee should have sealed it for you. That was the game called a tie after 11 innings because both teams ran out of pitchers. Also, part of Selig’s legacy.

The teams ran out of pitchers because nobody worked more than two innings.

That was also the year, you might recall, when Sammy Sosa put on a sweat-pouring, steroid-fueled display during the home run derby, then took a limo back to Chicago after he was removed from the game.

Aaah, such memories.

The bottom line is the All-Star Game has long lost its spice and its spot in baseball lore. It doesn’t have that special feel to it any longer. So, if Major League Baseball wants to continue making it a gimmick and surrounding the event with celebrities and novelties, then who why should anybody care if Puig is named.

The only reason Papelbon cares is because he has an old school mentality with a passion about his sport, something the keepers of the game have long since abandoned.

As always, your comments are greatly appreciated and I will attempt to answer them. Please follow me on Twitter @jdelcos

Jul 11

Today in Mets’ History: Seaver gets save in 1967 game.

Tom Seaver starred on this date in 1967 at the All-Star Game in Anaheim when All-Star Games actually meant something and were more than an encore for ESPN’s Home Run Derby.

SEAVER: Gets save in 67 game.

 

As a rookie, Seaver threw a hitless 15th inning to earn the save in the National League’s 2-1 victory. Seaver’s Hall of Fame career included 12 All-Star selections.

An oddity about this game was in that all the runs came on solo homers from third basemen: Philadelphia’s Richie Allen, Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson and Cincinnati’s Tony Perez.

This was a time when the starting pitchers worked at their three innings and there were pitchers available for extra innings. Unlike the disaster game in Milwaukee several years back when Commissioner Bud Selig called it a tie because the teams ran out of pitchers.

In this game, Seaver’s one inning was the shortest stint of the night as all the other pitchers worked at least two innings, with five pitching at least three innings, and Catfish Hunter throwing five as he took the loss. Don Drysdale was the winning pitcher.

BOX SCORE

 

UP NEXT: How spring training issues have been addressed in the first half.