Dec 17

Cold Weather Has Me Thinking Spring Training

There’s a foot of snow on the ground, the wind chill at 20 degrees, Christmas eight days and the Dolphins crushing the Jets. What better time than this to think about spring training?

Spring training has always been one of my favorite times of the year, for reasons both on and off the field.

From landing in Florida and taking off for the chill that’s still in New York, it’s a great time and a terrific experience.

The best part was the time you could spend with the players. Earlier in his career, the ten minutes David Wright said he’d give you could turn into a half-an-hour with the conversation touching a wide ranging variety of subjects, to playing the bunt, to going to the opposite field, to watching North Carolina play Duke in the ACC Tournament, to dozens of other topics.

I remember a long conversation with Carlos Beltran, who told me of his rookie season while with Kansas City. His eyes watered when he spoke of not being able to speak English.

I used to love talking pitching with Mike Mussina and David Cone, with Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez, with Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom. With Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner.

How great is it to go to work wearing shorts and a windbreaker?

I remember running laps around the fields after practice in Port St. Lucie. That was, until somebody on the grounds crew told me snakes came out at dusk.

Better still was playing basketball after practice, then going out for seafood and a movie. I played a lot of miniature golf and went to the dog track.

You never knew who would show up to spring training. Sandy Koufax was terrific. I ran into him one day told him of the time my dad told me “you have to see this guy pitch.’’ When he asked what game, I sheepishly told him of a game the Mets shelled him at Shea Stadium, 10-4. His response? “I remember that game, too.’’

There were others, too. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

There have been dozens of cross-state drives passing through places like Yeehaw Junction, a truck stop of a town with a population of 240. There is also the long drive across the state on Alligator Alley, named for the obvious reason

It was a lot of fun to sit in the stands behind the plate and talk with scouts.

There was so much more. Countless hours watching the NCAA Tourney … picking my Home Run Derby team with the other writers … eating at hole-in-the-wall barbeque joints. … it is Florida, so good pizza and Italian was hard to find.

By my calculation, I spent over 120 weeks in Florida for spring training. I’m looking forward to going there again next year.

Jan 24

Missing Ernie Banks

This one hurts. Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,’’ passed away last night at 83.

Unquestionably, one of the highlights about covering baseball was meeting the game’s greats from when I first started following the sport. Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver and, of course, Banks.

Mets’ fans, of course, should remember Banks from the 1969 season when he was one of the few likable members of the Cubs. Some might actually have felt sympathy for Banks as he missed the playoffs for yet, another year.

Banks was the longtime face and persona of the Cubs. He was a Wrigley Field fixture who was a pleasant and kind visitor to opposing dugouts. Players loved to shake his hand and listen to his stories.

And, Banks loved to hold court, whether for a group or an individual. If you had a question, or just wanted to say hello, he would greet you and make one feel welcomed.

We’re in an age where too many of today’s athletes prefer to distance themselves from the public that adores them. That was never Banks. People liked him because he genuinely liked people.

The baseball world is a little poorer today without him.

Apr 05

Why It Went Wrong For Lastings Milledge

I will remember it as if I saw it yesterday for the first time.

A sheet of notebook paper, with the words, “Know your place, rook … signed, your teammates,’’ was taped over Lastings Milledge’s locker in the Mets’ clubhouse in old RFK Stadium. This, in the late summer in 2006.

MILLEDGE: Once he burned bright.

MILLEDGE: Once he burned bright.

The Mets were en route to the playoffs and a veteran laden team was rubbed the wrong way by Milledge’s brashness and arrogance. Then-manager Willie Randolph – who reprimanded Milledge several times that summer – ripped down the sign, but knew he hadn’t ripped away the problem.

The Mets labeled it a misunderstanding, and Randolph called Milledge “a good kid,’’ but this clearly was not a misunderstanding with a teammate. It was the accumulation of several incidents that rankled several teammates.

Milledge burst upon the Mets, hitting over .300, was dazzling on the bases and showed a strong arm. He was going to be the next “fill in the blank.’’ Willie Mays? Roberto Clemente?

However, things quickly cooled after his first career homer, when on his way to the outfield he high-fived fans down the right field line in Shea Stadium. Randolph sensed how the Giants seethed in their dugout, especially since he saw some of his own players do the same.

Randolph reprimanded Milledge on the unwritten laws in baseball, but it didn’t take. There were ground balls he didn’t run out and times he didn’t hustle in the outfield. He was flash with the jewelry swinging wildly on the field, but in the clubhouse he often sat buried in his locker wearing headphones or playing a video game.

He came off as sullen and angry and clearly couldn’t be bothered by getting to know his teammates. Or, a baseball legend for that matter. During spring training then-GM Omar Minaya brought Milledge to the Nationals dugout to meet Frank Robinson, but Milledge was came off as being in-different.

Finally, he arrived in the clubhouse in Philadelphia an hour before a day game. Although it was early, the veterans made it in on time. David Wright had enough when Milledge strolled in with sunglasses and an iPod as if he owned the place and told him this wasn’t acceptable.

Wright wouldn’t belabor the issue Opening Day, only managing to say “seniority is big in this game,’’ which is the politically-correct translation for Milledge hadn’t earned his stripes.

Milledge popped into my consciousness today when I learned it was his 28th birthday, an age when he should be in the prime of his career. Instead, Milledge is one of hundreds of baseball prospects given the label of “can’t miss, but eventually did.’’

Seven years ago – the career lifetime of a select few – the Mets had three prized outfield prospects in Milledge, Carlos Gomez and Francisco Martinez. One by one they arrived, fizzled to the point of exasperation and were traded. Not one of them hustled like journeyman outfielder Collin Cowgill.

After turning down several proposals for Manny Ramirez, the Mets eventually traded Milledge to Washington as part of a trade that brought Ryan Church – he of the concussion fiasco – and catcher Brian Schneider. Milledge had his coffee to go with Washington, then Pittsburgh and finally the White Sox before heading to Japan. Milledge had his head-scratching moments in each place, but basically stopped hitting.

At 28, Milledge is still young. It’s about discipline in Japan and if Milledge comes back with a changed attitude perhaps he’ll get another chance. It’s a long way to Japan, and perhaps an even longer route back to the major leagues.

ON DECK: The 73 Series continues with “Ya Gotta Believe” slogan

 

Jan 10

How To Change The Hall Of Fame Voting Process

I read many columns from my colleagues, and was greatly disappointed in those who would not recognize a player on the first ballot, and even worse, those who returned their ballots blank.

As I wrote yesterday, boycotting first timers is an abuse of power. If you truly believe a player merits induction based on his career, then he should be on your ballot the first year.

You can’t legislate whom a voter marks down on his ballot, and history has shown this practice has gone on since the voting began.

Tom Seaver appeared on the highest percentage of the ballots at 98.84 percent. In the all-time rankings of the Hall of Fame inductees by percentage: Ty Cobb (4), Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner (tied 11), Willie Mays (14), Ted Williams (18), and Stan Musial (19).

Did you know, Frank Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Yogi Berra, Bob Gibson and Harmon Killebrew didn’t even receive 90 percent of the vote?

Did you know, before the voting rules changed, that Lou Gehrig received only 22.6 percent of the vote?

How could any of these players not appear on a voter’s ballot?

If you’re a voter and believe a player is worthy, he should not be omitted based on his first year of eligibility. Frankly, that is an abuse of your voting privileges.

Then there is the issue of the blank ballot. You’re allotted ten votes. Send your message against the steroid users all you want, but don’t penalize a worthy candidate with a blank ballot because it changes the percentages. I find it impossible out of all the candidates a voter can’t find at least one player worthy.

A blank vote is a vote of arrogance.

There are voting guidelines, but one should never be to dictate how a member votes. I am disappointed in the first-year and blank ballot voters, but don’t believe they should lose the right to vote based on their God-complex.

What changes would I make in the voting process?

* I would have the Hall of Fame voters identified with their choices. Media members can find out easily enough as to whom the voters chose. I think it should be out front and a condition of the voting.

* Blank ballots should be identified and not count against the percentage of ballots cast. This will eliminate the voter who votes against Barry Bonds and in the fallout penalizes Craig Biggio.

* Identify drug users on their plaques and have their names listed with an asterisk in the record books. Tainted players have tainted records. In my thinking, Hank Aaron and Roger Maris have the career and single-season home run records, not Bonds and McGwire. When I refer to Bonds and McGwire, I’ll say “balls hit over the wall,” and not call them home runs.

Baseball is about numbers and history. Bonds, Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro, not to mention Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, all have careers worthy of induction. We just can’t pretend their careers didn’t exist.

To put a scarlet letter on their careers doesn’t condone their actions, but acknowledges their complete roles in the sport.

Jun 14

Today in Mets History: Mets outlast Maloney.

It was one of those games I had forgotten, but fit in with the wildness and uniqueness of the early Mets. This time they came out on the winning end.

LEWIS: Beats Maloney.

 

On this date in 1965, Cincinnati’s Jim Maloney threw a gem against the Mets with ten innings of no-hit ball and 18 strikeouts. The Mets’ only baserunner came on a leadoff walk to Ed Kranepool in the second. Maloney came out for the 11th inning and gave up a homer to Johnny Lewis, the first batter he faced. He also gave up a single to Roy McMillan later in the inning.

BOX SCORE

Frank Lary pitched eight scoreless innings for the Mets that day, giving up five hits and walking one.

Among the notables who played in that game were Pete Rose, Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson for the Reds, and Kranepool and Ron Swoboda for the Mets.

 

ON DECK: Let’s forget about Santana for this year.