Monday, July 25, 2016

The Other Other Griffey

MIKE PIAZZA teared up during his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech yesterday.
The 1994 Jacksonville Suns

Ken Griffey Jr., who followed him to the podium, cried early and often during his address. In the audience, Ken Griffey Sr. wept openly while his elder son talked about a lifetime lived among big league ballplayers, first surrounded by his father's teammates on the mid-1970s Cincinnati Reds team known as the Big Red Machine and later with the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves, then in his own right.

One person who the camera did not catch crying, even as his more famous brother acknowledged him, was Craig Griffey, a 42nd round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners who never made it to the big leagues.

Genetics can be capricious and cruel. For every Joe, Dom and Vince DiMaggio, or Ken and Bob Forsch or Phil and Joe Niekro, baseball history is replete with would-be rival siblings, only one of whom was kissed by that biochemical fate that makes somebody a star.

Admission: $3
Think Tommie Aaron, younger brother of Hank, or pitcher Mike Maddux and his younger and 355-game-winning-brother, Greg,  or Larry Yount, who appeared in just a single game for the Houston Astros while little brother Robin had a Hall of Fame career with the Milwaukee Brewers.

If the question about Ken Griffey Jr. was ever nature or nurture, clearly nature has the edge as Craig Griffey -- less than two years the younger -- likely had many of the same experiences and exposures.

Craig rose no higher than AAA, having a cup of coffee at the end of his career with the Mariners' affiliate in Tacoma, the Rainiers. Three games, three at bats, one hit -- a triple. For the bulk of his career he played at the AA level, batting .212 with five homers, 108 runs batted in and 67 stolen bases, falling short of the show.

The numbers of late August
By happenstance I saw him play for the Jacksonville Suns at the end of August 1994, as the Major League Baseball strike consumed the balance of the big league season. Also watching from the stands that day, then-Mariners manager Lou Piniella. On a team that included future Seattle pitcher Derek Lowe, catcher Chris Widger and other prospects, Griffey-the-younger was hitting an inconspicuous .224.

Still, he was a professional ballplayer, which is more than most of us can say. It's certainly more than I could say.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Where No Man Has Gone Before

August 1976
STAR TREK BEYOND opened Thursday night.

It's the 13th movie in a 50-year-old franchise... blah blah blah.

So what? Why do we care? Why should we care?

Here's why:

Before it became a reliable cash machine, a source of blockbuster movies (which really only began with the 2009 reboot), it was a means of imparting a message.

The message was about a particular type of future, a future where we could surmount our earthly difficulties, a future where people of different nationalities, races and species could peaceably co-exist.

Because of that ability to put aside those differences, those better versions of us were able to build faster-than-light spaceships, powerful portable computers and tiny flip-top radios. They figured out how convert matter to energy, transmit it across great distances and reassemble it into the people or things they'd deconstructed in the first place.

Dec. 22, 1986
The U.S.S. Enterprise traversed star systems, meeting beings hostile and friendly. People fought. People died. Some episodes in the original series and its five sequels were downright silly.* Others were profound.** Most of them were memorable.***

They all made us think about impossible things. Warp drive? Transporters? Time travel? We still don't have any of those things, but we WANT them. Those pocket-sized communicators? We got 'em.

Star Trek helped us to aspire.

This newest movie comes 47 years after the United States first put men on the moon. Star Trek, the original series, was conceived amid our struggle to get there. Incredibly, regrettably, after just three years and six missions, we quit.

We quit trying to go anywhere really.

The U.S.S.R. put the first man in orbit in 1961 -- 55 years ago -- the U.S. matched the feat nearly a year later with John Glenn's historic flight. So, we mastered that trick a long long time ago. But that's really all we do now. We put folks up in the International Space Station and subsequently bring them home, generally without incident. And hardly anyone gives it a second thought.

Aug. 31, 1991
Meanwhile, fostering the unity of people within countries and across boarders seems as improbable as visiting Alpha Centauri.

We need Star Trek.

Not the dark, J.J. Abrams-infused version (though I'll certainly see the new movie and the new series CBS says it'll roll out next year) but the original concept, the one that filled us with hope and awe, the one that made us want "to boldly go where no man has gone before," and to want to go there together.

* Spock's Brain, where a mysterious woman boards the Enterprise, surgically removes the Vulcan's gray matter and uses it to power her civilization

** City on the Edge of Forever, where Dr. McCoy, accidentally overdosing on a powerful drug, goes back in time and changes history. Kirk must ensure his girlfriend dies to set things right. Also, The Inner Light, where an alien probe knocks out the Next Generation's Captain Picard. He regains consciousness living somebody else's life.

*** Yesterday's Enterprise, a rip in the space-time continuum sends a past version of the Enterprise into the future, changing everything that happened after it left.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When Gary Rajsich Rescued Baseball

GARY RAJSICH ROCKED the summer of 1981. Alright, half of it. But he rocked it really well.

"Who the hell is Gary Rajsich?" you ask?

Short answer: He was, for a brief time, the best home run hitter in professional baseball.

Our hero, from the Mets' 1982 Team Photo Album
The somewhat longer explanation is as follows:

Rajsich (it's pronounced RAY-sitch) was a sixth year minor-league ballplayer who had his best pro season just as Major League Baseball's players went on strike. From June 12 to Aug. 8, big league ballparks sat empty and unused as labor and management duked it out over the now somewhat arcane issue of free agent compensation.

Darkness descended. Gary Rajsich shined in the void.

It was his good fortune to play for the Tidewater Tides, AAA affiliate of the then not-significantly-better New York Mets, who acquired him at the end of spring training from the Houston Astros. With big league baseball on the blink, ESPN, the Sporting News and those who made their living covering the art of hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely needed a story.

They found it in Norfolk, Virginia where our hero was quietly slugging away. By mid-June, Rajsich had 20 homers, more than anybody in baseball.

At just that moment, the Tides were set to play the Columbus Clippers, who just happened to be the top farm club of New York Yankees, setting up the International League equivalent of a subway series (in an era when inter-league play was something reserved for the World Series). In the absence of major league programming, the mid-June contests would be broadcast back to New York by the teams' big league announcers.

Suddenly Rajsich -- a virtual unknown when the MLB strike began -- was the biggest baseball story in the land.

The '81 Clippers were stocked with future Yankees: burly slugging first-baseman Steve "Bye-bye" Balboni, slick shortstop Andre Robertson and -- for seven starts -- that season's American League Rookie of the Year, Dave Righetti.

The Tides had, well, Rajsich, plus future Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, future San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, future Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage (what is it they say about those who can't do?), plus Mike Howard, whose 1983 opening day start in right field for the Mets, behind the returning Tom Seaver no less, would be his last major league appearance.

Rajsich did his part in a June 22 contest won by the Tides, 8-7, clubbing a three-run homer, his 21st on the year.

He would crack just three more before his season of wonder abruptly ended nearly a month later with a broken wrist sustained in a home plate collision. Rajsich's stats to that point: 74 games, 253 at bats, 70 hits, 11 doubles, 1 triple, 24 homers and 56 RBIs. Not bad for a half-season's work. Balboni would win the IL's home run crown. He and Rajsich would make the league's All Star team.

From the Mets' 1982 yearbook, a tale of promise

More importantly, the outburst put him on the team's radar and merited a promotion to varsity the next year, joining a perennially-rebuilding roster that included Dave Kingman, George Foster, Ellis Valentine and Mookie Wilson. There, the 27-year-old rookie struck just two home-runs, one of which came in the same game as a highlight-reel catch. By 1983, he'd back at Norfolk, stroking 28 more round trippers while being passed on the organizational depth chart by Darryl Strawberry.

He'd hit just one more big-league homer for the Mets -- and for his career -- before being sold the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984, then shipped to the Giants the following year as part of a package exchanged for slugger Jack Clark.

Today, Rajsich is scouting director for the Baltimore Orioles. But for a brief shining moment 35 years ago -- during the ruined Major League Summer of 1981 -- he was The Man.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Star Fleet Guide to Playing Doctor

I WAS A STRANGE CHILD. Or at least that's what I thought.

Before there were a dozen movies*, five spinoff TV series and their 646 episodes, before Star Wars, before Skylab fell from the sky, before Al Gore invented the Internet, there were just unassociated nerdy kids like me and the odd places we went to get our Star Trek fix between broadcast reruns on New York's WPIX, channel 11.

Strange yes, but evidently not alone. Even back in the mid-1970s -- against a backdrop of Gerald Ford trying to W.I.N., leisure-suited Steve Austin running incredibly fast but in slow motion and America's Bicentennial -- there were others like me who had the need for warp speed.

We found it at the local bookstore.

Hortas, Andorians, etc.
all for just 95 cents
Spock gets it on.
Say what?
Two Spocks, for the
price of one paperback.

In the beginning there was Bantam Books' serialized adaptation of the 79 episodes of what my people reverently refer to as The Original Series. That was indeed only the beginning. Amid those 12 volumes, their author/editor, James Blish popped out one of his own: Spock Must Die.

Wait! What? SPOCK MUST DIE??? Well, that was a must read.

So was Bantam's next Star Trek-based work of original fiction, Spock, Messiah! (in which our hero reportedly has sex!)

A conjectural super-starship...
with three warp engines!
My virgin eyes! I'd not even kissed a girl (though remarkably, improbably, I would do so just two summers later at the age of 12).

Tom Clancy-like, I retreated to realm of hardware and theoretical technology. If boys like me wanted to live in a make-believe world, long-time SciFi publisher Ballantine Books was more than happy to furnish it: The Star Fleet Technical Manual.

Trekkie wonderland in a very official-looking vinyl slipcover with gold leaf lettering. A compendium of United Federation of Planets peace treaties, star maps, phaser schematics and everything I ever wanted to know about the U.S.S. Enterprise and other ships of the fleet. According to the manual there were hundreds. Who knew?

Soon to follow, official Starship Enterprise blueprints. From the bridge (it has a bathroom!) to sickbay, to the shuttle bay to ship's laundry. Not real? Who cares! To my nerd brain, this was the essence of cool.

The Enterprise bridge had a bathroom... it's there, just below the midline on the left.

Actually some people did care... about me,  about proper socialization and so-called normalcy. Well meaning friends who distracted me with Mets games and stickball, street hockey and FM radio. And girly magazines.

For their patience, I owe them a debt of gratitude. I came along only grudgingly.

In 1977 Ballantine published the Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, a companion to the Technical Manual for those of us whose favorite character was Dr. McCoy. You could learn a lot from a book like this, how to give first aid to a Gorn, reproductive habits of Vulcans and tribbles and some basic facts about humanoid biology.

But nothing about that mysterious species known as "girls." For that I would need to look elsewhere. It was time.

* Soon to be 13 with the scheduled July 22 release of Star Trek Beyond.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Of Doc and Darryl

DARRYL AND DOC. Doc and Darryl.

Demigods and heroes upon which we Mets fans of the 1980s projected all of our hopes and dreams. Darryl Strawberry, who arrived first in 1983, was going to be part Ted Williams, part Willie Mays, a colossus whose silky swing propelled baseballs into orbit. Twenty-six in his freshman year, to go along with 74 runs batted in and a .257 average.

Naturally, he was the National League's Rookie of the Year.

Oct. 18, 1988
Teen-aged Dwight Gooden arrived the next spring, firing fastballs and spinning curves en route to 17 wins, 276 strike-outs and the Mets' second straight Rookie of the Year award. The next year he was even better, 24-4, 268ks, 1.53 ERA and the N.L. Cy Young Award.

The following year, -- 1986 --amid the Mets' first world championship since their miracle of 1969, it all began to come apart. 

When this New York Magazine issue hit the stands in October 1988, the man called Dr. K. had already been through drug rehab and the Mets had returned to the playoffs after a 100-win season, during which they swept their National League Championship Series opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Unimaginably, unknowably, the end was near. The Dodgers pushed past the Mets, taking the series in seven games, on their way to humbling the Oakland A's. Kirk Gibson was the hero that year, not Darryl, not Doc, not anyone who wore a New York uniform. The team wouldn't return to the post-season again for 11 years, by which time Strawberry and Gooden -- battling drugs and other ailments -- had gone on to other glories, ironically, with the New York Yankees.

Tonight, they're the subject of an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary. 

What might have been. What could have been.

Follow me on twitter @paperboyarchive.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The All Star Game That Nearly Wasn't

THEY RIPPED THE HEART right out of the baseball season. You'd think more people would remember.

Memory is a funny thing. Collective memory even more so. Bigger events often overwhelm their smaller, yet significant, antecedents. And so it was that the Major League Baseball job action that destroyed the entirety of the 1994 season came to eclipse the previously unprecedented strike of 1981.

The Late Summer Classic
But, 35 years ago, coming off a thrilling 1980 season that saw the Philadelphia Phillies win their first World Series -- the image of reliever Tug McGraw exultant after fanning the Royal's Willie Wilson for the final out still vivid -- the dark clouds of labor discord gathered.

Free agency was a mere five seasons old. Owners tiring of losing top stars for no return whatsoever demanded some form of compensation. The players' union, sensing a backdoor means of impeding their hard won player movement, refused to go along.

On June 12, 1981, they walked out. Baseball's cathedrals went dark, empty and unused, while standings and stats sat frozen in time.

Billy Martin's Oakland A's led the American League West, the New York Yankees characteristically ruled the A.L. East. Their National League nemeses, the Los Angeles Dodgers, aided by the brilliant rookie left-hander Fernando Valenzuela, ruled the West, while the defending champion Phillies sat atop the East. And sat. And sat. And sat.

The All Star Game, set for July 14 in Cleveland was postponed indefinitely and still the parties remained at loggerheads. More than seven hundred games went unplayed before peace prevailed on July 31, with a limited form of compensation for loss of upper-echelon players.

Those four teams in first place when the walkout began were declared first-half winners, the won-loss records were reset to 0-0 for an unprecedented second-half. But where to begin?

Cleveland, site of the All Star game now rescheduled for Aug. 9, with the regular season to resume the next day.

Team rosters were stocked with players worthy of the contest.

The N.L.'s starting nine featured three future members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Philly's Mike Schmidt at third base, the Montreal Expos' outfielder Andre Dawson and catcher Gary Carter, plus baseball's all-time hits leader, Pete Rose. Among the senior circuit reserves, hall inductees Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Bruce Sutter.

Some of those on the NL ballot...
... and their AL counterparts.

The A.L. lineup was just as good, boasting Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, California Angels' first baseman Rod Carew, Royals third baseman George Brett and Yankees outfielders Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, backed by Hall members Eddie Murray, Rollie Fingers and others.

A nip-and-tuck affair, the game saw the A.L. lose leads of 1-0 and 4-2 before succumbing 5-4 before more than 72,000 fans at the antiquated, cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

Carter blasted two homers, but Schmidt's two-run shot off Fingers proved to be the game winner. The Baltimore Orioles' Ken Singleton had the lone junior circuit clout. Fingers took the loss. The San Francisco Giants' Vida Blue got credit for the win and Sutter, then toiling for the St. Louis Cardinals got the save.

Baseball was back. Sort of. The split season's second half would bear hope, heartbreak, injustice and -- unlike the catastrophic events of 1994 -- at least a championship.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Washington's 70 Years of Mostly Bad Senators*

"FIRST IN WAR, FIRST IN PEACE and last in the American League."

A playful take -- if there is such a thing -- on a eulogy for the first U.S. president, the phrase is credited to baseball writer and humorist Charles Dryden.

His dig was directed at cellar-dwelling Washington Senators of 1904, also known -- if less well remembered -- as the Washington Nationals, not to be confused with the latter-day Washington Senators or with the current Nationals formerly known as the Montreal Expos.

A new team but the same old story.
Dryden's remark wasn't uncalled for. But for a notable 10-year stretch, the original Washington Senators were bad. Really bad. Historically bad. Mythically bad.  Six-hundred and forty-one games under .500 bad.

They finished last in 1904, last again in 1907 and yet again in 1909. In fact, they finished no better than seventh in the eight-team American League until 1912.

During their six decades in D.C., the Senators landed in the A.L. basement 10 times, finish next to last 14 times and in sixth place nine times.

Their 18 non-losing seasons included just three first place finishes and none after 1933.

Their brief run to respectability, if not consistency, started in 1924 with their lone championship led by legendary pitcher Walter Johnson, outfielder Goose Goslin and a boy genius, 27-year-old player-manager Bucky Harris, Hall of Famers all. They took a back seat to the powerhouse New York Yankee teams of the late 1920s, then rallied for one last shot of glory in 1933, led by two more future Hall members, shortstop Joe Cronin and an outfielder named Heinie Manush.

And that was it for championship caliber Washington baseball, until now.

In 1955, the original Senators went a woeful 53 and 101, inspiring Damn Yankees, a Broadway musical -- and later a movie -- about a Senators fan who made a pact with the devil to deliver a pennant. It was, of course, fiction. Even the uplifting dittyYou've Got to Have Heart couldn't alter the reality: another spate of awfulness during which they'd bring up the American rear four more times in six years.

The born-again Senators claimed
the mantle of their predecessors
And then, after the 1960 season, they left for the land of 10,000 lakes, where they exorcised their demons and were born anew as the Minnesota Twins.

Bereft, the nation's capital received an immediate replacement Senators squad. If the objective was continuity, they were a smashing success.

The Mark II Senators lost at an even faster clip than their forerunners, rolling up a 292-game win-loss deficit in only 11 seasons. They cobbled together just one winning year before being whisked off to Arlington, Texas, and rechristened the Rangers.

Their brief stay, a year shy of two U.S. Senate terms, wasn't without legacies.

Though they began life in the same notch-cornered Griffith Stadium from which the old Senators absconded, in 1962 the neo-Senators moved into the brand-new District of Columbia Stadium.

The first of the multi-use municipal stadiums now ruefully recalled as "cookie-cutter," DC stadium was a bull ring of a ballpark with more than half it's seats located in the upper tiers, distancing fans from the team's dismal performance.

Built in line of sight with the Capitol and the Washington Monument, it featured low-profile stadium lights affixed to a curvy roof over a wavy grandstand. President John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first ball at its inaugural home opener. Seven years later, the ballpark would be renamed for his slain brother, United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The stadium's first star was 6'7", 255-lbs slugger Frank Howard, a/k/a The Capital Punisher, who slammed 237 homers and drive in 670 runs over seven seasons in the capital, twice finishing among the top five vote-getters for A.L. Most Valuable Player.

The Capital Punisher, aka The Washington Monument

If the ad content of a mid-term Senators scorecard is any indication, Washington of that era was town of serious men, having serious discussions, dressed in sharp-brimmed hats and Botany 500 suits. At least some drank hard liquor.

One of those men, attorney and Senators board chairman James Johnston, died of cancer in 1967, a month after the team traded manager Gil Hodges to the New York Mets, whom he skippered to a world championship two years later.

While Hodges was performing miracles, the Senators were being acquired by trucking magnate Robert Short who hired Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams as field boss.

Teddy Ballgame, as he was known -- along with another more colorful nickname -- led the Washingtonians to their only winning campaign, 86-76 in 1969. The next season, they reverted to form, losing 92 games and then 96 in their last D.C. campaign before just over 655,000 paying customers.

The new Senators at the new D.C. Stadium
Low attendance and a resultant lack of revenue prompted Short to sell. When he couldn't find a buyer to meet his reported $12 million asking price, he resolved to relocate to Arlington.

Their final home game, on Sept. 30, 1971 against the no-longer particularly damned Yankees, ended in forfeiture and fiasco as angry diehards from an announced crowd of less than 15,000 stormed the field, preventing the contest's completion.

And that was it for D.C. baseball for the next 34 years.

In 2005, the star-crossed and effectively homeless Montreal Expos settled at DC Stadium as the Washington Nationals, now an entry in the National League's Eastern Division.

In a nod to those erstwhile Senators of the sixties, these new Nats adopted the Frank Howard-era Curly W as their logo, made it their own and took it along to a new ballpark built just for them in 2008.

On Oct. 15, for the first time in their franchise history, and for the first time for Washington since 1933, the capital baseball team won a pennant.

Neither last, nor in the American League, they've rendered Dryden's statement fully inoperative. On Tuesday night, Oct. 22, they'll represent the N.L. in World Series game 1 in Houston.

* First published in July of 2016, this article has since been substantially revised and updated.

-- Follow me on twitter @paperboyarchive