Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ten Weeks Before Bucky 'Bleeping' Dent...

"THE TWO OF THEM DESERVE EACH OTHER. One's a born liar, the other's convicted." --  New York Yankees Manager Billy Martin, July 24, 1978.

Combative Billy Martin,
from the '78 Yanks yearbook
Manager, yes, but not for long. At least not in that instance. The subjects of Martin's airport bar alcohol-fueled ire were his star outfielder, Reggie Jackson, and team owner George Steinbrenner. An unholy trinity, a year earlier they'd collaborated to bring the Bronx Bombers their first championship since 1962. The star burnished his Mr. October legend by closing out the series with three consecutive first-pitch homers in its last game.

But now, just past the halfway mark of a flagging title defense effort, egos clashed, nerves frayed and tempers boiled over. Jackson, mad at Martin for batting him low in the Yankees lineup, ignored his manager's instructions to swing away and bunted into a costly out during an extra-inning game.

The Yanks lost that July 17 game to the Kansas City Royals, 9-7, dropping them a season-worst 14 games behind the arch-rival first-place Boston Red Sox.

But appearances were not as they seemed. Changes significant and petty were afoot in both organizations, harbingers of a dramatic reversal of fortune that made this season the stuff of legend.*

The talkative Eck went 20-8 in 1978...
(from the Sox' 2nd edition yearbook)
Mr. October was suspended five games for insubordination. Upon his return, the star professed his innocence to the press. That touched off a Martin tirade during which he threatened to bench Jackson indefinitely even if it meant his own dismissal.

Hours later, after the Yanks thumped the White Sox, 7-2 in Chicago, the manager offered his fateful unfiltered remarks at an O'Hare International Airport bar before a flight to KC.

Four years earlier, Steinbrenner had pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon's '72 reelection campaign and to obstructing justice. Martin, having just stepped on the boss's third rail, was as good as dead. Forty years ago this Tuesday, he tearfully resigned.

On the day of Martin's demise, the Sox were 63-33, 30 games over .500, enjoying a 5.5 game lead over the second place Milwaukee Brewers, but a slimmer 10.5 game bulge over the Yankees. Portentously, Boston had lost five straight during Jackson's forced sabbatical. (Cue the third-person omniscient: little did they know...)

... while the low key Guidry went 25-3.
(from the Yankees' yearbook)
Three years earlier, led by gold dust rookies Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, the Olde Towne Team had won the American League pennant then lost an agonizing 7-game World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. While the Big Red Machine rolled over the Yankees in four straight the next year, the Bombers rebounded to win it all in '77, the pendulum now appeared Boston-bound thanks in large part to Rice.

The Boston left fielder was on fire. After 96 games, he was batting .322 with 24 homers and 81 runs batted in. He had a .606 slugging percentage and an OPS of .982. Bolstering his presence in the lineup, Lynn, perennial all star catcher Carlton Fisk and aging icon Carl Yastrzemski.

Dennis Eckersley led a starting rotation that included Luis Tiant, Bill "Spaceman" Lee and free agent signee Mike Torrez.

Playing .696 ball -- on pace to win 112 games -- on June 23, the Red Sox fatefully issued a revised 1978 yearbook, swapping out its original cover boy, Fisk, for one celebrating Rice. The second-edition Sox won just 51 more games, a .543 clip. The Yankees from that point played at a .627 clip. The race was on.
A revised yearbook, a reversal of fortune

They had replaced Martin with soft spoken Bob Lemon, who'd led the White Sox to a 90-win season in '77, only to be cashiered in early '78 when the South Side Hitmen got off to a bad start. Bill Veeck's loss was the Boss's gain.

Steinbrenner had his man. Freed from the Jackson-Martin power struggle, the Bombers reverted to championship form, with one notable exception who far exceeded those expectations.

Starter Ron Guidry, who'd gone 16-7 with a 2.82 earned run average and 176 strikeouts in 1977, was now almost unhittable. Amid all the tumult, he'd gone 14-1, with a 2.11 ERA before Martin's departure. He'd finish at 25-3, with a 1.74 ERA and 248 Ks, winning the American League Cy Young Award in a walk and nearly copping league Most Valuable Player honors too.

That MVP award went to Mr. Rice of Boston, who'd hit .315 with 46 homers and 139 RBIs. It was no consolation for what ensued after the yearbook was revised, the star suspended, the manager resigned.

Signed away from the Yankees
only to play a big role in their comeback
(from the Sox' 1st edition yearbook)
Sox fans had long been accustomed to seeing their team swoon. Seventy years removed from their last championship, they'd already endured Enos Slaughter's mad dash in '46, Bob Gibson's dominance in '67 and Ed Armbrister's interference in '75. None of that was adequate preparation for what was to come.

Swoon not withstanding, Boston enjoyed a nine-game lead over New York as late as Aug. 13. But, by Sept. 10, it was gone. Days later the Red Sox were 3 1/2 back with 15 games to play. Then, led by a pair of future hall-of-famers, Yastrzemski and Eckersley, they rallied while the Yanks faltered.

On Oct. 1, the season ended with both teams holding identical 99-63 records, setting up a one-game playoff to determine the AL East division champion. If you're a Sox fan, this is probably your stop. For the rest of you, it went like this:

That game was held on Oct. 2 at Fenway Park in Boston. Guidry, with 24 wins on the year, started for New York, while Torrez -- a 16-game winner who'd been a Yankee 12 months earlier -- went for Boston. After six innings, the Red Sox clung to a 2-0 lead on built on a Yastrzemski homer and an run-scoring single by Rice.

The mild-mannered nightmare of Red Sox nation
(from the Yankees' yearbook)
With one gone in the seventh, Torrez yielded back to back singles, as many as he'd allowed all game. He got pinch-hitter Jim Spencer on a fly to left for the second out, bringing up Yanks' light-hitting, ninth-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent.

Dent hammered a 1-0 pitch off his instep, tumbling to the ground in pain, pausing the game and any momentum Torrez might have carried into that moment for a full minute while New York's trainer applied a numbing agent.

The shortstop stepped back in the box, choked up on his bat and swatted the next pitch he saw into the screen above Fenway's 37-foot high left field wall for just his fifth homer of the year. It gave the Yankees a lead they'd never relinquish and made him persona non grata in New England forever.

* Supplanted as the Yankees' top reliever, when the Yankees signed Goose Gossage, reigning Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle poured his ire into a best-selling tell-all about the '78, titled The Bronx Zoo.

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Last Time the Stars Came Out in Washington D.C.

NOW A DECAYING HULK, the ballpark was then just eight years old. It's summer residents, the Washington Senators, were winning at last. Two days earlier, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the moon. It was party time in the nation's capital and Major League Baseball's best and brightest were coming.
You gotta have balls to play in the nation's capital

The date: July 23, 1969. The event: MLB's 40th All Star Game.  It would be Washington's fourth such affair and its last for nearly half a century. And it couldn't have come at a worse time for the host American League.

It was a time of National League dominance, the likes of which the mid-summer classic had never known. The so-called senior circuit had won each of the last six contests, 12 of the previous 15 and held an overall 21-17-1 advantage since the event's inception in 1933.

This sides for this outing at recently rechristened Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium were decidedly lop. Thirteen NL players were destined for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, five were in the starting lineup including pitcher Steve Carlton and catcher Johnny Bench. The AL squad had just six, battery not included.

Rain had postponed the match for a day. Now, with Richard Nixon off to welcome the astronauts home from Tranquility Base, Vice President Spiro Agnew thew out the first ball. Maybe they should have left him in.

The New York Yankees' Mel Stottlemyre started for the Americans. He immediately yielded a single to the Pittsburgh Pirates' Matty Alou, who'd bat .331 that year. Alou moved to second on ground out by the Chicago Cubs' Don Kessinger. He went to third on a wild pitch, then scored when hometown hero Frank Howard misplayed Hank Aaron's shot to left.

One hot dog and two Franks
The bottom of the first saw the AL send up a gold-plated trio: Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson and Frank Robinson. Hall of Famers all. Carlton set them down in order.

Cleon Jones of the New York Mets led off the second with a single. Bench's two-run belt brought him home. In the bottom of the frame, the 6'7" Howard -- aka the Washington Monument, aka The Capital Punisher -- took Lefty deep for shot of redemption. NL 3, AL 1 after two.

Any good feeling in the home dugout quickly dissipated.

Aaron started the third with a hit off the Oakland A's Blue Moon Odom. Then Cooperstown-bound Willie McCovey homered. An out, an error, a single and two doubles later, the National League had three more runs. Though Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan replied with a solo shot, McCovey cracked his second round-tripper an inning later, this one served up by the Tigers' Denny McLain.

When Freehan's single -- off the peerless Bob Gibson -- drove in pinch runner Reggie Smith in the 4th, the game still had the look of slugfest. The Nationals had three homers and nine runs. The Americans had two taters and three runs. And the game wasn't half over.

Except that it was.

Both sides combined for just three hits the rest of the way, no more than one in any single frame. The Cleveland Indian's Sam McDowell, aka Sudden Sam, fanned four in two innings of work. He was one of three AL hurlers to hold the NL at bay.

Baseball and a tax break
The game ended with that same 4th inning score, 9-3. Knucksie Phil Niekro, he of 318 career wins, got the save.

Some of the senior circuit's gaudiest stars were relegated to just bit parts. Willie Mays pinch hit and skied to right. Ernie Banks pinch hit and lined out. In his lone plate appearance, Roberto Clemente fanned. Pete Rose, destined to be baseball's all-time hits leader and hall of fame pariah, popped out. Tom Seaver, in the midst of a 25-win Cy Young Award season, never pitched.

Each of the junior circuit's future Hall inductees, including Carl YastrzemskiHarmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson, went hitless.

McCovey, with his two homers and three runs batted in, was the game's most valuable player. By season's end, with a .320 average, 45 homers and 126 RBIs was the league's MVP too.

Cleon Jones hit .340 -- third best in the NL behind Rose, .348 and Clemente, .345 -- and caught the final out as the Miracle Mets won the World Series, 5 games to 1, over the Baltimore Orioles. It was their first winning season since their birth in 1962.

Bench and McCovey - two for the Hall
In between the mid-summer classic and the miracle, there would be "Vietnamization" of the war in southeast Asia, the Manson Family murders, Hurricane Camille and Woodstock.

The host Senators, managed by Ted Williams -- aka the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame and Ted Fucking Williams -- were never better, posting an 86-76 record. It would be their only winning season in 11 Washington campaigns.

By 1972, they were gone, relocated to Arlington, Texas, as the Rangers.

Having previously lost the original Senators franchise (sometimes confusingly called the Nationals) to Minnesota, the District of Columbia was left pining for a team to call it's own for 34 years.

In 2005 it got one, the Montreal Expos. They called RFK Stadium their home for three years before moving into the brand new Nationals Park. There the stars will come out again on Tuesday night.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Manny Being Manly - A Minor League Excursion

HE STOOD OUT LIKE a teenager playing tee-ball, a rock-solid minor league slugger who had "can't miss" written all over him.

Independence Day
He was 21-year-old Manny Ramirez and before he was "Manny being Manny," he was Manny being manly. Not just "can't miss," he was impossible to miss.

It was July 4, 1993 -- 25 years ago today -- and I was in Binghamton, New York with my pal Jeff at the second stop of an upstate minor league excursion. A day earlier we'd been at historic Dunn Field in Elmira for some Class A NY-Penn League action.

Now we'd moved up a class, to the AA Eastern League affiliate of the New York Mets. On the B-Mets roster were outfielder Butch Huskey, infielders Aaron Ledesma and Quilvio Veras, plus pitchers Jason Jacome and Pete Walker, prospects all, but none could hold a figurative candle to the big kid on the opposing Canton-Akron Indians.

Long mired in the nether regions of the American League's Eastern Division, the parent Cleveland Indians were on the cusp of a renaissance. Among Ramirez's teammates were future big leaguers David Bell, Brian Giles and Herbert Perry. But that big kid, he stood out.

Two years earlier Manny had been drafted out of George Washington High School, in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan. Emblematic of the changing mosaic of the city, the same school had produced Hall of Famer Rod Carew and in an earlier era, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Ninety feet and a cloud of dust: Ryan Martindale beats the tag of
Andy Dziadkowiec as Julio Peguero, left, and Brian Giles, right, look on.
Ramirez had been a first round pick, 13th overall. The hometown New York Yankees, picking first, selected pitcher Brien Taylor, who injured his arm in a bar fight and never made the majors. Taken right behind Ramirez by the Montreal Expos, slugging Chicagoan Cliff Floyd.

At roughly the halfway point of the Eastern League season, Ramirez was batting a robust .339, pounding out 102 hits in 301 at bats over 77 games. He'd belted 15 homers, driven in 68 runs and even stole two bases.

Giles too was a comer, but his .303 average came with just five dingers and 36 ribbies.

Huskey, 22, a projected slugger for the Mets, had hit 13 homers and driven in 55 runs, while batting just .248. Over the summer he added a dozen circuit clouts and 43 more RBI's, meriting a September call up to The Show.

The numbers, through July 3, 1993
So too did Manny. He'd play just just a dozen more games for the C-A tribe -- hitting two more taters and knocking in 11 -- before being moved up to AAA Charlotte and then the big club, where he took his place among Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton.

Two years later, the Indians, now in the AL Central, went to the World Series for the first time since 1954, starting a run of six first place finishes in seven seasons with a second pennant in 1997.

Ramirez finished runner-up for the 1994 AL Rookie of the Year award, behind the Kansas City Royals' Bob Hamelin and blossom into a perennial all star and most valuable player candidate.

He'd play for two World Series winners too, albeit for the Boston Red Sox, not the Indians and be suspended -- twice -- for using performance-enhancing drugs, the second time ending his career.

That punishment likely killed his Hall of Fame prospects, despite a lifetime batting average of .312, 555 home runs and 1831 RBIs. The drug in question: human chorionic gonadtropin, a not-so-manly female fertility drug also known as HCG, which can also boost testosterone production in men.

Just Manny being Manny.

But about Elmira


An hour's drive west of Binghamton, but a world away, Elmira's Dunn Field Municipal Stadium exists almost out of time, a pre-World War II relic that stands in stark contrast to the B-Mets' utilitarian Binghamton Municipal Stadium, which opened in 1992.

New Marlins and old Pioneers
The old ballpark is nestled alongside the Chemung River. Peering out from the grandstand, past the outfield fence. all one sees are trees and rolling hills. It's as picturesque a place to see a ballgame as exists in this world.

For decades it served as a NY-Penn League or Eastern League outpost, the Elmira Pioneers affiliating with teams including the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, the Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies and, for one magical season, 1969, for the expansion San Diego Padres and Seattle Pilots.

Don Zimmer once played there. The legendary Steve Dalkowski too. So did Rabbit Maranville, Davey Johnson, Wade Boggs and Oil Can Boyd.

The Pioneers and their MLB affiliates,
from the '93 program/yearbook
Nowadays they're mostly remembered as a Boston Red Sox farm club, a relationship that lasted from 1973 to 1992, after which they affiliated with the expansion Florida Marlins, when I saw them take on the Geneva Cubs.

Like a lot of small northern cities, Elmira's population is declining, and with it, its baseball fortunes. After the 1995 season, the team moved to Massachusetts, re-affiliating with the Red Sox as the Lowell Spinners. Subsequent editions of the Pioneers played in the independent Northeast, Northern and CanAm Leagues.

Now they're part of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, which sounds, well, perfect.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive