Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blinded by the Shining Star of Fame

--"Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy."--F. Scott Fitzgerald--

     In the wake of the Freeh Report regarding the events and the cover-up by the so called leaders at Penn State University, F. Scott Fitzgerald's quote has once again been proven to be true.  For decades at State College, Pennsylvania Joe Paterno was placed upon a pedestal that many considered to rival a God.  He was considered to be all that is good in not only football, but in competitive sports as a whole.  Little did everyone know how dangerous putting a mere mortal on such a huge platform could be.  Once a hero, now a great tragedy.
   The tragic stories of heroes expands far beyond the the boundaries of Central Pennsylvania and can be found in all sports, everywhere.  In baseball, who could forget Lenny Dykstra and "Charlie Hustle" with their regularly dirty uniforms, and equally dirty personal lives.  Then there were the young phenoms in Flushing, New York.  In the mid-1980's Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden seemed to be on the fast track to Cooperstown.  Young fans from all parts of the country dreamed of hitting towering homeruns like Strawberry, or firing a fastball by the league's best hitters, like Gooden.  Both players received Rookie of the Year honors, Strawberry in 1983 followed by Gooden in 1984, and then further captured the hearts of the entire city of New York by helping the Mets win the 1986 World Series over the Boston Red Sox.  The Championship trophy was presented to the heroes of New York that October evening, and the famous ticker-tape parade was planned.  When parade kicked off, however, one star player was absent from the festivities.  Dwight Gooden's world was in a tailspin at a drug dealers house, and he missed the entire celebration.  Thanks for coming out, sorry kids I couldn't make it.  Sorry?  Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were only two of the many players on that 1986 team to have legal problems, but they were the young phenoms that threw away the prime of their careers because of drugs and alcohol. 
   Another New York icon guilty of compromising his raw talents during his career was the great Mickey Mantle.  A young star in the making who could run like the wind, track balls hit to the outfield, and hit towering homeruns resembling those hit by Babe Ruth.  A well deserving member of the Hall of Fame, Mantle captured the hearts of baseball fans everywhere in the 1950's and 1960's.  The bright light of his shining star, however, blinded people from what was really going on beyond the playing field.  The late nights of alcohol abuse finally caught up with him and eventually cost him his life.  If Mantle would have been capable of staying away from the alcohol, it is difficult to imagine how many records he could still own today.  Nearly one month before he lost his final battle with cirrhosis and liver cancer, he met with the media to make peace with his many followers.  His swagger, and boyish enthusiasm was reduced to a frail, old shell of what was once a divine example of every young baseball fan's dream.  Regardless, he faced the crowd and stated:  "This is a role model.  Don't be like me."
  Mickey Mantle might have been speaking for himself when he made that statement in July of 1995 but it should hold true for most athletes and celebrities.  Children today need to realize that athletes and celebrities are human, and the price of fame is sometimes a recipe for disaster.  Lenny Dykstra, Pete Rose, "Doc" Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Mickey Mantle, Joe Paterno, Elvis Presley, Charlie Sheen; the list keeps going and sadly new names are frequently added.  A hero for a day? Yes. A lifetime of memories? Perhaps. A role model for the youth of America?  Try Mom and Dad because  as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said;  "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy."

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Chance to See the All-Stars of Tomorrow--Today

   June 8, 2003--This day was just like any other warm, lazy Sunday afternoon.  The sun was shining, and children all over were looking forward to the conclusion of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation.  On this particular Sunday in early June, however, the fans at First Energy Park in Lakewood, New Jersey were treated to a contest that featured two future Major League All-Stars.  The Lakewood Blue Claws hosted the Hagerstown Suns, and the pitching matchup for game 1 of the doubleheader was Cole Hamels verses Matt Cain.  Both pitchers were just young prospects for their respective organizations and most of the fans in attendance probably didn't even realize who they were seeing that afternoon, but hindsight being 20/20 this was and still is a classic matchup between two of the most dominating pitchers in the game today.  Hamels put on a brilliant pitching display that day going 7 innings, and striking out 13 on the way to a 3-0 Blueclaws victory, but Cain was also on his way to becoming a star in the game.
  October 19, 2010--This was Game 3 of the NLCS, and the fans in attendance that afternoon in San Francisco knew exactly who they were seeing.  By then Cole Hamels had a ring and a World Series MVP to his credit, and Matt Cain was an All-Star.  It's strange how baseball sometimes has a way of connecting different moments in time because on that cool October day it was Cain that outshined Hamels by pitching 7 innings and only giving up 2 hits in a 3-0 Giants win.  This gave the Giants a 2 games to 1 lead in the series that they would eventually win, and a couple of weeks later it would be Cain holding the World Series Trophy just like Hamels did two years prior. 
   This season both pitchers are now veterans in their prime and probably don't even remember that afternoon 9 years ago in Lakewood, New Jersey.  Cole Hamels is ranked second in the Major Leagues with 9 wins, and Matt Cain just this week became the first Giant and only the 22nd pitcher in Major League history to toss a perfect game.  It was perfect, and arguably the greatest game ever pitched by anyone in the long, rich history of The National Pastime.  Cain faced 27 batters and struck out 14 in front of 42,298 fans at San Francisco's AT&T Park. 
   From Lakewood, New Jersey to San Jose, California and all places in between, Minor League Baseball games are being played by young ballplayers with dreams of someday playing in a Major League ballpark.  For the price of a ticket being only a fraction of the cost to attend a Major League game, a fan might get the opportunity to see a future All-Star play.  The stadiums are smaller and there rarely is a bad seat to catch a game and see the players up close.  Just like the many people in attendance on that Sunday afternoon in New Jersey, a fan might be treated to a special preview of Major League talent before they reach the big show and will be able to boast for years about the time when they, "saw that guy and knew he was going to be great."  


Friday, May 25, 2012

The Dugout

   On each side of the field, in foul territory are the areas designated for the teams personnel called the dugout.  Although for a fan watching the game these areas of the ballpark go almost unnoticed, but for the players, managers, coaches, and other members of a ball club this is one of the most important places on the field.   For the team, the dugout is the information hub that provides the keys to winning a game.  The managers and coaches send in signs to the the field, and the players can talk about game strategy without the opposing team listening in or reading their lips.  The equipment is stored there and some of the most important people, the trainers, are there to provide treatment at a moment's notice for all of the dings and scrapes that the long baseball season produces. 
   The dugout was originally designed just like many of the high school and college dugouts today.  They were located in foul territory and consisted of a bench at same level as the playing field.  As professional baseball gained popularity, however, there was a need to build bigger stadiums with more seating to accommodate the fans.  The dugouts were changed and now featured a bench area with walls and concrete steps that were located below the playing surface.  This allowed seats to be placed behind the dugout without obstructing the fans view of home plate.  The fans could now purchase seats close to the field and the team personnel had their own private area away from them to concentrate on the game being played.  Most professional dugouts now also feature a tunnel that leads to the home and away clubhouses; which is perfect for those times when a temper tantrum is necessary, or when the Tigers are locked into a tight game and Jim Leyland just needs that puff of a Marlboro to calm his nerves.  The dugout serves as a place where only the members a special fraternity of people lucky enough to be associated with a big league club are welcome, and also provides a much needed shelter from the fans and cameras.  The Official Rules of Major League Baseball supports this, stating that "no one except players, substitutes, managers, coaches, trainers and bat boys shall occupy a bench during a game." (MLB Rule 3.17) 
   A fan attending a game might notice that in some stadiums the home team's dugout is located on the first base side, and in others it is on the third base side.  There are no rules against which dugout is designated for the home or away team so it is the choice of the home franchise to decide which dugout they will occupy.  More of the Major League ballparks feature the home dugout on the first base side, and the reason for this might be because most of the close plays take place at first base and the manager will get a better view of the play.  As stated earlier this is completely the preference of the home club and the choice might also have to do with which side simply has the better clubhouse.  Whatever the reason, the dugout or bench serves the same purpose and what occurs there has provided enough stories to fill books.  It is the place where the players can relax and be themselves without the pressure of being under the microscope of cameras and fans like they are when on the field of play.  For the fans, the dugout serves as the place that houses their heroes, the focal point until the home team takes the field and it is time to "Play Ball!"  The legendary stories from the dugout provides hours of entertainment to be discussed throughout time.  From Roger McDowell's hot foot and Turk Wendell brushing his teeth between innings, to Bobby Valentine's moustache disguise and the famous fight between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson in Fenway, the dugout serves as the starting location where the game takes on a personality all its own. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Jaime Moyer: Recording Another One For The Old Timers.

   Jaime Moyer of the Colorado Rockies is continuing to prove that age is just a number.  Earlier this season Moyer became the oldest pitcher in Major League history to win a game, and last night he became the oldest player to record an RBI.  In the fourth inning of yesterdays game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies Jamie Moyer tapped a slow roller toward first base and hustled to beat the diving first baseman to the bag.  As a result of his hustle two runs crossed the plate and Moyer was credited with two RBI's.  The Rockies went on to win the game by a score of 6 to 1 as he earned his second win of the season.  At 49 years old, Moyer continues to beat the odds and the opposing teams with a fastball that barely reaches 80 m.p.h.  He changes the break on the ball and the pitch locations so well that good hitters half his age are confused when they face him.  Besides knowing how to get big league hitters out, Moyer knows how to play the game.  He puts in the work to keep himself in shape, studies the opposition, and as he displayed yesterday, hustles and never gives up when he's on the field.  Congratulations to Jamie Moyer as he continues to set records, and who knows next season he might have the opportunity to break some of his own records becoming the only 50 year-old to win a game in the Major Leagues. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Where is the Fight in The Fightin' Phils?

   The 2012 Philadelphia Phillies started the season with so much hope even though they were without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.  The defending National League East Champions for five consecutive years are now quickly becoming the longshots to win it again, and they are learning just how much Utley and Howard are essential to the success of the team.  On Wednesday, the New York Mets finished off a three game sweep of the Phillies in front of the 233rd consecutive sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park, and to make matters worse this was the first time that the Phils were swept in a three game series by the Mets at home since 2006.  In the three games, the Phillies scored a total of 12 runs on 33 hits but late in the game the relief pitching, defense, and situational hitting were horrible.  Whether it was Jonathan Papelbon giving up a three run homer in the ninth to a rookie that was just added to the Mets roster that evening, Pete Orr throwing away game 2, Kyle Kendrick not being able to protect a two run lead, or Hunter Pence dropping a routine fly ball in right, the Phillies have found a way to embarrass themselves in front of 43,000+ each night. 
   Ryan Howard's 30 to 40+ home runs and 100+ RBI's, and Chase Utley's defense and take control presence in the clubhouse are keys that have been missed this season, however it is starting to look like the Phillies problems run much deeper than that.  They still have arguably the best starting staff in the big leagues with Halladay, Hamels, Lee, Worley, and Blanton but without a bullpen that can hold a lead to get to Papelbon the good work of the starters continue to go unrecognized.  It is doubtful that Chase Utley would have thrown the ball away like Orr did on Tuesday, but the all around lack of fundamental baseball at the plate, and in the field cannot be fixed by one or two players.  It has to be a group effort to turn this sinking ship of a season around, and without their captain in the clubhouse Charlie Manuel has to light the fire all on his own.  Manuel did say that he spoke to the team after the third loss to the Mets, and it was probably a less than gracious speech delivered by the skipper to let his team know exactly what he thought about their play.  If things don't get fixed, and soon, the Phillies are going to be in for more trouble than they want, and the franchise could be set back for years.  Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee both signed with the Phillies for a chance to win a ring before their great careers are over, and Cole Hamels will be looking to sign a long-term contract soon.  What incentives do these players have to remain with the team if the losing continues?  Yes, it is still May, and Howard and Utley are due back at some point, and hopefully soon, but if the losing continues the message to those guys might be to take your time and look forward to the future.  Not that the Phillies should throw in the towel this early, but if they keep playing the kind of baseball that they have been, the recent powerhouse team that was built is going to turn into the empty, 700 level, Veterans Stadium team of years past.  Just like Tug McGraw once said, "Ya Gotta Believe", and for the frustrated Phillies fans this statement is true because its "gotta" get better than this.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Phillies vs. Nats: Round 1

   ESPN, Sunday Night Baseball, prime time for the 19-year-old Bryce Harper.  The nation tuned in yesterday to see the defending National League East Champion Philadelphia Phillies face off against the first place Washington Nationals with their new "Natitude".  The stage was set for a classic matchup in the first inning when Harper stepped to the plate to face the veteran left hander Cole Hamels.  With Harper crowding the plate, the first offering was a 93 mph fastball that was, admitted later by Hamels himself, aimed for the ribcage of the Nationals phenom.  Harper brushed it off then proceeded to be a "pain" for the Phillies on the basepaths.  First, he advanced all the way to third on a Jayson Werth single to left, then he followed that by recording his first stolen base of his young career by swiping home when Cole Hamels threw over to first keeping Werth close.  A couple of innings later the Washington pitcher returned the favor, and hit Cole Hamels in the ankle with the first pitch forcing the home plate umpire to warn both dugouts.  The Phillies went on to win the ballgame 9-3, but the rivalry was bumped up a notch as a result of what took place early in the game.
   After the game Hamels admitted to hitting Harper on purpose stating, "oh yeah, that's baseball".  Hamels hit their guy, then two innings later he gets hit.  That's the way that the game is meant to be played at the highest level.  There were no bench-clearing brawls, and no glaring looks back at the pitcher, both players just took their base and went on playing the game.  Bryce Harper went 2 for 3 with a stolen base and a run scored, and Hamels pitched 8 brilliant innings to record his fourth win of the season.  The game was a classic example of two throwback players competing at the highest level with the same intensity displayed by the players of baseball's past.  Harper responded to Hamels by stating: "He's a great pitcher and a great guy."
   Hamels admitting that he hit Harper on purpose prompted the Nationals General Manager, Mike Rizzo, to call him "fake tough", and wants a suspension for the "classless and gutless" act.  Maybe Mr. Rizzo was asleep or getting another hot dog in the bottom of the first because that would explain his comments.  Didn't he witness Harper getting hit in the back and not in the head?  Didn't he witness Harper racing from first to third on a single to left then scoring the first run of the game by stealing home?   Hamels pointed out in his postgame interview that it was just a 'Welcome to the big leagues' message.  Bryce Harper understands that it is part of the game, so why does a GM watching the game from his luxury box have such a problem with it? 
   Cole Hamels will probably receive an unfair suspension for his postgame comments, but it has definitely sparked a rivalry that the Commissioners Office will never admit to being a good thing for the game.  Yesterday's incident might have even lit the fire that the Phillies have been searching for since the 2012 season started.  A pitcher throwing inside, and brushing back a hitter is as much a part of the game as a hard slide to break up a double play.  Pitchers such as Early Wynn, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, and Sal Maglie had great careers pitching inside to hitters, and it is unfair to the pitchers today not to be able to do the same.  Sal Maglie, nicknamed "The Barber", and not because he cut hair in the off-season once said: "When I'm pitching, I figure that plate is mine, and I don't like anybody getting too close to it."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bryce Harper:Coming to a Ballpark Near You

   The future of Major League Baseball has arrived.  On Saturday April 28, 2012 Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals made his Major League debut against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. In his first game he was 1 for 3 with a double, made a strong throw from left field, and had a sacrifice fly in the ninth to temporarily put his team ahead by one.  The Nationals eventually lost the game 4-3 when Matt Kemp of the Dodgers crushed the game winner to lead off the bottom of the tenth inning, but finally baseball fans all over the country were able see the phenom on the biggest stage.  Since then he has collected four more hits and showed off his arm once again against the Diamondbacks.  The replay suggested that the runner was out at the plate but the umpire saw it differently.  Maybe in a few years when this rookie becomes a superstar in the league those close calls will start to go his way.
   Bryce Harper has all of the tools to become a star in the Major Leagues.  In just a small sampling of games to display his many talents, he has proven that he belongs there.  He can hit in pressure situations, and his arm in the outfield brings back memories of Clemente.  Before the game on Saturday, Harper was seen signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, and the high socks with the almost completely phased out stirrups is a touch that is hardly seen in the game today.  In fact, one of the few Major Leaguers to still wear the stirrups as part of his uniform is 49 year old Jaime Moyer, who made his big league debut six years before Harper was even born.  This season Moyer became the oldest pitcher ever to win a game in the Major Leagues, and it will be an interesting day when the oldest player faces the youngest.  Bryce Harper's obvious appreciation for the game was displayed when the television broadcast showed him looking around Dodger Stadium in between innings in awe of his surroundings.   This wasn't even a home game for him, but the viewers at home could definitely feel his appreciation of the surroundings.  He was like a fan taking in his first game at a big league ballpark, except for this fan was 1 for 3 with a double and a go-ahead RBI in the ninth.  That day wasn't about the money, it was obvious from this young man's eyes that he appreciated the moment and his natural abilities outshined his nerves. 
   The fans that were in attendance at Dodger Stadium were lucky to witness what they saw.  Even though they booed Harper each time that he approached the plate, those same fans will be telling their grandchildren about the time when they saw him make his Major League debut.  Just like Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said to Baseball Illustrated in 1975;  "Fans don't boo nobodies."  Bryce Harper is far from a nobody, and if he could stay away from a major injury fans will be visiting a plaque in Cooperstown for the first Washington National inducted.   Los Angeles, California will be where it all began for a 19 year-old phenom with the power and speed of Mantle and the arm of Clemente.  Hollywood tried to be the start of a great story, and provide the backdrop for Bryce Harper to drive in the winning run in his first game, but the baseball "Gods" sense that a rookie has to wait his turn.