Arm injuries

Masahiro Tanaka

The now common MRI. It seems like if a pitcher sneezes nowadays and mentions “elbow discomfort,” an MRI is scheduled and if there is a micro tear or strain of any kind, the pitcher is shut down and soon the now-famous Tommy John surgery is next.

I have kidded Tommy, knowing him well enough to do it, that some people think he is a doctor! It’s really the Frank Jobe procedure and we shouldn’t let Dr. Jobe’s name lose its significance now that he has passed on. Now it’s James Andrews and David Altchek who do most of these procedures, grafting the ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from the wrist or hamstring.

I had the privilege of participating in a roundtable discussion on MLB Network recently with both doctors, discussing the alarming number of amateur pitchers who are having the surgery. I deferred to the medical professionals on how best to prevent it. They identified the overuse of Little League pitchers and youngsters trying to throw too hard before their bones and muscles are full developed as the causes.

Fast-forward to the professional level, and I don’t think any Major League pitcher who has pitched a significant number of innings would have a perfectly “clean” arm on an MRI of their elbow. My point here is — and again I would respect Drs. Andrews’ and Altchek’s opinions — can a pitcher pitch with some micro tears and not do more damage if he or she throws with proper technique?

Here I would defer to the opinion of former Major League pitcher Tom House, whose ideas were misunderstood and questionable to me for years. I have come to respect his knowledge of the biomechanics of the pitching arm. How the elbow, shoulder and lower body have to work as a team to reduce the chance of injury. I say “chance” because there are no guarantees it won’t happen.

I speak out on this subject because of my own experience with the same injury. I recently saw a video on YouTube of a game I pitched in September of 1967. My last start of the year. We win, we go to the World Series. I was having the best month of pitching in my career. (I won’t bore you with my stats, but if I won the game it would have been my eighth win that month, and I was averaging nine innings every start.)

Suddenly in the third inning, while throwing a pitch to the pitcher, Jose Santiago, I felt like I bumped my elbow on a hard surface and hit my “crazy bone” as we called it. After throwing several more pitches, I had to come out of the game. The diagnosis was the injury that now seems to require TJ surgery, but that procedure was not available at the time. I never had surgery and let it heal naturally over the winter. I wasn’t as effective for a few years, but I was able to do what I enjoyed: pitching.

Looking back on my workload in 1966 and 1967 has given me some insight into the possible cause. I had pitched over 300 innings in 1966 and was in the high 200s in 1967. The smoking gun probably was September of 1967, when I was starting my eighth game that month and into the mid-60s in innings that month. I was — and still am — a big proponent of the four-man rotation with three days’ rest between starts. The arm recovers fine, control is more consistent, and delivery probably will be more repeatable because you get to the mound more often.

I write this hoping we can learn a way to use pitchers to their maximum efficiency and value to their team and yet be prudent in not overworking them. A thought I have is the types of pitches and the emphasis on power might be more harmful to pitchers today than in my era. We were basic fastball, curve, change-up pitchers. The slider came along, but it really was what we call a cutter today — not all the action with the elbow, and more emphasis on finger pressure and the wrist. Not as many splitters or hybrid sliders. Today’s slider for most big league pitchers is the most hittable pitch around if not thrown with the perfect combination of power and break.

The recent article on the screwball by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times has prompted me to get on my soapbox and say, “Bring back the screwball and the slow curve!” Josh Beckett is making good use of a slower curveball in his recent string of well-pitched games. (Unfortunately a hip injury has sidelined him.) David Wells was a very durable pitcher and most of his career was a fastball/curveball pitcher.

Marv Grissom, my pitching coach in the early 70s, helped me develop a screwball. I abandoned my version of what people today would call a slider — we called it a short curve — and went with fastball, slow curve (12-to-6 or 11-to-5 break) and a screwball in 1972. I got off to the best start of my career and was headed for potentially my best season when a broken wrist on July 1 ended my season. My screwball never was as good after that. Why? It is thrown with more wrist action and less elbow torque.

I really believe if pitchers would begin to practice pitching from 45 to 50 feet and work on spinning the ball with their wrist and pay attention to grip pressure, a relaxed thumb, and stick today’s version of the slider where the sun doesn’t shine, we might have fewer injuries, more complete games and more durable pitchers. Splitters and sliders might be making hitting more difficult, but there is a price to pay for overusing them.

This article is written because of my disappointment in not seeing Matt Harvey, Masahiro Tanaka and many other injured pitchers be able to enjoy longer careers and allow us the pleasure of seeing them match up against each other and pitch the whole game.

If I could have a conversation with Stephen Strasburg

Video: Reading the letter on MLB Network

Stephen, I’ve never met you but I’ve seen you pitch and you are special. I announced your debut on our MLB Network with Bob Costas and John Smoltz. I was very impressed. I imagined being you. I made my debut in 1959 at age 20 and lasted 2 1/3. Never struck out a batter. Took the loss. What you did that night amazed me. I don’t know if I could have found the strike zone with all the advance hype and the high expectations heaped on you. It was quite a treat to witness what you did.

Now I get to visit with the managers and sometimes the coaches when I come in to announce a game on MLB, but I seldom get time with the players. Organizations protect their young stars from media and I don’t blame them. I have heard comments from people from a lot of different stations in life on what should be done about limiting your innings that you pitch this season. Executives, sportswriters, former players and pitchers, TV analysts from not only baseball but also football and other sports! Even some national news correspondents have weighed in on the subject.

Your manager, Davey Johnson, is a former teammate and friend, a man for whom I have great respect. He’s in a tough position. He wants to do the right thing. But Davey, like many of the people who have commented on this, has never pitched.

I can only talk to you as a former pitcher who wanted to be a Major League pitcher since he was 8. My motivation was to pitch in the big leagues, pitch in an All-Star game, pitch in a World Series. You have done two of those three. I can only tell you as one who pitched in two World Series that doing that is the ultimate prize in Major League Baseball. I was fortunate to do it at age 26. Hooked up with the great Sandy Koufax three times in 1965. Had a chance to be a World Series MVP. Sandy denied me that with his great performance. It was 17 years later when I finally got a chance to participate in a World Series again. That’s still a record for the most years between World Series appearances. We won that one. The Cardinals beat the Brewers. I had very little to do with it but it remains my top moment in baseball.

The money is nice but the ring is the thing for an athlete. It ranks high above pitching for 25 seasons in the Majors, 283 wins, 16 Gold Gloves, an All-Star Game where I faced Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. Being on a World Series winner is the ultimate prize. We just had our 30-year reunion in St. Louis, celebrating our World Series win in 1982. Those are memories you’ll always have no matter how long you pitch.

If you can imagine what it would feel like to ride down Pennsylvania Avenue in a victory parade with your teammates and wave to the White house and hundreds of thousands of Nationals fans and feel that feeling . . . . you would give a lot of thought to whether it was right or wrong not to pitch anymore this season. It’s easy for me to say as it was for many pitchers before me who pitched in the Fall Classic. Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Catfish Hunter, Koufax, Jim Palmer, Jack Morris, many more. We gave no thought to what the condition of our arm might be next year. This was the World Series — the ultimate stage. Who knows if we’d ever get back there again?

Give this some thought. It’s not Mike Rizzo’s career or Scott Boras’s or Davey Johnson’s or even your that of your parents. It’s yours. Do what you want to do, not what others think you should do. Selfishly, I would love to see you pitch in a World Series for the city where I made my debut. The Washington Senators were known for “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” You have a chance to do what the great Walter Johnson did for Washington. No one since.

Let me ask you this: “Did you have any symptoms before you injured your arm? Anything that led you to believe you were going to injure it on your next pitch?” I didn’t. I was having the best month of pitching I ever had in September of 1967 when — “pop” — there went my elbow. We pitchers really don’t know when it’s going to happen or if it ever will happen, do we? It’s a fragile profession. I’m just happy I never had to make the decision you should be able to make. If my GM told me in September of 1965 that he was going to shut me down and not allow me a chance to pitch in the World Series, knowing my stubborn Dutch nature, he would have had quite an argument on his hands. My Dad’s biggest thrill was watching me pitch in the World Series. It would have haunted me the rest of my life if I had deprived him of that. Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro were Hall of Fame pitchers but never got to experience the ultimate prize.

Good luck with your decision, Stephen. But please remember — it’s your career, your arm, your decision. Nobody’s else’s.

Spring Training thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged and I owe several of you for your kind comments reacting to my posts. It’s a fun way to connect with you, and I’m sorry I can’t take the time to answer all of your questions.

Spring Training is winding down and the season openers will be here this week. I still think we are losing that special feeling baseball has had over the years of having the first opener in the daytime in Cincinnati and the others a day later. In Japan? And at night? Stop it! Forgive me for being so traditionally minded. I’m all for progress that is in the best interest in the game, but this is not it for me. I know, TV swings the hammer and I have made a nice living from talking baseball on TV but I still think there could be some compromise instead of always deciding in favor of the financial benefits and not common sense. My grandchildren will never know how special Opening Day of baseball season should be because of the current approach. Okay, I’m off my soapbox.

How about the ridiculous injuries suffered by players this spring! I wouldn’t even mow my own lawn with a power mower because of the injury former lefty, Curt Simmons, suffered in the 50s. Nipped off some toes mowing his lawn. I remember Bobby Grich, All-Star second baseman, who signed a lucrative contract with the Angels and injured his back carrying an air conditioner up the stairs. Please guys, think about your career and your team and the investment the organization has in you before you do things that could ruin your life and your career — or your career and your life. Either way.

I enjoyed playing a little raquetball and basketball in the offseason, but it was for conditioning and recreation and I felt like I was in pretty good control of my actions.

Too much emphasis on stats, scores, and radar gun readings. Who cares? My point of reference would be the spring of 1975. One of my last spring starts befoe the season started was against the Red Sox in Winter Haven, Florida. Chuck Tanner had to take me out in the 2nd inning. I was hoping to go six or seven. Gave up nine runs, three or four home runs. Deron Johnson hit two, I think maybe Jim Rice and Freddy Lynn had one also. All the infielders played a few steps deeper than normal. Outfielders were out of breath chasing down the extra base hits.We all had a good laugh about it. I was 36 years old.

Today some would be up in arms saying things like “Is his velocity way down?” “Is his career coming to an end?” I started that season 5-0, went to 9-1 and then 13-5 at the All Star break and made the 1975 All star team.Do any of you Cardinal fans remember what David Freese‘s spring stats were in 2011?

My point is, the wind blows out in a lot of ballparks in Florida in the spring. Fly balls become home runs. Pitchers are just getting their arms conditioned. There is no incentive to win a game. It’s just practice, for crying out loud. Don’t worry about stats and wins and radar gun readings.

Let’s start paying attention when the bell rings, which for me is the first game in Cincinnati, no matter what the schedule says. I’m prepping for my season opener, which will be April 12 on MLB Network with Bob Costas. Marlins at Phillies. Hope it’s Halladay vs. Johnson.
PLAY BALL!!

Whoopie! It’s that time again

Finally. The Super Bowl is history, golf season is under way and… pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training.

Always an exciting time for baseball fans and teams. New faces will appear this spring as hopefuls to turn a franchise into a contender or a contender into a champion. A Bryce Harper, Yu Darvish and Mike Trout — and many we have yet to hear about.

I enjoy reading the various newspapers from big league cities to get the advance reports on what fans can hope to expect. For example, Boston is faced with trying to make the media and their fans forget the somewhat embarrassing collapse and clubhouse behavior of last September. Speaking from personal experience, the behavior issue was way overstated as a reason and the on-field performance was one pitch or one hit from being overlooked. These days that one pitch or hit can lead to a World Series, as it did for the Cardinals.

Detroit’s expectations will be to get to the World Series and maybe win it. They will be the choice to win the AL Central handily, but they still have to catch the ball and get the last six outs of the game. Those are two areas we have found out are most important in baseball. For example, the fly ball over Nelson Cruz’s head and the failure to put the Cardinals away when they had a chance was responsible for Texas not winning the World Series.

I’m not going to evaluate every team here, but every camp you visit in February and March will be full of optimism. As my former manager, Whitey Herzog, would say, “We’re just two players from winning a World Series: Ruth and Koufax.” That’s true for a lot of teams.

I’m looking forward to going to Spring Training camp in Fort Myers and helping my friend and neighbor Bob McClure. Mac is the new pitching coach for the Red Sox. He’s a lefty with 19 years of experience in the majors. We think a lot alike. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and with my 25 years experience will share some ideas that worked or didn’t work for us.

I was flattered when I was contacted by Ben Cherington, the new Red Sox GM, to see if I had interest in passing on some of my ideas to their pitchers. I have always been a little puzzled that in over 25 years as an announcer, I had only two pitchers solicit advice from me. Billy Connors, Yankee pitching coach in 1995, had me spend a little time with Andy Pettitte. Not any instruction — just giving him a little preview of what it would be like to pitch in the majors. Roy Smith, a righthander that had a brief stint with the Twins when I was announcing their games in the late 80s always wanted to talk pitching with me.

I remember one of my first pitching coaches, Eddie Lopat, former Yankee lefty, telling me, “Kid, if you don’t suffer any serious arm injury, you’re going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time.” I asked why. He said, “Because you’re curious about how to improve.”

That is one thing I know helped me so much during my career. I asked Warren Spahn to look at my motion one evening in Minnesota when we were playing the Braves in an exhibition game. I’ll never forget his parting words, “Kid, when the game is tied in the 7th inning, the game is just starting for a starting pitcher.” My how times have changed!

And I asked Whitey Ford as we both warmed up in the bullpens in Minnesota one night in the early ’60s, “Whitey, do you mind showing me how you grip your fastball to get that kind of movement?” He could have told me to not bother him. (We were about to face each other in the game!) He showed me, and I gripped my fastball like that for the rest of my career.

Or the night I was about to face the Milwaukee Brewers in the early ’70s, and my former teammate Kenny Sanders was watching me warm up. He laughed and said, “You’re not going out there to pitch with that stuff are you ?” I stopped throwing and shouted at him, “Hey Half-Ear” — good old fashioned clubhouse humor: that was Kenny’s affectionate nickname because he lost part of his ear lobe in a collision at home plate — “How do you grip your slider?” He had a good one in his day. He showed me how he moved his thumb up along the side of the ball and not underneath like most pitchers did. I tried it. it felt good. I pitched eight effective innings that night using his slider grip and we won. I called him right after the game and thanked him…all part of being in the “Pitchers Union.”

They seem to find a way every few years to legislate against us: smaller strike zone, lighter bats to allow more bat speed, smaller parks and the DH. So we have to try to stick together and beat the system. I don’t think I have definite answers, nor do I think any coach does, but the object is to present a pitcher with a number of ideas that might help him become a better pitcher.

I enjoyed doing that as Pete Rose’s pitching coach in the mid-’80s, passing along things I learned from Johnny Sain and Spahnie and Lopat, hoping they would help pitchers. Tom Browning won 20 games that year as a rookie pitcher, the first pitcher to do it since Bob Grim of the Yankees did it in the mid-’50s. Very satisfying for us retired pitchers to be able to do that.

I look forward to having Mac as my boss and seeing if any of these old school ideas are still relevant in today’s game. I think they are, beacuse they’re really not old school. They are sound fundamental principles that have existed since Abner Doubleday or whoever you think created the game.

There is nothing so sweet as the smell of a ballpark in the spring and the sound of the ball hitting the bat or the “thwack” of the ball hitting the glove as pitchers begin to play catch and go thru the boring but necessary fielding drills. That is the first rite of spring: pitchers’ fielding practice. Can’t wait to see it.

Hope your team has an exciting season that holds your interest right through September…

Will we finally get The Real Deal?

Yu Darvish. He appears to be the most successful, celebrated, hyped Asian pitcher to sign with a Major League team since Hideki Irabu.

A couple of short stories about Asian pitchers and Irabu: I was announcing Yankee games in the mid-90s when I said over the air, “I wonder if we’ll ever see an Oriental position player in the Major Leagues?” Dion James was playing for the Yankees at the time, and told me about an exciting 19-year old named Ichiro Suzuki who had a chance to be the first. We all know that story. Big fan of Bernie Williams from watching Yankee games in Japan. Wears number 51 because of that.

So, I get a letter about a week later from an Asian baseball fan. Not a malicious letter but scolding me gently for referring to Asian players as “Oriental.” He said, “Noodles and rugs are Oriental, not people. We are Asians.” Fortunately for me, he put his phone number in the letter, so I called him.

We had a pleasant conversation and I told him I certainly didn’t intentionally say “Oriental’ as a slur or condescending remark. It was said innocently out of ignorance. He understood. I asked him if he would be watching the next game we televised. He said he would. He was a huge baseball fan and was complimentary of our telecasts on the MSG Network. I asked if he would please watch and listen in the top of the 4th inning. He said he would.  I took the opportunity to clear up the Oriental/Asian situation.

So, on to Asian pitchers coming to America with the potential to dominate the Major Leagues. Hideo Nomo, Irabu, Dice-K, Hiroki Kuroda, and Kei Igawa, the biggest disappointment of all for over $40 million. Potentially the best one I saw up close was Chien-Ming Wang from Taiwan. A near Cy Young Award-winner before he injured his foot/ankle running the bases.

Can’t Major League teams take a little time to teach pitchers how to slide and make proper turns running the bases?  I learned from the great George Case early in my career and was used as a pinch runner often. Even stole a base at age 41, the oldest to do it until Greg Maddux one-upped me by a month or two.

However, my most serious injuries during 25 Major League seasons were from sliding. Slid too hard into second to break up a double play and into third beating a throw from the outfield. Broken wrist on one and cracked kneecap on another. My technique was good. I just slid too hard. I figure it cost me about 25 to 30 wins. If I didn’t learn from George as a young player, they probably would never had used me to pinch run. Used to pinch run for my teammates Harmon Killebrew and Greg Luzinski.

Okay, enough about me and my ill-fated slides. Wang had a devastating hard sinker. You could count on him to get at least 75 percent of his outs on infield groundouts. Stress-free motion, no hard breaking ball to put stress on his elbow. I thought he was going to be “The One” until the foot/ankle injury.

This brings me to Irabu and how the hype from Japan can be deceiving. I was preparing to announce a Yankee game in Chicago when Jim Fregosi, former All-Star Shortstop with the Angels and longtime scout and manager in the Majors, began telling me about Irabu. He had been scouting him. The phrase that stood out was when he said, “He’s Clemens when Roger was in his prime.” That will get your attention. Hideki had a great splitter, but his fastball didn’t seem to be as fast as the advanced hype.

Now, here is one thing to look for from Darvish and I hope he can deal with it: The hitters here are bigger, stronger, and more intimidating than the hitters in the Asian leagues. I will never forget the defining moment for me when Hideki Irabu’s confidence in his fastball was shattered. He gave up a monstrous home run in Yankee Stadium to Matt Williams when Matt was playing for the Indians. It was off Irabu’s fastball. Our crack TV crew had a shot of Irabu from our center field camera as Hideki was facing center field. The expression on his face was priceless. Mouth open, eyes wide open like he had never experienced anything like that. And he probably hadn’t.

The challenge for all pitchers — and I experienced it myself when Mantle and Colavito and other power hitters turned my best fastball around — is to have the nerves to keep challenging hitters and throw it for strikes. We have seen time and time again that the pitchers who come over here from Asia don’t have the confidence to consistently challenge Major League hitters with their fastball.

All except Wang, and he is on the way back. I hope he makes it.  Did you ever watch Dice-K pitch? Painful. He’d rather bite the head off a rattlesnake than throw his fastball for a strike. He was actually a long relief pitcher even when he was winning games, because with today’s pitch count limitations he was over his limit in the 5th inning most of the time.

So, I’lll be keeping a close eye on Yu Darvish and see if he is finally the one to be able to challenge and dominate our bigger, more powerful big league hitters. For his and the Rangers’ sake, I hope he does. It will be good for the game and the Rangers profit and loss statement!

The Hall, Hanley and Pete, and the Miracle League

Congratulations to Barry Larkin on being voted in to the Hall of Fame. I first saw him as a shortstop for the University of Michigan at the College World Series in Omaha back in the 1980s. Jim Abbott was on that team. Also, a first baseman named Casey Close. Who is Casey Close you say? He has become well known as a player agent for Derek Jeter.

I am very disappointed that Jack Morris did not get enough votes to gain election and I think Larkin getting in should cause voters to look at why they have never given Davey Concepcion more attention. This brings me to ask the question we hear often. Why does it take some players, who eventually gain election, so long to get there? What is the thinking process by the writers eligible to vote? Why are we as fans and former players asked to drink this bitter-tasting Kool-Aid year after year?

I read Richard Justice’s column on MLB.com over the weekend explaining and rationalizing why writers need time to gather more data and change their minds over a period of five to 10 — to sometimes 15 — years. Now I know writers, fans and former players like myself see things differently. As Roy (played by Robert Redford) said to Max (played by Robert Duvall) in The Natural, “Writers write, Roy, and players play.”

I respect what the print media does and how they have helped publicize the game of baseball. I enjoy blogging on occasion, and don’t have the writing skills they possess. I was a player and I understand who was good, great, overrated and underappreciated. Writers can only go by numbers, but players know far beyond the numbers who is deserving to be callled a Hall of Famer.  If you ask Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez (all in the Hall) and Pete Rose (who had a Fall of Fame career) about Concepcion’s value to the Reds, I think they would say he is as much a Hall of Fame shortstop as Larkin.

This is not meant to diminish Barry’s credentials , it’s meant to accentuate and raise awareness to Davey’s. Food for thought to you who are voters. Why do names like Vinny Castilla and Brad Radke and some others get votes? To give them a chance to tell their grandkids that they once received votes for election into the Hall of Fame? If that is true, then the writers that do that are devaluing the importance of gaining entrance to Cooperstown.

Do they really do enough research and homework? Couldn’t they find comparable Hall of Famers and have my friends at the Elias Sports Bureau compare some numbers and get good idea if a player was Hall-worthy and if so elect him on the first ballot? Enough already with jamming this “first-ballot guy” or “may get in some day” down our throats. If one does the proper homework, research and talking to the player’s contemporaries, you shouldn’t have to wait 10 to 15 years to decide.

My friend and teammate Bert Blyleven gets 13 percent of the vote his first year of eligibility, and then 79 percent 14 years later? I can’t make sense of it. I know, it’s the writers’ Hall of Fame and writers write and players play, and we have different opinions.

But let’s discuss Morris and compare him to Jim Bunning. Both former Tigers. Jim is in the Hall. Frank Dolson, a longtime writer covering the Phillies when I played there in the 1970s, campaigned intensely for Bunning. Frank would say ” He won over 100 games in each league”. He threw a perfect game in the NL and a no-hitter in the AL. He won 224 games in his career over 17 seasons.

Morris won 254 and helped three different teams win World Series titles. His 1-0 complete game extra-inning performance in the 1991 Series was more impressive to me than Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956. With due respect to the Senator from Kentucky — the pitcher we affectionately called “The Lizard” because of his slinky frame and motion — Morris is more worthy of induction than Jim, and Jim obviously is worthy or he wouldn’t be there. It took the veterans committee to finally get him in.

I just read where seven teams did not have a starter who pitched 200 innings this year. Morris did that 11 times, several times going over 250 innings and once exceeding 300. Forget his high ERA. He didn’t care if he won 6-5 or 6-0. He just wanted to finish the game and win. And he had 173 complete games in his career. Bunning had 151.

Still, I’m open to your opinions if I’m wrong on my thinking on this issue.

On to Hanley Ramirez and Rose. So it’s a big deal to be asked to play third base instead of shortstop. For 10 or 15 or however many millions they pay Hanley, I would be honored to play right field, second base, third base, left field or first base if it helped my team win a championship. That’s what Pete did. Only player to play at least 500 games at five different positions. Never complained about it. Sparky Anderson asked him to do it and he did it. Ah, the days of no entitlement.

Lastly , to put baseball and life in perspective. I recently played in a charity golf event to benefit the Miracle League. It was hosted by Angel Hernandez, a Major League umpire. Several former and current umpires and players participated. The Miracle League’s motto is: “Every child deserves a chance to play baseball.”

Harmon Killebrew was passionate about it. Johnny Bench hosted an event to help raise money for it. It takes a special rubberized field. Kids play in wheelchairs and they have all kinds of afflictions. They all congratulate the player who does something special like hitting a home run, regardless of what team they are on. The game has the happiness and innocence it had when I was a kid. I love it. Check it out sometime.

Only a month away from… “Pitchers and Catchers report tomorrow!”

REFLECTIONS ON 2011

First, thank you to those of you who read my blog and to the nice comments I have received. It’s fulfilling for me to be a part of MLB Network both on television and on the internet. Keeps me in touch with the game and those of you who love it like I do.

Some former players can walk away from it and not miss it. Some leave it and later wish they could get back in in some capacity. I have been fortunate to stay involved in some form as a player, coach, TV analyst and blogger, as well as making appearances for establishments like the Bob Feller Museum and other firms that ask me to appear at baseball functions for the past 55 years.

I am looking forward to my fourth season — hard to believe it’s MLB Network’s fourth year already — working with my partner and friend, Bob Costas, on several games, as well as appearing in the studio from time to time.

2011 was an exciting year for baseball, climaxed by that memorable final day of the season and then the surprises and drama of Postseason heroics by the Cardinals and David Freese.

It was interesting to anticipate and guess who some of the award winners would be. All very deserving and not totally unexpected. I wish with all my heart that Ryan Braun will be cleared of any wrongdoing. He is some player and had been a model of good behavior. I wish Prince Fielder could stay in Milwaukee. Those fans deserve another shot at having a championship team. Probably fantasy on my part.

The season, as all seasons do, had its sad moments. My friend and former teammate , Harmon Killebrew, passed away in May. It was an honor to speak at his memorial service in Minneapolis. Harm is probably the most admired and respected athlete in Midwest sports history, and the comments I got from friends and colleagues about him being the most humble and polite Hall of Famer are true. A gentle giant as a slugger, yet relatively small in physical stature. Just 5’10”, but powerful. Thanks to MLB.com for remembering all of those in the baseball family who passed away in 2011.

I wish all of you a safe New Year’s weekend and a healthy, happy 2012. I hope your team has a good year and keeps and holds your interest right to the end.

With the wild card (and eventually wild cards, plural) it giving more teams hope, my wish is that the decision-makers reward the division winners with home games, more rest for the pitchers, or whatever it takes to give them a decided advantage in Postseason play. It’s nice for fans to see what teams like the Cardinals did last year, but the most difficult thing to do in sports is to excel over an entire season. You have to overcome injuries, slumps by hitters and pitchers and grueling travel at times to win when you’re not at full strength. A lot of teams could win a World Series these days if they qualified by just having a streak like the Cardinals but you have to perform over six months — not just two weeks — to win a division.

It won’t be long until we hear or read those magic words: “Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow!” I hope I can hear it for many more years.

Happy New Year!

OUT BY A STEP

About 10 years ago, the Shalin brothers, Mike and Neil, wrote a book about 100 players that just missed getting elected for the Baseball Hall of Fame because their career accomplishments fell just short. Several of those have since been inducted. Gary Carter, Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and now, Ron Santo. Both Mike and Neil are writers. Mike has covered baseball for the Boston Herald and Neil is a freelance writer in Chicago. I am one of those 100 players they list and profile.

If you are a year around baseball fan you probably know that the Veterans Commmittee announced yesterday that Ron Santo has been selected for induction in 2012. I fell 2 votes short. The committee is comprised of 16 guys, former players, executives and writers that were involved in the game during what has been designated ‘The Golden Era”. Pretty cool to have been part of that era. The committee members were Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, fellow MLBlogger Tommy LaSorda, Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Don Sutton and Billy Williams from the players arena. Paul Beeston, Roland Hemond, Bill DeWitt, Gene Michael and Al Rosen from the executive branch. Dick Kaegel, Jack O’Connell and Dave Van Dyck from the media. You need 75% or 12 votes to earn election. You had to have played at least 10 seasons in Major League Baseball and been retired for at least 21 years.

Enough about specifics. I am honored to have been considered for election several times by the Veterans Committee after falling well short of election by the Baseball Writers Association of America voters during that eligibility period. I was more curious and somewhat optimistic this year than ever before. Why? Because I was being judged by my peers. I got a fair hearing. I fell 2 votes short. I am not disappointed. I would not have celebrated with a ‘whoopee’ or thrust a fist in the air if I were to have been chosen. Out of respect for so many whose careers are close to HOF caliber but ‘Out by a step” I would have felt humbled and grateful. Players like Dick Allen, Tony Oliva, Ken Boyer, Luis Tiant and many more too numerous to mention. It’s a very select fraternity to gain admission unlike being elected President of the United States where a little over 50% will be enough.

I am grateful for those 10 who supported me and I have a pretty good idea who they are. Many have told me personally that I belong and that is an honor in itself. When former players like Brooks, Sutton and Marichal tell you to your face that you belong that is very gratifying.

Shed no tears for me or feel no animosity toward the 6 who didn’t feel I belonged. When I think of the 460-plus teammates I played alongside of and the thousands of players who made it to the big leagues and thousands more who aspire to get there, missing election to the Hall of Fame by 2 votes doesn’t diminish my career or life one iota.

For fun, strictly tongue-in-cheek, I have told some people who ask me why I think I haven’t been elected yet that there are 2 possible reasons.

1. I played too long. If my career ended after 1975, my pitching numbers from 1961-1975 were exceeded only by Bob Gibson when you consider wins, era, innings, complete games, etc. My last 8 seasons were a combination of being less effective than the first 15 and I was a lefty relief specialist the last 5.

2. I was blessed with more athletic ability than most pitchers. I was used as a pinch runner on several occasions. In 1972, the last year before the DH, I was having a good season at the plate as well as on the mound. 10-2 nearing the All-Star break. Batting close to .300. Slid into 2nd base and broke my wrist. Cost me a half-season. Another baserunning injury occurred in 1976. I could never defy a manager’s authority, especially in the dugout in front of my teammates. But…when Danny Ozark called on me to pinch run for Greg Luzinski in St. Louis one day, I cringed. I was 37 years old. Late in the game, legs not loose or any forewarning that I might be used. Jay Johnstone hit one in the gap and I scampered, as fast as a 37-year-old without warming up can scamper, into third. Slid in hard and cracked my right kneecap. My pitching record at the time was 10-6 and I was on a pretty good roll. I finished the season 12-14 and was never considered a regular starting pitcher after that incident. To this day I wish I had politely said to Danny, “I’m not ready to pinch run.”

So,2 injuries that probably prevented me from reaching 300 wins which usually qualifies as automatic election to the Hall were not pitching-related but baserunning issues.

I tell you these stories not with an attitude of ‘Woe is me” or ‘sour grapes,’ just as unusual reasons for being compromised as a pitcher.

I think if Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts were alive and were on the Veterans Committee, I would be going to Cooperstown in July. There have only been a few starting pitchers inducted in the past 20 years — Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and my friend and teammate Bert Blyleven.

Life is good, baseball was good to me and for me and I feel relieved that this year’s process is over. It is by far the fairest way to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. I am happy for Ron Santo’s family. I know Billy Williams was pushing hard for Ronnie to be selected and I’m happy for him and Fergie Jenkins and Ernie Banks who, I’m sure, feel great about it as well. I’m also sad that this process wasn’t in place years ago so Ron would be alive to enjoy it. I was a teammate of Ronnie’s in 1975 when he finished his career with the White Sox. A frustrating time for him being on the South side of Chicago instead of in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.

I wish I could personally thank all of those who reached out to me to express their disappointment that I missed earning admission to the Hall of Fame. I have no regrets about being “Out by a step.” I enjoyed the game, I played the game and I continue to be involved in the game. I am a blessed man.

All deserving of the awards

Been a while since I’ve blogged. Not a lot going on yet as the Hot Stove season is still pretty tepid. Guess the next “big story” will be… who is going to manage the Red Sox and restore some stability to that team?

But for right now the stories in the news are the awards. Not any real surprises. All deserving. You can always make a case for your favorite player based on what team you root for and that’s a good thing. Some Dodger fans are probably upset that Matt Kemp didn’t win the NL MVP. If he had won, some Brewer fans would have been miffed. I think we have to put all this into proper perspective and realize our game and awards that go along with it are not solving any major problems in the world like unemployment, hunger, security, and many more. It’s just a game, and anytime you’re a candidate to receive an award, it’s an honor to just be considered. The buzz phrase these days is “an honor to be in the discussion.” That’s true.

I’m happy for all the winners and the ones who didn’t win should feel good about being in the discussion, because they had to have very good seasons to be in consideration. Justin Verlander winning the AL MVP may have been somewhat of a surprise to some because you have certain voters — and there was at least one again this year — who don’t even give a pitcher any consideration for MVP. I understand their thinking, because — and please, this is not to be meant as a condescending comment — they have never played Major League Baseball and don’t realize the impact a starting pitcher has on the outcome of a game.

I’ll digress from the theme of awards for a moment and give you my opinion on why. Why do you think in a seven-game series you see such a variety of scores and winners and losers? It’s mostly determined by who the two starting pitchers are, and who the home plate umpire is that game. The electronic policeman (one of the worst things to have looking over the shoulder of a home plate umpire) has made calling balls and strikes more inconsistent than ever before. Before electronic policemen, you knew before the game started if it would be a “pitcher’s zone” today (i.e. the late Ed Runge) or a “hitter’s zone” (i.e. the late Ed Hurley). You pitched accordingly. Those three individuals dictated the outcome of the game more often than today.

With pitch counts, innings restrictions, and relief specialists, that has changed. I think that those things I referred to make Justin Verlander a better choice than ever because he did what pitchers did decades ago in an era where it is more unusual. When you saw his name listed as the starting pitcher, you knew the Tigers were going to be difficult to defeat. I’d give plenty of credit to the closers as well, like Valverde…  and how many titles would the Yankees have won in the past 15 years without Mariano Rivera?

Okay, I’m a former pitcher so I see things differently than a position player but that’s my story and I’m not changing it.
Sooo… Congratulations to all the award winners and congratulations to all who were in the discussion.

Wow! Another ‘Oh What a Night”!

A little over a week ago I blogged about a great night I experienced at the MLB Players Alumni Association dinner in New York. Last Friday, courtesy of Rawlings Sporting Goods, I think I had an even better one.

I’ll give you the overview first. The theme was Gold Glove Awards. The emcees were Joe Piscopo with help from Dennis Haysbert. If Dennis’s name is not familiar to you he is the new “Voice of God” since Bob Sheppard is no longer with us. He was Chico in the movie Major League, and currently does the TV commercials for Allstate. A warm, gentle guy.

Here’s something I found out about Dennis while chatting with him at the VIP reception. He was a linebacker in high school. Grew up in Northern California. Intercepted a pass one night thrown by…..Keith Hernandez! Dennis and Keith got a chance to reminisce about their high school football days.

I’ll fast-forward to the final events of the program. Jerry Seinfeld performed 30 minutes of the funniest stuff I’ve ever heard. What a talent. Good, clean, clever humor. And then, to close it out… the original cast from Jersey Boys sang a few songs finishing with… “Oh What a Night”!

We have Mike Thompson, Senior VP of Marketing for Rawlings and Robert Parish, CEO of Rawlings to thank for by far the most enjoyable awards dinner I have ever attended. They had a lot of help from a lot of people too numerous to mention. The Alumni Association helped get us former players involved. This year’s awards were presented to the recipients by former Gold Glove winners, including my former teammates Bob Boone, Keith Hernandez, and Ozzie Smith. Ozzie also was inducted into the Rawlings Gold Glove Hall of Fame. He is the fifth inductee. The others: Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and — here’s the shocker — me! I was so humbled to hear my name mentioned with those four Hall of Famers. Very cool — or maybe in today’s culture I should say, “Wicked cool!”

I had one other personal best moment. Yogi Berra was presented with the Rawlings Lifetime Achievement Award by my friend and broadcast partner, Bob Costas. When I presented the pitchers awards to Mark Buerhle and Clayton Kershaw, I told the audience how cool it was to tell people I had the privilege of facing Yogi in 1960! He is an American treasure. Tommy Lasorda was awarded the Heart of Gold Award. Here’s the full list of this year’s winners. The other presenters were Frank White of the Royals, new White Sox mananger Robin Ventura, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, and Andre Dawson.

Here is an example of how baseball has grown in public appeal as far as the number of fans and media exposure: When I was awarded my first gold glove after the 1962 season, I didn’t even know they had such an award. I was raised by a dad who was an avid baseball fan. Read The Sporting News cover to cover back when it was “The Baseball Bible.” (It never mentioned other sports. When they started covering other sports, he cancelled his subscription.)

So, I’m reading The Sporting News after the 1962 season, and I see my picture along with Al Kaline and Brooks Robinson and others who were voted by the players, coaches, and managers as Gold Glove winners. I called my dad and told him, “I just won an award I never heard of. Something about being a good fielder.”

The following season, a Rawlings rep presented it to me before a game. My teammates Earl Battey and Tony Oliva also won those awards during their careers. Now, we have a special night attended by several hundred people with all this top entertainment in a prestigous New York hotel, The Pierre , to honor the winners. The gloves and baseballs on the trophies are laced with 24-karat gold! I was going to ask Rawlings if they could retrofit the 16 I have plus the special Gold Glove Hall of Fame edition with 24-karat gold!

It was truly a night to remember and I hope Rawlings continues to stage it. In the early 90s, Brooks Robinson and I were the first two inductees in the Gold Glove Hall of Fame. We had a dinner event at the World Trade Center to commemorate it. Cal Ripken received one of his Gold Gloves at it. Then… poof! The awards dinner disappeared. Don’t know why, but I’m glad they’ve brought it back.

Last Friday night was another example of how priviliged I feel to continue to be involved in the great game of baseball for over 50 years. And to add to the night, there was a singing of the national anthem with the National Guard Color Guard standing on stage and a salute to veterans and wounded warriors in attendance. Proceeds from the dinner were given to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Rawlings, thank you for a 24-karat gold night of enjoyment!

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