World Series thoughts

I would have been happy for any of the 10 teams that qualified for postseason play to have made it to the World Series. I have friends, former teammates and former opponents who are now coaches on all 10 teams. But now that the Royals and Giants are there, it is refreshing as a former player and lifelong fan of the game that teams with something inside of their minds and bodies trump the continuing litany of mostly meaningless stats identified by acronyms (that a lot of us still don’t understand) spewed out almost defiantly to try to have us believe that’s what determines the final score.

The final score is the only real meaningful number out there. Because anyone who has ever played knows what my friend Buddy Biancalana wrote in his guest post to this blog is true. I won’t bore you with my stats but in September of 1967 I enjoyed a similar period of time that Buddy had in the 1985 World Series.

How I wish I knew then what I know now about “getting in your own way,” “trying too hard” and many other things that keep us from performing our best at the right time. I never knew how right I was when I would holler in the dugout prior to taking the field before heading out to the mound, ” Okay guys, let’s cut our heads off and let our bodies go to work.”

My hope is that each of these teams can keep playing the game with the same unbridled enthusiasm and fluidity that they have done so far. It has been a real pleasure to watch the game played as art and not science.

Both teams come into the Fall Classic with monentum. I really feel it will be more difficult for the Royals to keep theirs than it will be for the Giants. Kansas City will have had a longer layoff. San Francisco is in a more fluid mode.

MadBum (my favorite pitcher in the big leagues) will be on regular rest. He is the best I’ve seen at a young age of “letting his body do the work” — not overthinking. He also seems to be able to repeat a fluid motion better than most we have seen in the past few weeks.

I am not a prognosticator, so I would never say the Royals can’t do it, I just think they have a more difficult challenge ahead of them than the Giants, who seem to able to treat these World Series games as everyday Spring Training games. Selfishly, I hope that these two teams continue to play the game this week with the same “intensity without tension” (credit to Joe Torre for that saying) displayed by Lorenzo Cain and many of his teammates, and Hunter Pence, The Panda and their teammates.

It may open the door for those of us who recognize the game is played by real people, not robots, They have different feelings every day like all of you. It would be nice to get equal airtime to educate and inform fans about the art of the game. If the “numbers nerds” and “stat geeks” predict the Giants in five or the Royals in six, ask them if they can tell which games they will lose.

Statistics and records in baseball are great to use for historical purposes. The numerous graphics and metrics tell you what happened in the past, but the outcomes of the games you watch today and tomorrow will be decided by the things that Buddy refers to in his article. How do I know? I’ve been there and done that. And sometimes didn’t do that!

Why the Royals Will Win or Lose the Series, From a Neuroscience Perspective

The following is a guest post by my friend, Buddy Biancalana:

With the success of this Royals club, it is kicking up many questions and memories about our 1985 World Series win against the Cardinals. Many are asking my opinion about how the two teams compare and if the club can stay hot. I am really enjoying watching the city come alive and the exhilaration so many are enjoying. What a wonderful time!

As you may know, my notoriety was achieved from one week of my career when I had a zone experience in that ’85 Series, in which I played the best baseball I ever played. After hitting just .188 during the regular season, I hit .278 with a .435 on base percentage and played errorless at shortstop. It was as if the game was in slow motion. I felt like I had more time, I wasn’t thinking and my swing and my defense were more fluid and effortless than ever before. I was told I received the highest number of MVP votes for a position player. (Bret Saberhagen deservedly won the award.)

Royals vs Cardinals World Series 1985

A big question surrounding the club going into Spring Training the following season whether I could sustain my level of play and keep the shortstop job. The question loomed even larger in my own mind, because I had no idea what took place that allowed me to play so well the previous October, so I really had no idea how to repeat it. I was hoping I could, however I felt quite a bit of anxiety wondering if I really could.

It turned out that I did not keep the job, and was out of the Major Leagues just 18 months later after suffering a career-ending back injury. Regardless, my level of play diminished greatly.
As I look at this current Royals club, I see a team that has a great bullpen, good speed and excellent defense. The biggest thing they have going for them may be the huge wave of momentum they are riding. They and their hundreds of thousands of followers are hoping the wave doesn’t crash over the next week or so, like mine did after the ’85 Series.

Over the years, there have been many great players who have not played well in the postseason. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Prince Fielder are three, who for the most part have not produced in October.
In the first two games of the Royals’ Division Series win against the Angels, the trio of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were a collective 1-25. I’m sure that is not what Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto had in mind when signing the three to contracts in excess of $500 million. The fact that they struggled does not indicate they are not still great players, however it very clearly indicates they do not understand on the most fundamental level what makes them great.

There is a process quantified by Dr. Fred Travis, director at the Center for Brain Consciousness and Cognition, as to what takes place in the brain when any athlete is playing at their best. It is called “The Fluid Motion Factor.” When an athlete is “in the zone,” the information they are processing is moving to a part of the brain called the cerebellum uninterrupted by the prefrontal cortex. It is what I experienced when playing in the ‘85 Series. It is the only way that fluid motion is produced in the body and what many of the current Royals have been experiencing over the first eight postseason games.

Salvador Perez, their All-Star catcher, may be one of the few who is not experiencing the Fluid Motion Factor. Thus far in the postseason, he is hitting just .118 with a .143 on-base percentage, despite a career average of .280 with a .315 OBP. As great as A-Rod, Bonds, Fielder, Trout, Pujols and Hamilton are/were, often in the postseason the Fluid Motion Factor has shut down, which caused their performances to suffer.

The concern for the red-hot Royals is that the Fluid Motion Factor can leave them just as quickly as it came, and like me in the spring of 1986, they may not know where to look to regain it. The good news is that Dayton Moore has not tied up over $500 million in three players.

Buddy Biancalana is a former first-round MLB draft pick and played six seasons as a Major League infielder with the Royals and Astros, winning the 1985 World Series with the Royals. He is the co-founder of PMPM Sports-Zone Training and the co-author of The 7 Secrets of World Class Athletes.

Division Series musings

What a great time to be a baseball fan and then having the advantage of being a former player as well. I wish these Division Series games could go on forever. Compelling games that really expose what determines a win or loss, these are much more entertaining to me as a fan, because you see so many different teams in a short period of time. The LCS and World series drag on too long.

These games are pleasing to me because they expose how the endless metrics and stats that inundate us with have very little to do with who wins or loses. It’s not pitch count, it’s pitch selection and execution. More on that later.

Buck ShowalterIt’s been a real pleasure for me to see the maturation of Buck Showalter as a manager. I was announcing Yankee games in 1995 when Buck was managing them. He was not as free to be himself then because, well, because they were the Yankees and George Steinbrenner and his ‘baseball people’ were still a little heavy-handed during that time and looking over his shoulder.

Now he’s become the most delightful, insightful, secure, unguarded manager I talk to for pregame preparation. How about him leaving a lefty, Andrew Miller, in to face Miggy? How many managers today would have the guts to do that? And walk the winning run intentionally? Great move. Brad Ausmus had no power hitters left on his bench.

Speaking of Ausmus, did you know three of the four managers in this season’s LCS are former catchers? Six of the 10 teams that qualified for the postseason were managed by former catchers.

As a former player and coach and current announcer for MLB Network, over the past 58 years I have had the advantage and privilege of being in uniform for over 4,000 Major League games, and in the broadcast booth for another 2,000. What I have learned from those games is that it is not the pitch counts, innings restrictions, OPS, WAR, WHIP, or any other acronym that determines who is going to win or lose.

As our friend Joe Torre said many years ago, the key is to be “intense without being tense” — a fluid motion and less grip pressure on the ball and bat. The four teams that did that the best are the four teams still standing. None of the four were favored to win by most people. They all certainly surprised and impressed me.

When are we going to quit “drinking the Kool-Aid” served by those who have never worn a Major League uniform or experienced what it is like to be in the game? There are hard-working managers and coaches who could have much more influence on their teams and players if they didn’t have to be subjected to the metrics handed down from above. My longtime friend and teammate, Hall of Fame broadcaster Tim McCarver, and I delight in being accused of not embracing a lot of the metrics. We take it as a compliment!

Let’s go back to pitch counts. I’m sure there is a lot of discussion today about Clayton Kershaw’s pitch count coming back on “just” three days rest. Let me go back to Game 7 of the 1965 World Series when our Minnesota Twins were playing the Dodgers. Sandy Koufax was pitching with two days of rest, coming off a complete game shutout in Game 5. He had an average curveball by his standards the first five innings, and then it lost its bite and he threw nothing but well-located fastballs the final four innings. The result was a 2-0 shutout.

Last night’s Cardinals-Dodgers game solidified my thinking that there are more late-inning, game-winning hits off poorly thrown breaking balls than fastballs. Former coaches Eddie Lopat and Johnny Sain, both curveball specialists, taught me that early in my career.

If you watched Kershaw’s curve in the early innings, it was crisp and sharp. Then it began to lose its bite. Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright predicted Matt Adams would hit a curveball out if he got one. He probably could see from the bench what I saw on TV. I would never second guess the call of A.J. Ellis or Kershaw in throwing the curve. The pitcher and catcher know better than anyone in the park which pitch they think is best. It’s the execution.

As Eddie Lopat taught me, if you throw a curveball late in the game when it isn’t as sharp, you try to throw it “lower than low.” Try to bounce it on the plate and it will come in at the knees. It always seems to come in a little higher than you intended.

That’s all that happened on that pitch. It wasn’t because his count was at 100-plus pitches. It was the execution. As the late, great Warren Spahn told me 50 years ago, “Kid, when the game is tied in the seventh inning, the game is just starting. You can’t get by the last three innings with mistakes that you may have in the first six.”

Taking starting pitchers out when they are rolling along is another area where gut and art are better than metrics. Jordan Zimmermann was rolling along like a freight train. Why stop the train? It’s like taking the starting catcher out for a pinch hitter when he and the pitcher have a shutout going. There was more pressure on Drew Storen in that situation than on Zimmermann. He had the feel of the ball, fluid motion, could smell the finish line. Why stop him?

Probably because the organization’s protocol is that this is what we do in the ninth inning when the pitch count hits 100. What a shame that our game has come to be science rather than art and feel. I’m sure Matt Williams was influenced by how things are done day after day, regardless of the situation.

I like Kansas City’s “Moneyball” — not walks and home runs and taking pitches, but stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, great fielders and an outstanding bullpen. That’s moneyball for me.

Another item that those of us that have been in the game for a while have long recognized: the three men who affect the outcome of a game the most are the two starting pitchers and the home plate umpire. The last couple of Cardinals-Dodgers games were good indicators. Umpires are people not robots. They all interpret the strike zone differently.

As Buck Showalter told me earlier this year, “Some umpires hunt strikes; some hunt balls.” I know Dale Scott, Eric Cooper and several of the umpires. “Scotty” has always had a pitcher-friendly zone. In my era, Ed Runge was that way, too. His motto was, “They didn’t come to see you walk.” Eddie Hurley was just the opposite. I called him “Cracker Box,” because that was the size of his strike zone. There is no doubt that if a different umpire had been behind the plate in some of these Division Series games, the outcome may have been different. But they’re human and they’re the best in the business.

Now, I do embrace some numbers. My favorite set of numbers is the final score. Score one more than the opposition, you win 100 percent of the time. Nice percentage.

The number three is scored most of the time according to the 25-year database my friend Merrianna McCully has in her book, Three Up – Three Down. Two runs is second most common. It’s interesting that three runs were scored by one team on eight occasions in the 26 Division Series games this year. The team scoring three runs won six of those. Impressive starting pitching, great fielding plays and lockdown bullpens enabled that. Two runs were scored seven times, with just two wins out of those seven games. Four or more runs were scored eight times, and those teams’ record in those games was 6-2.

That’s the norm during the season. If you score four or more every game, you should win the series. Not eight one day and none the next. Averages are meaningless. A consistent four runs is what you shoot for every game. You can see how that “swing run” is a little lower with these four teams left. Three runs might be enough.

Enjoy the rest of the postseason. I hope these LCS and World Series games are as good as the Division Series games!

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!

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