January 2012

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!”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 107 other followers