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…
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!
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.
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.
October is an exciting time of year for baseball fans and I am a fan as well as a former player and now, a member of the MLB Network announcing team. So I thought I would revive Kaat’s Korner and blog some of my thoughts. I started Kaat’s Korner in the late ’80s as a pregame segment on the Minnesota Twins Cable Network when I was announcing their games. I also did some blogging for YES while a member of the Yankees’ announcing team. Of course, the original K-Korner will and always should be credited to my friend Ralph Kiner, who had his show called “Kiner’s Korner” since the early 1960s on Mets telecasts. That title itself was based on his old “Kiner’s Korner” section of home run seats in left field at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in the 1940s, replacing Hank Greenberg’s “Greenberg’s Gardens” there.
Those slugging roots notwithstanding, I am going to start with my favorite topic: pitching. The real “money” ball players, as I have often good-naturedly chided “Moneyball” central figure Billy Beane, are pitchers. No disrepect to the likes of Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols, but it is still about which team pitches best usually wins. Oakland had Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder as their starters when “Moneyball” became a term that some experts glommed onto as the reason for a team’s success. They were hard to find in the movie. I guess Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett could not have played for a team that operated on the “Moneyball” theory. They seldom walked or struck out or took a lot of pitches!
OK, back to pitching. I think the classic duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the National League Division Series should be required watching for every pitcher — amateur, Minor or Major Leaguer. Watch the videos on MLB.com and study how Carpenter and Halladay went about their business. Pay attention to the pace with which they worked, the methodical, rhythmic, consistent time between pitches. There was not much hesitation. They never seemed to have any doubt about what they wanted to do with the next pitch. They pitched like the hitter was just someone standing in their way. They seemed to say: “I challenge you to hit this pitch, I’m not afraid you’re going to hit it.” They had no apparent fear of contact and pitched their pitches with conviction. I refuse to say “threw their pitches” because these two are not “brain-dead heavers.” That’s a term pitchers in the past 10 to 15 years have coined for those who are infatuated with how fast their fastballs are clocked. They are throwers, not pitchers. Justin Verlander was a thrower as were most of us in our early days in the Majors, but he has become a “pitcher.” Look at the results this year.
Listen carefully to what Carpenter said after the game when asked how he produced so many groundball outs in a ballpark that rewards flyballs. He made it sound so simple and other pitchers should take note: “Yeah, keeping the ball down in the strike zone, sinking the ball down with my fastball, keeping my breaking ball down, staying ahead in the count. And when you do that, you get those guys who obviously are a fabulous hitting ballclub, you get them in swing mode. If you’re aggressive and they know that, if they don’t swing, you’re going to be 1-2, 0-2, whatever it is early in the count or behind in the count, they’re going to start swinging and that’s when you can start expanding the strike zone and getting the ball down and getting them to swing at stuff you want them to swing at and producing good results.”
Those Game 5 results took me back to the World Series games between the Yankees and Braves in the 1950s when Lew Burdette, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford and Bob Turley were hooking up in similar pitching duels. I didn’t miss a pitch. That was pitching at its highest level, like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. I smiled as I read comments about how some players on other teams do not like Carpenter. He seems to be mean or brusque or unfriendly. Good on ya’, Chris. That’s the way it should be! Not many liked Gibson, either. I wish more hitters would have hated me. My problem was the opposite. They sent a limo for me on the day I pitched so I’d get to the park safely and they could run up to the plate and swing. I wish I’d have known Chris Carpenter back then.
For me, other pitchers this postseason who are enjoyable to watch, whether they won or not, have been Cliff Lee, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, most of the Texas staff. They give you the impression they are in control of the game and are going to dictate the pace. I wish there were more of them. I announced some Red Sox games in September and, living in Vermont in the summer, I watched a lot of them as well. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are high-quality pitchers, but — and I mentioned this to my friend Terry Francona on more than one occasion — they began to pitch like they were stuck in quicksand in September. No energy, no pace. They appeared to have scouting-reportitis. That’s a disease pitchers suffer when they have studied hitters’ weaknesses to the point where they do not “trust their stuff” and worry about the hitter making contact.
I look forward to seeing more performances like I saw from Chris and Roy. There are too few of them these days.