Tagged: Harmon Killebrew

Odds and ends

A few things have popped up in the sports news lately and they have hit my hot button!

As a media person as well as a former professional athlete, I am blessed to have a unique advantage in some of the “shenanigans” that go on in sports. The much-ado-about-nothing story that slightly deflated footballs were used in the AFC Championship Game game is an example of the people responsible for airing this coverage on TV and writing about it failing to do sufficient homework.

I tried to approach my job as a broadcaster the same as I did when I was a player. Be prepared. Do the homework and research necessary to be accurate, honest and objective. Unless you have been living under a rock and not paying attention to what goes on behind the scenes in sports, you have missed the fact that teams in all sports — both professional and amateur — always have tried to get an edge over the opponent.

Although I made my living in baseball as a player, I did do some volunteer work in professional football in the baseball offseason. In the 1960s, I worked the sidelines at Minnesota Vikings games, helping my friend, Jimmy Weisner, the equipment manager for the visiting teams. I tossed parkas over the players coming off the field. I have wrapped a parka around Bart Starr, Gale Sayers, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung and Johnny Unitas. In my snowmobile suit and ski mask, they had no idea I also was a player at their level in a different sport. I had access to the locker room and I heard all the conversations about their sport.

So, let me tell you that “doctoring” footballs to suit your quarterback, receivers and kickers has gone on for decades. I know of teams that used to take four footballs at a time, put them in plastic garbage bags and have someone repeatedly slam the bag against a wall to soften up the balls. Then they would wash them, put them in the dryer to dry, and put them in the box for the officials in order to appear brand new, even though they had been broken in a bit.

I give you all this background information to point out that if today’s media would do their research, they would find out this stuff has been going on for a long time. And, by the way, I was rooting for the Packers to get to the Super Bowl, so I am not writing this to support Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, though I have great respect for both of them. I wish the media would look for the value in pursuing the life of Brandon Bostick. He is the player who fumbled the onside kick that enabled Seattle to recover it and eventually win the game in overtime. His attitude and accountability are life lessons for every young athlete on how to handle a crisis.

Final thought on this: Wouldn’t it solve this issue if the league just put 24 footballs in the hands of the officials on game day, with the same specs for both teams?

The big media buzz over the deflated footballs brought back memories of things baseball teams did to gain an edge. I broke into the majors with the Senators in the middle of the 1959 season at 20 years of age. My first game was against the Chicago White Sox, the eventual AL pennant winners that year. They were known for speed and bunting. Our third baseman that day was Harmon Killebrew. He would become my friend and was a teammate for the next 15 years. Harm told me that if a bunt rolled down the third baseline, don’t expect it to roll foul like most would in other parks. Fields were crowned for drainage in those days and slow rollers down the line tended to roll into foul territory. The White Sox slanted their foul lines toward fair territory so bunts would stay fair and become hits.

Both Harmon and the White Sox habit of  “customizing” things to their advantage surfaced again in the mid-1960s. After hitting a long fly to left that resulted in a long out, Harm sat next to me in the dugout and said, “I crushed that ball. I can’t believe it didn’t go out.” In those days, they rolled the last out of the inning toward the mound, so being the pitcher that day, when I picked up the ball, it felt unusually cold for a summer day. Later we would find out the White Sox stored the baseballs in a cold room. They were singles hitters and we had home run hitters. The cold baseballs didn’t carry as well. The White Sox also were caught using a telescope in center field to look at opposing catchers’ signs, to be able to tip off their hitters on what pitch was coming. But it wasn’t just the White Sox. Most teams did something to gain an edge.

News this week of using a pitch clock to speed up games. It has been supported by our outgoing commissioner, Bud Selig. I wish there were a way for Bud to stand behind a pitcher during the game and see that it’s not pitch clock, but a batter clock.

During a postseason game a few years back, I decided to track the time hitters took up by stepping out of the box, adjusting their wrist bands, re-fastening their gloves and looking at the third base coach for a sign with a full count and the bases loaded, when no sign would be necessary. Without going into the exact time details of what it took for a batter to get ready for the next pitch, I can tell you that if batters kept one foot in the box after each pitch and if some company could develop a batting glove that would fit snugly enough that it wouldn’t need re-fastening and also had a wristband attached to it, the game would be a minimum of 20 minutes faster. Speaking as a former pitcher who pitched many games in under two hours, I can assure you that even with increased commercial time, it is not pitchers who are causing longer games. It is managers trying to control too many things from the bench, making too many trips to the mound and batters who take too much time between pitchers. I have had a chance to meet our new commissioner, Rob Manfred, and I hope to get the opportunity to share my thoughts on the issue with him.

I close with a tribute to everyone’s friend in baseball, Ernie Banks. Ernie always made you feel like you were his closest friend. In 2009 while covering the All-Star Game for MLB Network, I walked into the lobby of our hotel in St. Louis and heard a pleasant voice calling my name. I looked at the person, and it was Ernie sitting in a lounge chair, mimicking holding a golf club in his hands. It was a reference to the fact we were both golf enthusiasts. I introduced him to my bride who was a former golf professional at the club level and asked Margie for a few tips on his setup and posture. So here is Margie giving Ernie “Bingo” Banks a golf lesson in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in suburban St. Louis. What a great memory for both Margie and for me. No one could make you feel prouder to be a ballplayer than Ernie Banks. Thanks, Ernie, for all you did on the field and for the way you uplifted all of us with your spirit.


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!

Whew! A day or two off might be a welcome relief

Wow!  Can’t remember seeing so many bizarre things happen in one game! And… it’s the World Series!

Mix-ups, miscommunications, unusual moves, unusual results.

First, I always believe that managers know their players and what they can and can’t do better than any of us. I can only comment on what I would do if I were pitching or what I learned from watching players that I played with and against  and managers that I played  for and apply that knowledge to try to figure out what is going on between the lines and in the minds of those involved down on the field.

Last night’s game was a second-guesser’s delight. Lots of things to question players and managers about. Here are some of the things that puzzled me and what I would have wanted to ask some of the participants about:

Let’s start with the result. Texas won 4-2, but it didn’t seem as “clean”  or well played game that a 4-2 score would indicate.

C.J. Wilson walked through a minefield of base runners through five innings to survive by surrendering just two runs. Not all his fault. The Rangers were a little sloppy with their fielding. I cringed when he came out for the 6th.

Chris Carpenter deserved to be the winning pitcher. The curve to Adrian Beltre just a smidge too high and a smidge too much inside. Other than that pitch and the one Mitch Moreland smoked, he was terrific.  Give up two solo home runs in that park to that lineup, and you’ll win probably eight out of 10 times.

So why would Albert or Tony put a hit-and-run sign on with Albert hitting? I ask because when I played with Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew, he never wanted the runners to be in motion when he was at bat. First, they were already in scoring position, because Harm was one of the most dangerous home run threats of his era. He hit 573 of them. Secondly, when the runners were in motion, it distracted him… and tempted him to swing at close pitches he would normally not swing at. Like most power hitters, he hit into a lot of double plays. So what. Maybe the purpose of the hit-and-run has changed, but during my era of playing, the hit-and-run’s purpose was to make the middle infielders move and open up a hole to get runners on first and third. Staying out of the DP was secondary.

I’m puzzled in learning that Albert puts on a hit-and-run sign a lot. Didn’t think it would be necessary. Also, the hit-and-run usually is easier to execute when you have a pitcher that is a) almost always around the plate with his pitches; and b) quite easy easy to make contact with his pitches. Feliz is neither. He misses the strike zone by a lot, and he’s difficult for a hitter to make contact.

I would never suspect a hitter of Albert’s caliber would use the hit-and-run a lot. I know he doesn’t strike out as much as he walks or as much as most home run hitters do, but from a pitcher’s point of view i think I’d rather have him hit-and-run and try to make contact than to sit on a pitch, take a balanced swing and cost me two runs with a homer.

I have seen that the purpose of the hit and run has changed from what its intention was when guys like Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox used it in the 50s for the White Sox or Dick Groat when he hit second for the Cardinals and Pirates. Fox struck out 13 times in 1959 in over 600 ABs, Groat 35 times in 1960 in over 600 ABs. Both guys won MVP awards. That was the typical hit-and-run type batter. Soooooo, that’s why it’s puzzling to see a hitter like Albert use it. He’s certainly capable of making contact, except against Feliz it’s a low percentage.

Now, about the bullpen mixup… It’s a stadium design flaw if the bullpens are not in view of the team dugout. Manager and pitching coach should be able to see who is or isn’t warming up. When the phones broke down years ago, we’d have individual signals from the bench for each reliever. Make a big circle with your hands if he was a little heavy; stroke your chin if he had a beard; arm up high for the taller of the two lefties. Plenty of ways to do it.

When the bullpen and dugout phones were connected to the stadium switchboard, they had three-digit extensions. The directory was on a card on the wall in the dugouts and the bullpens. In Detroit, the home bullpen was down the left field line, and the guys in the home dugout couldn’t see it.  The Tigers’ late inning pitcher was lefty Hank Aguirre. As a starting pitcher, I would get bored and restless on the days I wasn’t pitching, so I’d sneak down to the pen. Drove the bullpen coach crazy. Clyde McCullough or Bob Oldis or whoever it was at the time.

One day we got a couple of runners on base and, for fun, I decided to call the Tiger pen and in a muffled, disguised voice I quickly said, “Get Aguirre up,” and hung up. He got up and started to warm up. It was the 4th inning. They recognized it after a short time and sat him down.

Lots of bullpen pranks went on in those days. The late Moe Drabowsky tried to order Chinese takeout to be deilvered to the bullpen one day. I never imagined things like what happened in last night’s bullpen mix-up could happen with today’s technology. I admire Tony La Russa for being very cool about it after the game. I can only imagine how he felt not having Motte ready to pitch to Napoli instead of “Scrabble.”

Now, “Wash”… Was it really just a gut feeling and you hoped he’d get lucky, or you liked the way the stars were aligned when you allowed Murphy to bat against the lefty? If it was fielded cleanly, it would’ve, should’ve, could’ve been a double play. That would have been an interesting answer to get from him if that happened.

But it didn’t. The Rangers got a break and eventually won the game even after a hit batsman and a walk. And the game ended on a strikeout that could have resulted in all kinds of trouble for Texas, as Mike Napoli had to chase the ball down the first base line and flip it to first for the final out. That ball could have gone in a different direction easily.

All in all…Carpenter pitched well enough to win. Wilson worked his way out a lot of  situations where the Cardinals could have broken the game open and led by a lot. Credit him for that. It’s always an interesting topic: Was it poor hitting or good pitching? The guy is their ace and won 16 games. That didn’t happen by accident…

I think both managers may have interesting decisions to make tonight or tomorrow regarding their starting pitchers, because the early report is that  Game 6 may be postponed and played on Thursday. That would be a nice break for the Cardinals. If it goes seven, Carpenter might be available to start that game. Derek Holland could come back for Texas fresh off his gem on Sunday night.

This baseball is a great game, isn’t it?  Can’t wait to see Game 6, whenever that is played.

Great Sunday Sports day

Beautiful day yesterday for the sports fan….Here in New England we got to watch Tom Brady do what he has been doing for a decade. Lead the Patriots to victory with an efficient exhibition of accurate passing and intelligent play calling. I watched Ben Crane come from 8 shots back with 11 holes left to play and comeback to win a PGA event in a playoff. And then, to top it off, the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Milwaukee Brewers to complete the most improbable comeback in my lifetime of baseball history to win the National League pennant.

I look forward to comparing the Cardinals and Texas Rangers before Wednesday night’s World Series opener but today I’d like to pay homage to the way these individuals and teams conducted themselves when they won and as they performed.

A sportscaster and excellent play by play hockey announcer , Al Shaver, did a sports wrap up show on WCCO radio in Minneapolis in the late 60’s. I have never forgotten his closing tag line and I always kept in fresh in my mind during my playing career. He said, ” This is Al Shaver saying “When you lose say little, when you win…say less.” Beautiful! When will athletes get that attitude? Nyjer Morgan and Zack Grienke of the Brewers and the over the top “look at me” NFL players doing their personal sack or touchdown dances like Cam Newton yesterday. He’s doing great but is his team winning?

I got a chance up close to see how the NY Yankees in the 60’s with Roger and Mickey and Whitey acted when they won and the Orioles in the late 60’s. Brooks and Frank Robinson and company…pure class. they carried themselves with dignity and humility. Those seem to be forgotten qualities today for athletes. Now I understand spontaneous  joy and celebration. That’s normal in today’s games versus years ago when it wasn’t accepted. You were tabbed as a “Showboat” or in baseball, a “Hot Dog” if you showed emotion when you did something  special.

Of course, now it doesn’t have to be special. just an ordinary tackle or hit or strikeout seems to merit a big celebration. I watched Alan Page of the Vikings and Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers and Harmon Killebrew, my teammate for 16 years with the Minnesota Twins do great things and act like it was just something they were supposed to do not celebrate like they helped achieve world peace or found a cure for cancer.

So…here’s to Tom Brady, who was shown on the bench after leading his team to victory, sitting almost expressionless, acting like he just did something that was very routine and didn’t need props to massage his ego. And to Ben Crane, who gave his fellow competitor, Webb Simpson, a hug and a pat after Simpson missed a putt to give Ben the victory in the McGladrey’s classic. And most of all to the St. Louis Cardinals players and their manager, Tony La Russa, who talked about their heart and character and praised their opponent.

Maybe I’m too old fashioned to accept today’s showboats and hotdogs and occasionally arrogant athletes, but I’ll never waver from my agreeing with Al Shaver. When you lose say little, when you win…say less.