11th and Washington

11th and Washington: March 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Baseball is ...

Thanks, Ernie...

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ballpark landscapes

While looking through my baseball photos on Flickr the other night, it hit me just how many times I've been fortunate to see a brilliant sunset while at the ballpark. So, hey, the natural thing is a post about it, right!?

Of course.


Be this sunset soon forgotten

This was the first one, in 1999 -- and will likely remain the best. It will be hard to top. We ran it in the newspaper, too, when my column about Yogi Berra Stadium ran.


Sunset beyond the ballpark

I stepped off the subway on a sweltering July night in 2005 for Merengue Night at Shea Stadium and before entering the ballpark was nearly blinded by the setting sun over the top of the stands.


From the Lakewood dugout

Sod Squad sunset view

I've spent many a night at Lakewood's FirstEnergy Park, more than at any Minor League field -- though as a reporter, I didn't usually have my camera with me, so who knows how many sunsets I missed. The first was taken from the dugout in 2006, the second from the berm beyond right-center field last August.


Bunting in the sky

Skyline sunset

The first great sunset came on the first -- not-great -- night. Opening night, spectacular colors on the clouds. The second was one of many nights spent in Danny Meyer Land; this particular one was in September 2009.


Sky lights

It was a wonderful Memorial Day weekend in 2009 -- the Mets were at Fenway on the weekend we make our annual trip to Cape Cod, so we delayed our arrival in Hyannis to Saturday morning so that we could watch Johan Santana vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka. Before a Mets win, we got this sky show.


Sunset over Aberdeen

Last August, just a few weeks before the Sod Squad shot in Lakewood, I stopped at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., on my way back from Baltimore and the sky turned orange for the former Oriole.

Wow. Now this has me eager to get back to a ballpark. Just a few more weeks!

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Updating Topps' father-son set

The first baseball cards I got as a kid were from the 1985 Topps set. Those block letters set at an angle, colorful fronts and the moss-green backs with red lettering (like Christmas in every pack) still take me back to a specific part of my childhood, of the pharmacy down the street where I'd buy my packs.

Two years later, I started going regularly when, in 1987, I started chasing the complete set. Then in 1988, my collecting really took off as I bought Topps by the wax box and dove into the new Score set. (I never really chased after Donruss or Fleer as much, though whether it was because those sets didn't appeal to me as much or they weren't carried in my neighborhood, I'm not sure.)

But the '85 set stands out, because even though I didn't come close to collecting all of them, that was the first time I bought any packs regularly. Plus, it had two seminal subsets: the 1984 Olympic baseball team and the Father/Son cards. The Team USA cards, of course, took off when, three years later, the Mark McGwire card became his true rookie card.

But I didn't really get the concept of the Olympic team at that age (I don't recall any of the '84 Olympics, even though I was 8 years old; it wasn't until the '88 Olympics -- and Ben Johnson -- that my sports world expanded). So it was the Father/Son set that drew my interest, particularly the card of Yogi and Dale Berra -- the once and current Yankee, even though Dale's photo on the Father/Son card showed him with the Pirates. Probably because he was the Yankees manager at the time, Yogi Berra was to me everything the Yankees were -- the history and all that. We weren't (and aren't) a Yankee family, so my parents never told
me about Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle or even Thurman Munson. So Yogi stood out as the representative of the pinstripes. And because of that, the Berras' Father/Son card struck me as possibly being the coolest card in the set. (Plus, even then, I think I was aware that Yogi lived in Montclair, which though a long ways away -- at 9, I judged distances by whether or not we had to drive on a highway to get there -- was the town where my mom's aunt and uncle lived and near my grandparents' house.)

And so I got to thinking about some of the other Father/Son cards -- the Schofields, Bells, Kennedys, Boones, Laws, Skinners and Franconas. That led me to some of today's players whose fathers played the game and I wished that Topps would bring back the Father/Son cards. While I think some of their recent player pairings have been fun to see, I'd like a reprise of actual baseball lineage, more than just "Legendary Lineage" as Topps sees it.

I know others out there on this series of tubes we call the internet have Photoshopped some recent Father/Son pairings, but I wanted to do a whole set in the 1985 style -- 13 cards showing the father on a Topps card of yore and a photo of the current player in a pose with his current team. The restrictions of current players eliminated some recent offspring who played, like Brian Bannister (who's now in Japan) and Ken Griffey Jr. But I still found enough pairings for 13 cards, including some current stars and some past heroes. And true to the '85 originals, they can't all be studs, so there's even a direct descendant of the Berra card featuring a Hall of Fame dad and a well-traveled, role-playing son.

Ike Davis was the first card I wanted to (re-)produce. Hardly a week goes by without the Mets' announcers mentioning Ron Davis' career, which spanned 11 years and five teams, mostly the Twins and Yankees. And Ike, of course, seems to be the face of the New Mets, the future from here.

I'll go alphabetically for the rest ...

Michael Brantley is projected to be the Indians' starting left fielder this year. He was the player to be named later in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers. Mickey Brantley played 302 games in four seasons with the Mariners. This 1989 Topps card records Mickey's best season in '88: .263/.296/.399, 15 home runs, 56 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 149 games.

Sal Butera spent four of his nine seasons with the Twins, but Drew was drafted by the Mets in 2005. (I recently discovered that I saw Drew Butera play for the Hagerstown Suns, catching for Jon Niese in a game in Lakewood in 2006.) The Mets dealt Drew to Minnesota as one of two players sent over for Luis Castillo, so if there's one good thing to come out of that deal, it's that it allowed the Buteras to become the first father-son duo in Twins history.

Robinson Cano is one of the biggest stars in this set, an All-Star second baseman for the sport's biggest draw in its biggest market. Jose Cano is one of the smallest, a right-handed pitcher whose entire career consisted of just six games with the Astros in 1989.

Other than Ike, Kyle Drabek is probably the baseball heir I'm most interested in seeing this season. A first-round pick of the Phillies in '06, Kyle pitched for the BlueClaws before being dealt to Toronto in the Roy Halladay deal. He made his debut last September, losing all three of his starts, but that was just a cameo. It'll be interesting to see what he can accomplish this season, particularly if he sticks in the rotation after Brandon Morrow returns from the disabled list. Doug Drabek, of course, pitched 13 seasons and won a Cy Young Award while with the Pirates in 1990, going 22-6.

Here's another well-known duo, though one that doesn't speak to one another anymore. I think that makes Prince Fielder's expression on this card very apt -- it's what he might look like if someone told him he were going to be on a baseball card with his father. Cecil Fielder made his name after his stint in Japan -- which followed his four seasons in Toronto from 1985-88 -- when he returned stateside to hit 204 home runs for the Tigers, Yankees and Angels. I was at Yankee Stadium for the final game of the 1990 season, when Cecil hit two home runs to finish with 51 -- the first 50-homer season since George Foster in 1977.

I nearly produced an error card in this set. After uploading all these images to the blog, I then went through to write the text and when I got to this one, I noticed I had neglected to change the player's name and team below Tony Gwynn Jr.'s photo; it still read Adam LaRoche, Nationals. This card is the equal of the Berras' card from '85: a Hall of Fame father in Tony Gwynn and a son who hasn't developed into a star. I'm not faulting the offspring here, just making a comparison.

It's a shame, but if there's one thing Adam LaRoche doesn't have, it's his dad's sense of facial hair style. Dave LaRoche remains in the game, most recently as the pitching coach in 2010 of the Las Vegas 51s, the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate.

Before he landed with the straitlaced Yankees, Nick Swisher had a flair for the hair, just like his dad. Nick has been known long before he broke into the big leagues, based on his good fortune to be drafted by the A's in 2002 -- the Moneyball draft -- out of Ohio State. Steve Swisher was a Bobcat, not a Buckeye -- he went to Ohio University.

Man, Will Venable looks happy to be a ballplayer! He has good reason to be, penciled in as the Padres' Opening Day right fielder. Last year, he and Gwynn Jr. roamed the PETCO Park outfield together. Max Venable spent eight of his 12 seasons in California, playing five years with the Giants and three with the Angels.

Neil Walker is, like the younger Drabek, a guy I'm interested in watching this season. It'd be nice if the Pirates had something good happen with another homegrown player. And I love this card of Tom Walker, primarily because it features the Cardinals' pillbox cap. If the Pirates have a throwback day in their pillbox lids, I may have to update this card.

This is the fifth card in this set with a Yankees connection (Ron Davis, Doug Drabek and Cecil Fielder also played in pinstripes, not to mention the two sons who currently do). This one might require an asterisk, because Dennis Werth is the stepfather to Jayson Werth, but the fact that Jayson has Dennis' surname is a good enough relationship to me.

And we close with EY and EY Jr., a pair of Jersey boys and a duo that played for the Rockies. Eric Young grew up in New Brunswick and played at Rutgers; Eric Young Jr. was drafted by Colorado out of Piscataway High School. I really wanted to use a Rockies card of EY, but the Google search did not turn up one suitable enough, and my collecting era ended before he joined the Rockies for their first season in 1993, so I don't have any in my possession.

We almost have a full starting lineup with the sons in this 13-player set -- only shortstop and third base are missing. I'm sure we could move Robby Cano over to short and maybe young Walker or Young could shift to third to fill the hole there. The roster of fathers is heavy on pitchers and outfielders, so we'd need to play several of them out of position in order to stage a father-son faceoff on the diamond.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From ND to MLB: Cap Anson

The first player to play professionally after attending Notre Dame also remains the first player on the list of his fellow Domers to experience The Show. He also retains the top spot in many Chicago Cubs career records -- hits, doubles, runs, RBI and WAR, as well as several other recent stats they never dreamed of in the 19th Century.

But there's not much that can be said about Cap Anson that hasn't been written already. (In particular, check out SABR's bio of Adrian Constantine Anson.) He was baseball's first star, its first player to collect 3,000 hits, and its model for endurance -- no hitter has matched his 27 years as a pro (though Anson's longevity had as much to do with his status at the White Stockings' manager for 18 years as it did with his ability).

Unfortunately, Anson was also one of the first to draw baseball's color line. David Fleitz sums it up in the SABR biography:

... As baseball grew in popularity, the handsome and highly successful Cap Anson became the sport's first true national celebrity.
Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game. An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo's African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson's lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade.

Another well-publicized incident occurred in Newark, N.J., in July 1887. The account, as described in Robert Peterson's Only the Ball Was White:

On the same day the International League's directors put up the color bar, the Newark Evening News announced that big George Stovey would pitch an exhibition game against the Chicago White Stockings at Newark on July 19. As the ace of the Little Giants' staff, Stovey was a natural selection to face the White Stockings, who were led by Adrian Constantine (Cap) Anson, one of the greatest players in baseball's history, the Babe Ruth and John McGraw of his era.
Newark beat the vaunted White Stockings in that exhibition, but the Little Giants did it without the services of Stovey, who, said the Evening News, "complained of sickness." Sporting Life's Newark correspondent had nothing to say about Stovey's indisposition but commented, "There was not an objectionable feature during the game, and the 'champs' leave here with the best wishes of our people."
A year later Sporting Life admitted that Stovey's complaint of sickness was involuntary and that the real reason he did not pitch was because Anson refused to field his team if the Negro played. It was another first in organized baseball, this triumph of race prejudice determining a manager's judgment; it was not, however the first -- or last -- attempt.

And it goes on from there, citing other instances of racism and pondering Anson's stance considering his status as the first white child born in Marshalltown, Iowa, his early playmates having been Pottawatomie Indians and his entire career spent in northern cities.

Anson attended Notre Dame from 1867-68, playing for a school team called Juanitas alongside his brother, Sturgis. In 1869, the campus weekly, Scholastic, listed the nine clubs on campus and their members -- totaling 185 players, or about 90 percent of the student population, as noted in Cappy Gagnon's Notre Dame Baseball Greats.

Juanitas won the campus title in 1868, prompting a laudatory poem in Scholastic, part of which praised the Anson brothers:

When short stop Anson caught that foul,
Buncum! The captain cried;
And well he might, for nary fowl
Can safely near him glide.

Bold Anson holds the centre field;
His eye upon the bat;
As well might ball elude his grip
As mouse escapes the cat.

Adrian, who played all over the diamond in his early career -- both amateur and professional -- was likely the "short stop" and Sturgis the one in "centre," but the Scholastic editors may have considered a minor alteration to the poem to insert first names. As an editor, I'm just sayin'. Also: I'd like to see "Buncum!" make a comeback as a form of trash talk.

Anson's status as a Hall of Famer made tracking down a card of him quite easy. In fact, I already had one, thanks to my father, who had a near-complete set of Callahan Hall of Fame cards from the 1950s. I don't remember when he first discovered the tiny box of 1 3/4-by-2 1/2-inch cards in my youth, but he didn't hesitate to give them to me. They were instantly the oldest cards I owned and among my favorites, with simple pencil-like drawings and detailed biographies on the back. With no numbers, the set was easy to update after the initial 1950 production of every Hall of Famer to that date, and updates were released from 1951-56. Listing the cards alphabetically puts Anson at No. 2 in the set.

I also supplemented my Anson "collection" with the Sporting News image near the top of this post, in part because I liked how it included New Jersey-born president Grover Cleveland Alexander.

And, finally, I'll close with Summer Anne Burton's drawing from her Every Hall of Famer series, which is well worth a look.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

A farewell to Ollie

I guess we can blame that cab driver in Miami. If it weren't for that accident that cost Duaner Sanchez the final two months of the 2006 season, Omar Minaya wouldn't have had to make the trade for Roberto Hernandez, who didn't come to Queens alone. Whether Hernandez himself wasn't enough value for Xavier Nady, a starting right fielder, or whether Oliver Perez was a throw-in, the young lefty came along with the setup man needed to fill a hole in the bullpen and help the Mets end the Braves' run atop the NL East.

In baseball, young, hard-throwing left-handers are sexy by nature, so we didn't think of Perez as a throw-in or an extra piece at the time. Hernandez was old -- 41, in the penultimate season of his career -- and Perez seemed to be the future benefit of the trade, a potential rotation stalwart ... if he could only harness his heat and learn to control that fastball.

By the end of the 2006 season, the future seemed to have arrived. Perez started two games that postseason, earning the win with 5 2/3 servicable innings (despite giving up five runs) in the Mets' 12-5 Game 4 victory in St. Louis and pitching a stellar six innings, allowing one run on four hits, in that fateful 3-1 Game 7 loss. All told that postseason, he walked three in 11 2/3 innings.

He went 15-10 with a 3.56 ERA in 2007, striking out 174 in 177 innings and maintaining a manageable 1.31 WHIP, thanks to 79 walks. There were 22 home runs allowed, too. But in 2008, despite a league-leading 34 starts, he was just 10-7 with a 4.22 ERA and an alarming 1.40 WHIP. The 180 strikeouts in 194 innings still looked nice, but a league-leading 105 walks and 24 home runs stood out more.

Yet there was something -- the .158 batting average left-handers compiled against him? -- that still made him attractive to Minaya and the Mets but, it appeared, to no other team. At least not to the tune of three years at $12 million per. What I would give to see the binder compiled by agent Scott Boras that offseason that convinced the Mets that such a deal was worth it.

And here we are today, the day the deal no longer became worth anything -- the headaches, the frustration, the stubborn refusal to accept a Minor League assignment. It's still worth $12 million to Oliver Perez, but today was the day it was decided that money was better spent ensuring he would not pitch than when or where he would. In the end, the Mets got next to nothing for their $36 million, and broken down into yearly increments, the best $12 million spent is probably this year's, the season that brings peace of mind knowing that we won't have to watch No. 46 throw the fifth pitch of the game (or an earlier one) from the stretch.

(Quick side note: I have a promise to myself to buy an authentic Mets jersey with the name and number of the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter for the franchise, in the style worn when he accomplishes the feat. And yes, that means if it happens while they team is decked out in those horrendous black tops, I will purchase a black jersey. But more than that, I feared that somehow, it would read PEREZ 46 on the back. Hey, if Edwin Jackson can do it, and if A.J. Burnett can work around 10 walks to do it, anyone can.)

Looking back, the last good game Perez pitched for the Mets came on either Aug. 7, 2009 (6 1/3 innings, two hits, one run, two walks and seven strikeouts) or April 16, 2010 (6 1/3, four hits, one run, three walks, four strikeouts). The Mets lost the 2009 game, 6-2, to the Padres and dropped the 2010 game, 4-3, to the Cardinals, but neither one was on the starter. Those two games mark the only instances Perez recorded an out beyond the sixth inning of a game he started over the life of his three-year, $36-million deal. Let that sink in for a moment.

His last win as a Met (as a Major Leaguer?) came on Aug. 18, 2009, after five innings and four runs on five hits and a walk against the Braves in a 9-4 triumph. Of his 17 appearances in 2010, only one came in a Mets win, his fourth game (and start) on April 27 in the second game of a doubleheader with the Dodgers. He allowed three runs on three hits and four walks in 3 2/3 innings in a game the Mets went on to win, 10-5. And how appropriate that his final official pitch in a Mets uniform was ball four with the bases loaded to force in what would prove to be the winning run for the Nationals in the final game of the 2010 season.

And so we now close the book on Oliver Perez, New York Met, for good. For the greater good, actually, of the team, of the fans. Unless the Mets return home from their season-opening road trip with an 0-6 record (crap, it just hit me that such a scenario shouldn't be waved aside), we should be able to get through team introductions on April 8 with minimal booing. (I wanted to write "without any booing," but then I remembered that it will be the first time we see Francisco Rodriguez in uniform since last August, so ... yeah.)

But to end on a positive note, I will say this about Oliver Perez: If it's true that the Mets' starting pitcher is the one who decides what uniform the team will wear (and there are conflicting reports on who has decided that over the years), I've seen very few images of Perez pitching in the black jersey. And for that, I can say, Thank you, Ollie.

See for yourself (the first nine photos, up to and including the foul-line leap, are mine):

(Yes, that was meant to be ironic ... or not, if you know the true title to the song.)

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Waiter: Check (swing), please!

With each passing day, I grow happier knowing that we won't have to see this anymore -- a defensive swing to fight off a pitch in an at-bat that, more often than not, will end in a five-hopper to shortstop.

On weekend in grade school, I was at my friend Phil's house with some other kids, playing Wiffle ball in the backyard. One of Phil's neighbors (I think his name was David, but not the Dave I'm still good friends with today) kept checking his swing, even at the fattest pitches -- and we weren't even trying tricky curves and other fun with physics and a plastic white ball with holes in it. The pitcher -- Phil's dad, I believe -- was serving up simple lobs. Finally, Mr. Phil asked, "Why do you keep doing that?"

"I'm trying to check my swing," David said, implying that he was attempting to mimic what he'd seen big league players do, to prove that, if he couldn't crush a home run like Dave Winfield, he could at least check his swing like him. And that's the feeling I sometimes got with Luis Castillo -- that he was up there just trying to prove he could do what he'd seen other players do. Or maybe that he'd get himself into a two-strike hole just so he could foul off eight pitches before grounding out.

I know that's not the case, but as he lost his speed, his ability to steal bases at will, his range at second and any semblance of even doubles power (when's the last time anyone remembers him ripping a ball down either baseline or hitting a line drive over an infielder, not between them; or the last time he split the outfielders for a double?), I lost any pleasure I got from watching him play.

I enjoy watching "tools" guys, speed merchants who, when they get on base, bring the same sense of anticipation that a power hitter like Albert Pujols does when he steps to the plate -- there's a good chance you're going to see something exciting, like beating a perfect throw from the catcher on a steal of second, then scoring from there ahead of a peg to the plate by Jason Heyward or any other top right-field arm.

But Castillo hadn't brought any of that in some time. I was fine with bringing him over in 2007, when Jose Valentin no longer cut it and Damion Easley and Ruben Gotay couldn't fill the hole. But because Castillo had knee issues and speed was always the best part of his game, I didn't want the Mets to sign him after the season. If they did, I hoped it was only a one-year deal, two at the most. From the moment we heard that it was four years, I labeled it the worst contract on the club, and I think it held that title pretty well, remaining the No. 1 or 2 worst deal to this day.

I suppose there's a good chance Castillo catches on with another club as a backup, but I hope it's not a team that comes to Flushing this year, both for Castillo's sake and Mets fans', because you know there's only going to be one response he gets.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Tale of a Tiger: Princeton's Bill Clarke

In honor of Princeton starting its baseball season tonight in Baton Rouge, here's a photo of legendary Tigers coach Bill Clarke that I picked up in an auction earlier this year. Clarke worked with the team on and off from 1897 to 1901, when college teams often wouldn't have full-time coaches but would invite professional players to work with the teams early in the season before reporting to their clubs. In 1909, Clarke became Princeton's first full-time coach. One of the players under his charge during his long tenure was shortstop Moe Berg, a 1923 graduate who went on to catch in the Major Leagues and spy for the United States during World War II. Clarke stepped away from coaching from 1927-34, then resumed for another 10 years before retiring. When at home, the Tigers now play on Clarke Field.

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