11th and Washington

11th and Washington: June 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My All-Star ballot

I like to look at the All-Star Game as a yearly event, an annual summertime look at the best players in the game that year. I'm not into career achievements or voting for a guy each year just because he's a perennial starter at his position. Just because a guy like Alex Avila wasn't a starter before this year and wasn't known outside of Detroit and AL-only fantasy owners shouldn't be held against him in voting.

I also lean toward voting for players who have been on the field, guys who have stayed healthy all year. There have been times where a simple 15-day DL stint -- on, healed, and off; no setbacks or 20-day absences -- can be overlooked, particularly if it came earlier in the season (like April). But if it comes down to two players with similar numbers, or one guy might have the same stats as another if he had only stayed healthy, I'm voting for the guy who did stay healthy. Plus, if a guy's DL stint was more recent -- say June, even into July -- I'm probably not going to punch (or click) his name.

The reasons are simple: I want to see the best in the game right now, as in this year, this half-season, facing off on the second Tuesday in July. And if that means a guy at 80 percent not going to the game, I'm OK with that. I'd rather my vote go to a deserving guy who gets to play in the game than for a player named the starter who then backs out of the game because of an injury.

Over the past few years, I've tended to wait until the final days before filling out my maximum allotment of 25 ballots (per e-mail address) at MLB.com. As two friends and I were trading e-mails the other day discussing various decisions at certain positions, I wondered if we were treating this like a student leaving his term paper until the final weekend before it's due. Matt saw it another way, which I then realized was actually the truth: "As for doing this on the last week, I don't consider that being lazy, I consider it performing due diligence and not succumbing to the herd mentality that pervades at ESPN and other sports news outlets."

So having taken advantage of the technology and used a full 81 games (for most players) to consider their statistical -- and, in some cases, non-statistical, because there are some guys you just want to see play as often as you can -- output, here are the quick hits on those I vote for this year. (I'm not going to bother with filling out full team rosters. I may or may not post some thoughts on the actual squads when they're unveiled on Sunday and offer reserves then.)

A few final notes on the game, rosters, voting, etc.: 1.) I hate that the game counts, always have. It's an exhibition, and by definition shouldn't have any bearing on how the yearly champion is determined. 2.) I don't like being a fan of a game in which utility players are All-Stars. Nothing against Omar Infante as a man, but he's not an All-Star. The fact that Charlie Manuel felt a need to have a guy who could play so many positions on his team last year in the event it went extra innings pained me as a fan. 3.) I'm a National League guy and don't care for the designated hitter, but I'm glad they're using it in every All-Star Game now. If baseball were a DH-less sport, I'd be OK with watching pitchers hit in an exhibition. But really, who needs to see Justin Verlander stand there with a bat on his shoulder against Roy Halladay? Plus, the fact that they're now bending the rules to allow the DH in National League parks makes it more ridiculous that they're making this game count for anything. 4.) I'm only considering players on the actual ballot, which as we all know is so rigorously -- and somewhat insanely -- determined mostly by Opening Day lineups. There are exceptions made (see "Utley, C. - PHI" under National League second base), but not enough.

OK, the ballot (which remains open until 11:59 p.m. ET tonight):


1B: Adrian Gonzalez. He's batting 100 points higher than Mark Teixeira, has scored more runs and driven in more. Plus, he can play right field! Now that's a utility All-Star.

Surveying the stands2B: Robinson Cano. He's got the numbers across the board at the position. Solid all around, where other candidates lag behind Cano in one or two categories, sometimes significantly.

SS: Asdrubal Cabrera. This is where my beliefs on "career All-Stars" come in. Sorry, Jeter, not this year. A couple of weeks ago, Asdrubal was a slam-dunk runaway choice. Some arguments could be made for a few other candidates, Jhonny Peralta among them (but not Jeter), but Asdrubal's significant advantages in runs and stolen bases lift him over Peralta.

High-5953B: Adrian Beltre. I debated this choice for a while, and I'm still not sure of it. I gave Beltre the edge over Alex Rodriguez because Beltre is a better fielder. Sure, he has a few more errors, but he gets to more balls, has more putouts and assists and has been a part of more double plays. Can't really go wrong with either, or Kevin Youkilis for that matter.

C: Alex Avila. Really, it's not even close. Better numbers at the plate, better numbers behind it. Avila's thrown out 38 percent of would-be base-stealers, catching 22 the last time I looked, second only to Kurt Suzuki's 23. And Avila got Jose Reyes today by a solid margin, only the sixth time Reyes has been nabbed this year.

DH: David Ortiz. In a landslide. Whatever, it's the DH.

OF: Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury. Bautista and Granderson are no-brainers. Ellsbury was a more deliberated choice. Adam Jones would be worthy, too, especially when you consider his defense.


Rickie & Prince 1B: Prince Fielder. He's putting up the monster numbers in a contract year that everyone expected to see from Albert Pujols.

2B: Rickie Weeks. Looks like he's finally put it all together. It's fun to watch him play. One thing I didn't realize about him until I saw him up close at Yankee Stadium this week: his upper body is big, especially for a middle infielder. He wears a more tapered jersey than Fielder does, but their upper torsos are more alike than not. If it weren't Weeks, it'd be Brandon Phillips. And if it weren't Phillips? Probably Neil Walker. Other than the batting average, he's got some solid numbers at the position.

Reyes leads offSS: Jose Reyes. Go ahead, just try to make a case for anyone else. No one compares to Reyes this year. I love Troy Tulowitzki, but he disappeared pretty much for the month of May. Reyes has 42 multihit games (out of 78 played) and, after the Mets played their 81st today, is on pace for 242 hits, 130 runs, 30 freaking triples and 60 stolen bases. Oh yeah, and he leads the Majors with a .353 batting average and is putting up a .397 OBP and .529 SLG, for a .926 OPS. He's 12th in baseball in OPS. Not bad for a leadoff hitter and shortstop. In fact, the 11 above him are all outfielders, first basemen or David Ortiz. I may have more on Reyes in another post soon, but I think he's now the one the Mets have to keep (and, sadly, maybe David Wright is the one who is allowed to go if both can't be career Mets). And Fred Wilpon had it backwards: Carl Crawford wouldn't get Jose Reyes money.

Swings through it3B: Aramis Ramirez. With David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman hurt for much of the first half, this is the weakest position of them all. There's no clear frontrunner (sorry, I just can't get behind Placido Polanco as the best third baseman in the NL this year) and the stats are anemic. Wright is still tied for third among NL third baseman with his six home runs, one behind Chipper Jones and three behind Ramirez.

C: Brian McCann. You could have a great debate about the second-best catcher in the Senior Circuit.

Kemp connectsOF: Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Voter's Choice. The first two are as easy as McCann and Reyes. Kemp is 20-20 already, with 22 home runs and 22 stolen bases, and is batting .331. He's currently second in the NL in batting average, first in home runs and third in RBIs -- he's got a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown (if Reyes' batting average comes down a little). But the third guy? Take your pick from Carlos Beltran, Carlos Gonzalez, Chris Young, Andrew McCutchen, Lance Berkman, Justin Upton or Drew Stubbs. I can't decide how to separate them.

So there they are: the 17 players I'd like to see take the field in Phoenix a week from Tuesday. We'll find out who gets to go on Sunday.

Beltran's selfish shadow

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Monday, June 27, 2011

American summer

Doubleday autumn

Is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, the smell of the wooden bleachers in a small town baseball park, that resinous, sultry and exciting smell of old dry wood?

— Thomas Wolfe

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting 3,000 in New York

So now it looks like Derek Jeter's return to the Yankees lineup may be delayed, which would further delay his march to 3,000 hits and reduce the likelihood that he records the milestone hit against the Mets at Citi Field during their July 1-3 Interleague series.

And I think that's a shame.

Fouled back No, really. I think it would have been a good thing to have happen not just at the Mets' home ballpark, but in New York in general. Not only has no Yankee ever reached the 3,000-hit threshold, but none of the 27 players who have already gotten there collected the milestone in New York.

If Jeter is able to be activated from the disabled list on Wednesday, the first day he's eligible to return, he'd have two games at home and three at Citi Field to collect the six hits he needs. Any delay in his activation obviously affects the timetable, increasing the chances that the lasting images of No. 3,000 will feature Jeter in the road grays and a respectful but half-hearted ovation from the home crowd. After Citi Field, the Yankees play three in Cleveland before finishing out the first half at home against the Rays. If he doesn't get it before the All-Star break, the Yankees open the second half with eight on the road -- four each at Toronto and Tampa Bay. Granted, Tropicana Field is a home away from home for the Yankees, but do we really want to be left with images of a base hit on bright green synthetic turf and a shadowy, artifically lit photo of Jeter doffing his helmet under a closed roof?

Getting the hit at Citi Field might be good for the Mets -- and their fans -- as well. Imagine Fred Wilpon watching that ovation from all the Yankee fans in the house, perhaps supported by a respectful cheer from the Mets partisans as well. Then, Wilpon might look over at Jose Reyes at shortstop or imagine David Wright healthy and standing at third base. If Jeter's getting such a rousing ovation for getting his 3,000th hit in the home of the Mets, imagine what the roar of the crowd would be if Reyes or Wright did the same sometime around 2022. Maybe Carl Crawford isn't worth Reyes money.

Out of the box Entering this year, Reyes averaged 140 hits per season -- which takes into account his injury history -- which would mean he'd eclipse 3,000 sometime during his 22nd year in the big leagues. That's certainly a stretch, considering how important his speed is to his game and the demanding position he plays. But considering the tear he is on this season -- on pace for 231 hits entering tonight's game in Texas -- and his reduced strikeout rate, perhaps he's finally put it all together and, barring injuries, could average significantly more than 140 per year through the rest of his prime. Should he finish 2011 with 231 hits, he'd be at 1,350 and his yearly average would be 150 per season. At that rate, he'd get to 3,000 right at the end of his 20th year. Having just passed his 28th birthday this month, Reyes would be 39 at the end of his 20th season in the Majors. (Looking at Reyes' healthiest and most productive peak thus far, the four seasons from 2005-08, he averaged 159 games and 194 hits per year, so when he's not on the DL, he's much closer to a 190/200-hit-per-year pace than 140/150.)

While it's certainly unlikely, it's not unprecedented for a player known more for speed than power -- since World War II -- to last long enough in the game to get there. Lou Brock did it at 40 in his 19th and final season (he averaged 187 per year). And contact hitters Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Pete Rose and Rod Carew all got there without being long-ball or stolen-base threats. Roberto Clemente could fit into that group as well; he never hit 30 home runs in a season and finished with 240, fewer than Robin Yount or Craig Biggio (and more than Rose, Brock, Gwynn, Boggs, Carew and several early-century guys). And Reyes' .290 career batting average bests Rafael Palmeiro (.288), Eddie Murray (.287), Carl Yastrzemski (.285), Yount (.285), Dave Winfield (.283), Biggio (.281), Rickey Henderson (.279) and Cal Ripken (.276).

Obviously, Reyes will have to make some tweaks and adapt his game as he gets older, but if this year is any indication, perhaps he can become continue his improvements and remain a solid contact hitter and on-base threat. And maybe a switch to first or second base or the outfield down the line will allow him to play long enough to get to 3,000 hits. I'm not saying it's probable, but I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

From ND to MLB: Chris Michalak

Chris Michalak

It took 18 years with 13 organizations and 23 teams -- 19 of them in the bush leagues -- for Chris Michalak to get to this point. He stands at the center of the diamond on a sunny Jersey Shore afternoon and bobs his head to Hall and Oates coming out of the ballpark's public address system.

His job is pitching coach of the Hagerstown Suns, the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Washington Nationals, and his task at the moment is throwing batting practice to the Suns starters, including top prospect Bryce Harper. But Michalak just can't help himself. In between pitches, he bounces to the music and sings along with the "Ooh-oos" in the chorus:

What I want you've got
And it might be hard to handle
Like the flame that burns the candle
The candle feeds the flame -- yeah, yeah
What I've got's full stock
Of thoughts and dreams that scatter
Then you pull them all together
And how I can't explain
Oh, yeah
Well, well you
(Ooh-ho, hoo-ooh, ooh-oo)
You make my dreams come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)
Well, well, well you
(You-hoo, hoo-hoo-ooh)
Oh, yeah
You make my dreams come true
(You make my dreams)
Come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)

What's clear after all these years and teams and towns and cities is that baseball is still fun -- still a game -- to Michalak. It almost has to be, after so many bus trips and minor league towns and hotels. But as Michalak throws to players literally half his age, guys who were born when he was in high school or on scholarship at Notre Dame, he can't help but enjoy himself.

"I think I counted it up and I want to say that, out of the 50 states, I went to 36 of them, just from playing baseball," Michalak said during an interview before the Suns faced the BlueClaws at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J., last month. "Besides the U.S., I've been to Canada, the Dominican, Venezuela and over to Europe playing for Team USA. It was crazy when I realized all the places that I would have never seen if I wasn't playing baseball."

Now 40, Michalak has been playing or coaching baseball at the highest levels for more than half his life. He attended Joliet Catholic High School outside Chicago, a school that often has students enroll in college 100 miles east on I-80, among them a diminutive football player who went by the name of Rudy. Though it would seem natural that a three-sport star like Michalak would have his eye on playing for the Fighting Irish, he didn't have Notre Dame in his sights, not at first.

"I had letters from Florida State, Stanford, Arizona State, [Texas] A&M," he said. "And I got the one from Notre Dame, I got it and I'm like, 'Wow, this is really neat,' but I didn't send it in. Coach [Pat] Murphy called me and he said, 'Chris, this is Coach Murphy, did you get our questionnaire?' I was like, 'Yeah Coach, I got your questionnaire.' I'd love to come there, but there's no way I could get in there academically.' He said, 'What are your grades?' I was in honors classes, I had a straight-A average. But I just didn't think, the prestige of Notre Dame, I can't get in there. There's no way I'm gonna get in there. I told him all my test scores and everything. And he goes, 'Fill out the questionnaire. You're not going to have a problem getting in here.'"

Michalak returned the questionnaire and, in the fall of '88, visited South Bend for a football game.

"They had a Saturday night game," he said. "They were opening up against Michigan. This was the year they won the national championship, so it was '88. I went up there for the Michigan game and Pat Pezavento took me around campus. He was a Joliet Catholic guy from my area. I was amazed at how beautiful everything was and just the buzz that was going around. We got to run out onto the field with the football team for the pregame. They're going their excercises and stuff. Was on the field when they got into the brawl in the tunnel with the guys from Michigan. Right then, I was like, this is the place I want to be."

If that football game gave Michalak the idea that Notre Dame was the place for him, a baseball exhibition later that fall drove it home.

"They played Miami in football [that season]. I was able to go up there on Thursday night and watch them play an exhibition game against the baseball team," Michalak recalled. "They played Thursday and Friday before the football game on Saturday. Alex Fernandez was at Miami. Miami was a national powerhouse at the time, and I watched Notre Dame just crush them, and it was awesome. Just awesome. I got an opportunity to go somewhere where I can get a great education and be part of a program that's up and coming and be a part of something special. So it was really a no-brainer.

"I never took a trip anywhere else. I said I didn't want to see anything else, this is the place for me. I ended up committing there and ended up going there. I never even took an official visit, because I had one set up and -- I'm sure the people at Notre Dame will find this hard to believe -- I was supposed to come up for a basketball weekend, and there was a blizzard, believe it or not. So the weather was bad and I never went up there."

That team that crushed Miami in an exhibition went on to go 48-19-1 in 1989 and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1970. In Michalak's four years, the Irish went 46-12 in '90, 45-16 in '91, 48-15 in '92 and 46-16 in '93, reaching the NCAA field in the last two years. In four seasons, Michalak went 34-13 with a 3.21 ERA, 12 saves and 263 strikeouts in 372 2/3 innings. He's the first of three Irish pitchers, followed by Aaron Heilman and J.P. Gagne, to win 20 games and save 10 over the course of his college career.

Entering the 2011 season, Michalak's seven career shutouts still ranked first in school history, tied with Jean Dubuc (who pitched for the Irish from 1907-08) and Frank Scanlan (1907-09). Michalak was also third in wins (34), fifth in saves (12), fifth in strikeouts (263) and second in appearances (92) entering this spring. His strong junior season -- 10-5, three saves, 2.20 ERA, 118 2/3 innings, 64 strikeouts -- still ranks second in innings (and most by a junior) and first for most innings without throwing a wild pitch. He capped that season by winning the Midwest Collegiate Conference Tournament MVP and all-MCC Tournament honors, as well as first-team all-MCC accolades.

In '93, when he went 11-5 with three saves and 83 strikeouts in 117 1/3 innings, Michalak once again made the all-MCC first team and remains third in Notre Dame history in victories in a season, third in innings and third in complete games, with 10. He was also named to the NCAA East Regional all-regional team after the Irish went 3-2, losing in the final to Long Beach St. in Tallahassee, Fla.

The A's drafted Michalak in the 15th round in 1992 after his junior year, but he returned to school and Oakland took him in the 12th round in '93. He became one of four players drafted in that round to reach the Major Leagues; Todd Greene (Angels), Bryan Corey (Tigers) and Alex Cora (Twins) were the others.

Michalak began his professional career in the short-season Class A Northwest League with the Southern Oregon A's, a team that has since moved to Vancouver, Canada, and remains an Oakland affiliate today, as the Vancouver Canadiens. Michalak started 1994 with the West Michigan Whitecaps in the full-season Class A Midwest League and, after 15 starts, moved up to the Class A Advanced Modesto A's. His 1995 season began in Modesto and included seven games at Double-A Huntsville, and '96 was split evenly between Modesto and Huntsville (21 games each).

That's a lot of miles busing up and down the West Coast, around the Great Lakes and down South. And they weren't without incident.

"In the Cal League, one of my many years there, we were heading back to Modesto," Michalak said. "We were down in the southern part of the state, so it was a long bus ride back. We were in the middle of nowhere, it was the desert. The bus driver, she was pulling into the gas station. I'm not kidding you, from about here [in the third-base dugout] to first base [was the distance to get to the station], and it just dies. We're like, 'What's going on?' She's like, 'I ran out of gas.' Everybody got out and we pushed it into the gas station."

But a diesel bus can't just be topped off and get back on the road. The fuel lines have to be cleared out and primed before the tank can be refilled and the engine restarted. It would be at least an hour.

1994 Topps Prospects
"We're like, 'You've got to be kidding,'" he said. "It's smokin' hot. The only thing that saved us -- we look across the street and there's an indian reservation, a casino. You saw 25 guys just walk straight across. There's no cell phones or anything. We're like, 'Just call us -- just come over and get us, come pick us up.' About an hour later, we hear the honk. Guys cashed in their chips. I made about 200 bucks, so I didn't care about the bus running out of gas."

After four seasons in the Oakland organization, Michalak still hadn't reached Triple-A, and the club released him after Spring Training in 1997 -- the first of 20 periods of free agency in his career. A week later, he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a year before they would field a Major League team. Michalak spent the entire '97 season back in the California League, Advanced Class A, with the High Desert Mavericks. He began the '98 season in the Rangers' system, on loan from the Diamondbacks, pitching 10 games for Double-A Tulsa. In May, he was back in the Arizona organization at Triple-A Tucson -- the first time he'd be just a step away from the big leagues.

The call finally came in August 1998, when the Diamondbacks purchased the 27-year-old Michalak's contract from Tucson. They were on an East Coast road trip, having just wrapped a series in Philadelphia and headed to New York. On Aug. 22, 1998, at Shea Stadium, the call to the bullpen came.

"It was crazy just warming up in the bullpen," Michalak said. "Guys from Shea, the fans let me know how bad I was, how bad I was going to do. I went out there [to the mound], I threw my warmup pitches and I'm waiting for the ball to come in from the third baseman, and he runs in to me and hands me the ball and it's Matt Williams. And he's like, 'You ready, kid?' I'm like, 'Yeah, let's go.' 'Alright, here we go.' I'm like, 'God, that's Matt Williams. He just handed me the ball. This is it.'"

It was the seventh inning with the Diamondbacks trailing, 8-4. The Mets had Nos. 5-7 in the batting order coming up: Brian McRae, Todd Hundley and Carlos Baerga.

"I had a 1-2-3 inning," Michalak said. "I threw the first pitch, kinda on the outside corner where I wanted it, and the umpire called it a strike, and I was like, 'Alright.' Same thing I've been doing for a long time. It was awesome. It was incredible."

McRae struck out swinging on four pitches and Hundley went down looking after working the count full. Baerga flied out to right. Michalak stayed on for the eighth, giving up a leadoff double to Rey Ordonez, followed by two groundouts -- the second of which drove in Ordonez -- and a flyout. Two innings, seven batters, one hit, one run and two strikeouts: Michalak had his first line in a box score. He pitched in four more games that season, all Diamondbacks losses, though he didn't get a decision in any of them.

Released by Arizona in the offseason, Michalak signed with the Angels, beginning the 1999 season at Triple-A Edmonton. Released in June, he signed again with the Diamondbacks and finished out the season in Tucson. Granted free agency again at the end of the season, Michalak signed with the Devil Rays for the 2000 campaign but was released in May after six games at Triple-A Durham. The Dodgers were his next organization. After starting 35 games over his first two professional seasons, Michalak had made just 15 from 1995-99, and all of those had come in '98 and '99. The Dodgers put him back in the starting rotation and he won a career-high 11 games against three losses in 21 starts for Triple-A Albuquerque. That set him up for his best season as a pro.

"The season I had in 2000 with the Dodgers in Triple-A ... carried over into 2001," Michalak said. "I had a real good year in Albuquerque that year and then it just gave me the confidence. I always believed I could pitch at the big league level, but the success I had in 2000 gave me a lot of confidence. Then I went to winter ball and had a lot of success in the Dominican. I remember pitching that winter before the 2001 season, I was pitching in the Dominican, we were playing in the championship series. The lineup of the team we were playing against had Tony Batista at third, Miguel Tejada at short, Carlos Feebles at second, Raul Mondesi. I think Manny Ramirez was the DH. Juan Encarnacion and Luis Polonia in the lineup. And I beat them. And that just let me know that I could pitch at that level."

Now 30 years old, Michalak went to Spring Training with the Blue Jays in 2001 with a shot to win the job as the team's fifth starter to begin the season. Toronto had traded David Wells to the White Sox in the offseason, getting left-hander Mike Sirotka as part of the package and expecting the southpaw to be part of the rotation. But a torn labrum not only kept Sirotka out of Toronto's rotation in '01, he never pitched again. So there was an opening behind Esteban Loaiza, Steve Parris, Joey Hamilton and Chris Carpenter (the future NL Cy Young Award winner for the Cardinals). As the exhibition season went on, Michalak started to separate himself from his main competition.

"The funny thing is the guy I was competing against was Roy Halladay," Michalak said, grinning at the memory. "They kept giving me the ball and I kept getting the job done. At the time, Roy threw straight over the top and scuffled a little bit in Spring Training and they sent him all the way back down to extended spring and changed his arm angle, and I think that's turned out pretty good for him."

Michalak laughed. "He's winning Cy Youngs and throwing no-hitters and I'm in Hagerstown being the pitching coach."

By March 27, the Blue Jays had made their decision. First-year manager Buck Martinez sent pitching coach Mark Connor to get Michalak.

"He calls me in and he says, 'Hey we need to talk to you,'" Michalak recalled. "And as we're walking, he mumbles under his breath, he goes, 'Man, I hate this part. This stinks.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh my god. No way. This isn't going to happen to me again.' Everybody's telling me, 'Hey you're going to make the team.' I beat the Yankees, did all this stuff in Spring Training. So we go into Buck's office and they're both sitting there. Buck starts on this spiel. He goes, 'Chris you've had a great spring and we can't say enough about what you did. But I'm sure you've heard about the rumors that we've been trying to trade for another starter. That's how the game of baseball is, we're always trying to improve. We're trying to make that trade for that fifth starter.'

"And he goes, 'Unfortunately' -- and he paused -- 'Unfortunately, we haven't been able to get a fifth starter, so you're gonna have to start for us against the Yankees.'

"And I was like, 'Yeah!' I said a couple things you probably can't print, and everybody was laughing. It was the old, We're going to mess with you a little bit. I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. Don't do that to me.' They were laughing. After that, I don't even know what happened. I couldn't remember. It was an awesome day."

The Blue Jays opened the season on Sunday, April 1, with a win against the Rangers in Puerto Rico. After taking Monday off, they played a three-game set at Tampa Bay, losing the first but taking the next two to open the season 3-1. Loaiza, Parris, Hamilton and Carpenter started the first four, but because of the off-day between Puerto Rico and Tampa Bay, Martinez elected to keep Loaiza on regular rest, handing him the ball for the fifth game, the series opener at Yankee Stadium. On the hill for New York was a young right-hander out of Notre Dame making his Major League debut: Christian Parker. Michalak got the start the next afternoon, missing a matchup of former Domers by a day.

Much like Irish football coach Brian Kelly would do nearly 10 years later, Michalak made sure to take in Yankee Stadium the day before he was scheduled to pitch, to get over any mystique and aura (as his former Diamondbacks teammate Curt Schilling might have put it) about the ballpark.

"The day before, Friday, the first night in, I went out and checked out the monuments and all that stuff," Michalak said. "I wanted to get all of that, the awe of being in Yankee Stadium, kind of out of my system. Just made myself comfortable with the surroundings and stuff."

Getting comfortable was the goal again the next afternoon.

"I tried to keep everything just as normal as I possibly could," he said. "I ended up taking the subway in, whatever train it is. I took that, dropped me off right at the park, walked in and went through all my pregame stuff and ended up watching 'Rudy' in the clubhouse that day before the game. It just happened to be there, and I put it on, and all the guys ended up watching it with me."

"Rudy" may have put Michalak in the right state of mind to go out and play the part of David to the Yankees' Goliath. The Bronx Bombers were coming off their third World Series title in four seasons and had a lineup of stars.

"Once I got into the bullpen -- same thing there -- the fans are hanging over watching you," Michalak said. "I just tried to make it as simple as possible. My biggest thing was, I was saying to myself, 'Alright, whatever you do, your first pitch, get it to the catcher. Don't bounce it, and don't throw it over his head.' I just tried to make it as simple as I could. I started out easy. I wasn't trying to light up the world. I was just trying to make it basic, and then I got into the rhythm of the bullpen. And then I kept the same thing when I went out for my warmup pitches: If I can just get it to the catcher, then we'll be OK. And I did that.

"And then the first hitter, I think I faced Knoblauch, Jeter and I think maybe O'Neill was batting third. And I had a 1-2-3 inning. And then after that, it was just like, 'OK. Here we go. Let's go and do it.' And Billy Koch got the save, and just running out on the field, I couldn't believe it. It made everything that I had gone through, all the miles all the sacrifices that my wife made for me at the time, it just made everything worthwhile."

Knoblauch popped out to second base and Jeter and O'Neill went down swinging. Michalak pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing no runs on four hits with two walks and five strikeouts. Toronto scored three times off New York starter Orlando Hernandez, and that was enough. Michalak was 1-0 as a Major League starter.

On June 17 that season, the Blue Jays were in Montreal for an Interleague series against the Expos. Michalak laid down sacrifice bunts in his first two plate appearances, then came up in the seventh with two outs, nobody on base and the Blue Jays leading, 1-0. He fell into a 1-2 hole against Tony Armas Jr.

"He threw a slider right into my bat," Michalak said. "I hit it to right-center field and the center fielder dove, but it got by him and went to the wall. This was at old Olympic Stadium, and the funny thing was, when I rounded second, I had one foot on the dirt and one on the carpet, and my spike got caught. So from second almost all the way to third, it's like I'm running downhill. My arms are flailing and I'm trying not to fall down. I caught my balance and got to third and everyone's dying in the dugout because I looked like an idiot trying to get to third."

It was the first time in Major League history that a pitcher had tripled in his first official at-bat, and the first triple by a Toronto Blue Jays hurler. But then leadoff hitter Shannon Stewart came to the plate unaware of his responsibility to help Michalak catch his breath by taking a few pitches. Stewart flied out on the first offering.

"I was still winded and I had to go back out there, so of course I go out and give up a run," Michalak said. On the second pitch of the inning, Milton Bradley tripled. After a walk to Rob Ducey, Mike Mordecai lifted a sacrifice fly to center to score Bradley. Michalak got out of the inning by getting Jose Vidro to ground into a double play. "The guys were upset with Shannon, saying, 'He's got to give you time to catch your breath.'"

After winning his first three starts and five of his first eight decisions through May, Michalak went more than a month -- from May 26 to July 8 -- between victories. After losing three of his four starts from June 28-July 15, he was moved to the bullpen. Six appearances and 11 runs later, the Rangers claimed him off waivers. In 11 appearances with Texas, Michalak went 2-2 and picked up his only career save.

The 2001 season turned out to be the only one of Michalak's 18 summers spent entirely in the Major Leagues. He began 2002 with Texas, pitching in 13 games for the Rangers and one for their Triple-A affilliate in Oklahoma City before being released at the end of May. He signed on with the Red Sox, pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket to finish out the '02 campaign. From 2003-05, he bounced from Louisville to Colorado Springs to Indianapolis to Albuquerque to Tucson, the Triple-A farm clubs of the Reds, Rockies, Brewers and Marlins.

In February 2006, Michalak signed again with the Reds just as Spring Training began. After going 9-5 with a 2.99 ERA over 22 starts with Louisville, he returned to the Majors at the age of 35. On Aug. 12, he came on in relief in the second inning at Philadelphia after Elizardo Ramirez allowed five runs. Michalak went 6 1/3, allowing one run on three hits to earn the victory. He pitched in seven more games, starting six of them. He went just 1-4, getting through five innings only once.

All of 2007 was spent at Triple-A Columbus in the Nationals' system, and 2008 saw return engagements with the Reds (signed Jan. 4, released March 28), Rangers (signed March 30, released May 25), Marlins (signed May 30, released July 29) and A's (signed Aug. 1, not re-signed after the season).

Thirty-eight years old when Spring Training began in 2009, Michalak was still looking to pitch, but no one was looking at him for even a role as a situational left-hander out of the bullpen -- no "LOOGYing" for him.

Instruction"I was having trouble getting a job pitching, and the Blue Jays called me and said, 'Hey we know you still want to pitch and everything, but we need a Gulf Coast League pitching coach here at extended [spring training]," Michalak said. "He had to go home because of an illness in the famly. They said you can come out here, keep pitching, we'll let you pitch, but you still have to do some of the pitching coach's duties."

Michalak signed a minor league deal with the understanding that if another organization called looking to bring him on as a full-time pitcher, Toronto would let him out of his contract. When the season started, Michalak appeared in two games for Triple-A Las Vegas as an emergency fill-in, then returned to Dunedin, Fla., where the Blue Jays' training camp is located, along with their Class A Advanced affiliate in the Florida State League. After a couple of appearances for Dunedin, Michalak was shifted over to extended spring training to work with the most raw of Toronto prospects.

After the draft in early June, the Blue Jays asked for a decision.

"The Blue Jays said, 'Hey we need to know, if you want to keep pitching, you're going to have to go do it on your own, or you can take over the pitching coach job,'" Michalak said. "At the time, it was a no-brainer. I got two kids and a wife to think about. I'm like, 'I'll be the pitching coach.' I was very fortunate. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity and I enjoyed doing it."

After the 2009 season, the Blue Jays made the same offer of a pitching coach position in the organization, but if Michalak wanted to keep pitching, he'd have to do it on his own with another franchise.

"I had called the Nationals and asked them if they needed [a pitcher]," Michalak said. "I still wanted to pitch. And they said, 'No, but we have some openings as a pitching coach.' I was getting a lot more calls for a pitching coach than I was for being a pitcher, so I kind of saw the writing on the wall."

He took the job with the Nationals, who slotted him with their Class A affiliate in Hagerstown, Md.

"It just seemed like this was a better fit for me at this time," he said. "So I was excited to be here, I had known a lot of people in the organization from the time that I played here. It just seemed like they were going -- nothing against the Blue Jays or anything like that -- that this was going in the right direction and I wanted to be a part of it, and it's been fun."

Chris Michalak autograph And that's where Michalak is today, transitioning from a pitcher to a pitching coach as seamlessly as he did from Joliet Catholic to Notre Dame and Notre Dame to the A's organization. Including summer collegiate leagues like the Cape Cod League, where Michalak pitched for Chatham in 1991, it's been 20 years or more since there wasn't a ballpark to go to and a uniform to put on.

"There's teams I played for that aren't even around anymore," Michalak marveled. "Southern Oregon doesn't have a team anymore. For a while, Tucson didn't have a team. I played for 13 different organizations. In my attic, I've got a pro shop. I could open up my own store. The Diamondbacks don't even have the same colors, and when I was with the Devil Rays, they're the Rays now. I'm getting pretty old."

He laughed, then continued.

"I have my jerseys, the ones that I was fortunate enough to get to the big leagues with, I've got all the jerseys and they're actually hanging in my son's room. I've been very fortunate. Seen a lot of stuff."

And he continues to see it, in Hagerstown and Lakewood and Rome, Ga., and Asheville, N.C., and Charleston -- both in South Carolina and West Virginia -- and points in between.

"Every town that I go to, I enjoy, because I'll meet somebody," he said. "A lot of times I go somewhere, I'll meet somebody from Notre Dame, and that's cool. I made a lot of great friends through Notre Dame that I still keep in touch with that have supported me and helped me along the way."

And Michalak has no doubt helped countless players during his long journey, both his teammates and his charges, whether it's watching that night's starting pitcher warm up in the bullpen down the third-base line or firing fastballs to the hitters in between choruses of "Hoo-oohs" and "You-hoos" with Hall and Oates.

On a night when bad dreams become a screamer
When they're messin' with the dreamer
I can laugh it in the face
Twist and shout my way out
And wrap yourself around me
'Cos I ain't the way you found me
And I'll never be the same
Oh, yeah
Well, 'cos you
(Ooh-ho, hoo-ooh, ooh-oo)
You make my dreams come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)
Well, well, well you
(You-hoo, hoo-hoo-ooh)
You make my dreams come true
(You make my dreams)
Come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Gooden billboard!

I knew someone had to have a shot of it. That someone is a guy by the name of Matt Weber, and the photo was posted on a blog called peripherybaseball. Many thanks. This brings back a lot of memories.

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